Germany's military doesn't just choose not to act. It can't act.

Berlin's reluctance to act militarily on moral grounds is well known. But over the past week, a series of investigations and the release of a confidential government report have shown that the German military is in a sorry state.

Joerg Sarbach/AP/File
German Navy soldiers standing beside a Sea Lynx helicopter on the air base Upjever, northwestern Germany, in Nov. 2001. German defense officials have been left red-faced after a series of breakdowns delayed the first shipment of arms to Kurdish fighters in Iraq.

Pacifist and war-wary, Germany doesn’t act militarily because it doesn’t want to. That’s the story line once again at the fore, as Germany stands back while European partners join in airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq.

But in reality, Germany also doesn’t act militarily because it can’t.

That’s the gist of a confidential report on military shortcomings, intended for German lawmakers on the defense committee, but which spurred a series of investigations by the German media last week. Worse, for the German military, those investigations came just as Army instructors were stranded in Bulgaria and Air Force planes were grounded in Spain, amid other gaffes.

All together, it has painted a different picture than the sleek, mechanized efficiency that one most often associates with things German-built.

Some of the major findings in the past week: Only about half of Germany’s C-160 transport planes are in service. Roughly the same ratio of Eurofighter jets and Tornadoes are capable of flying. The Navy said it couldn’t participate in anti-piracy operations last week because of cracks in the tails of its helicopters. A plane carrying aid to West Africa had to make an unexpected landing in the Canary Islands this weekend.

The most embarrassing incident to date? Last week a plane carrying German Army instructors to Iraq to train Kurdish fighters – Germany’s contribution to fight against the IS – malfunctioned, leaving the trainers stranded in Bulgaria. And their weapons couldn’t be shipped on time because of another plane problem, leaving Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen in the lurch in Iraq, where she had specially traveled to witness the transfer. She left for home before the weapons were able to arrive.

On Monday, the government conceded that a follow-up Der Spiegel report – alleging that Germany would not be able to supply the targeted number of aircraft within 180 days if it were called to protect an attacked NATO member – was true.

Jens Flosdorff, a Defense Ministry spokesman quoted by the Associated Press, said Germany’s ability to react in the short term is solid, but the long-term prospects look bleaker. Those are set to be outlined in a report published next week by outside experts. "We need to be prepared for the fact that we will be dealing with individual problems for some time, and I'm not talking about months but rather years," he said.

This comes to light as Ms. von der Leyen in particular has called for Germany to become more active on the world stage, in parallel with its diplomatic and economic rise.

Such a move would be a major shift in policy for Germany, which stood on the sidelines of intervention for years, such as during strikes in Libya in 2011 that were led by Europe’s other big powers, Britain and France. Germany has also repeatedly failed to meet the 2 percent of GDP that all NATO members are supposed to earmark on defense spending.

Germany’s allies have long berated Germany for not pitching in – to little effect. But the revelations of the state of German hardware might shift attitudes on defense needs more than any outside pressure ever has – especially as Germany seeks to stand up to Russia's incursion in Ukraine, perceived as the biggest security crisis in Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.