We are at a pivotal moment in history as the consequences of a global pandemic have created turbulent waters in a wide variety of areas from international trade to socio-economic concerns. China’s increasingly assertive nature has been regarded as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic in the past eighteen months. However, the fact of the matter is that China’s emergence was preordained by two decades of inconsistent and short-sighted US policies and actions. As I mentioned over the past weekend, China has reached a point now where it confidently views itself to be an ascendant superpower, while regarding the United States as a declining power. This new ethos, whether an accurate assessment of the global picture or not, raises the prospect of the People’s Republic of China resorting to military force in to achieve its expansionist-minded ambitions.
The writing has been on the wall for quite some time. For the United States military, the prospect of having to square off against China is hardly new, whether Washington is keen to admit it or not. Unfortunately, the current condition of the US military leaves much to be desired. On the surface, its branches make up the most powerful military force that the world has ever known. With a potential war with China on the horizon, the Pentagon’s priorities are out of order. Rather than concentrating on repairing readiness issues and preparing for the next war, the current Joint Chiefs of Staff, and their civilian leaders in the Defense Department are fixated with implementing ‘woke’ and socially popular policies upon the troops. Even more damning is the fact that every effort to construct and implement a sound doctrine for conducting a future war in the Western Pacific region against the People’s Republic of China has been stillborn or developed into a half-baked abortion of failed past tactics and amateurish concepts on the future of warfare that its growth was stunted.
The failed efforts of the Pentagon, and the dangers of the US entering into a conflict against a near-peer opponent without a plan to win will be discussed at length through 2-3 entries next week. I have not forgotten about North Korea and will return to it by Christmas. But for now, exploring the troubles facing US military efforts to develop both a doctrine and the forces necessary to defeat Chinese forces in a future war seems a more pertinent research topic for November.
The combat readiness of Germany’s armed forces has deteriorated significantly in recent years, and it is safe to say the German military is on the edge of a major crisis. Berlin’s efforts to remedy the situation appear to have only worsened it in some instances. Unfortunately for Germany, the problem is no longer simply only a national one. It has become a NATO matter as the consequences of a severely weakened German military will be felt most by the alliance’s three most vulnerable members to the east. The state of Germany’s armed forces is raising doubts about NATO’s ability to defend Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania against Russian aggression.
Germany’s military readiness has become so bad that its latest annual readiness report was classified for ‘security reasons.’ This has never happened before and is leading some German politicians to conclude that the true condition of the Bundeswehr is worse than believed. Another theory put forward is that the report was classified for political reasons. Specifically, to allow Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen to survive. She has been under constant fire from critics for her inability to solve the readiness issues. Keeping the German public in the dark about these matters would give von der Leyen some breathing space.
On Monday Germany’s proposed 2020 budget was made public. Military spending will increase, yet still remain below NATO’s 2% of GDP commitment for each member-state to spend on its armed forces. The Trump administration is not happy with this development, and rightfully so. Germany has been dragging its heels on reaching the 2% mark and rectifying its readiness shortfalls for quite some time now. In fact, instead of aiming for 2%, Angela Merkel’s government is just hoping to be able to reach 1.5% within three years.
Germany’s failure to live up to its NATO spending commitments, as well as its weakened military state contradict its emphatic support of the international order. Multilateralism is the cornerstone of German foreign policy, yet Berlin appears entirely comfortable not living up to the commitments it made to the NATO alliance, a multilateral institution. While this is a clear cut geopolitical example of the pot calling the kettle back, Angela Merkel likely views it as a case of realpolitik where common sense and practicalities prevail.
High-profile accidents involving warships from First-World nations since 2016 suggest the existence of a readiness crisis in Western navies. The ramming and sinking of the Norwegian frigate KNM Helge Ingstad by a commercial oil tanker earlier this month only highlights the fact that there is an issue. Maritime operations are dangerous, even in the best of times. Accidents happen, and sailors inevitably lose their lives. Yet the number of incidents that have taken place in the past twenty-four months suggest a deeper problem.
The readiness issue has been smoldering for decades in most Western navies. In many cases it goes back to the end of the Cold War in 1991 when the dissolution of the Soviet Union consequently removed the predominant naval threat facing the navies of the West. Thus began a period of force downsizing, and budgetary restrictions. The Global War on Terror relieved some of these pressures temporarily. However, since Islamic terrorist groups, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq failed to mount a legitimate maritime threat, the navies of the United States and her allies have played secondary roles through the duration of the GWOT.
In truth, Western navies continue to move about aimlessly with no clear picture of what their goals need to be, or how to reach them. The main purpose of a navy is to fight and win a war at sea. Sadly, this is the mission that a frighteningly large number of Western navies appear ill-equipped to take on.
Since today is Thanksgiving, my intention was to keep this post limited to 300 words. This topic deserves more attention though. I’m going to come back to it a few times between now and Christmas and delve deeper into the naval readiness issue.
With the political situation in Germany still unresolved, the German government is unable to make firm decisions on any matters involving the budget, including defense spending. Until a new coalition government is formed, the Germans cannot move ahead on existing proposals to increase the defense budget. As the political paralysis continues, voices both at home and abroad are warning the German government about the current levels of spending, and the readiness of the Bundeswehr. In a nutshell, even though German defense spending has risen slightly over the past four years it remains below the 2% of economic output that is mandated for NATO members to follow. To make matters even worse, the current readiness level of the Bundeswehr is poor to say the least, and some of Germany’s closest allies have taken notice.
On Monday, US Army Secretary Mark Esper cautioned Germany that if it does not increase its defense spending the result will be a weakened NATO alliance. Esper’s comments were made to reporters during a visit to US troops in Germany. Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, and Germany’s former ambassador to the US echoed Esper’s warning. He criticized Germany’s contribution to the war on ISIS which did not include a combat role. Ischinger also pushed for Chancellor Angela Merkel to make certain Germany lives up to its NATO commitments.
2017 was not a stellar year for the Bundeswehr. The German Navy’s Baden-Wurttemberg class frigates were heralded as a new type of warship for the 21st century. Unfortunately, the lead ship of the class was riddled with so many hardware and software defects that the German Navy refused to commission her and sent the frigate back to the shipbuilder. Surface ships are not the only headache for Germany’s naval arm. It has no operational diesel submarines for the moment, a result of low funding, and a general lack of spare parts.
Every service branch is suffering from similar problems. Only half of the German Army’s Leopard 2 main battle tanks are currently operational even though the service is in the midst of upgrading and expanding the MBT force. Just 30 of the Luftwaffe’s 95 Tornado fighters are currently operational. Given these current conditions it’s not likely that Germany could put together a strong military force at short notice should Russia suddenly expand its adventurism to the Baltics.
As Mark Esper said on Monday, a weakened German military is not only a problem for Berlin. It is an even greater problem for NATO.