Lisa Haseldine Lisa Haseldine

How can Germany deploy a tank battalion without any tanks?

Lisa Haseldine has narrated this article for you to listen to.

Last year, Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, made a pledge that would have been unthinkable not long ago: to send a combat brigade to be permanently deployed in Lithuania. The plan was to station almost 5,000 troops an hour away from the Suwalki Corridor, the 40-mile-long border between Poland and Lithuania, flanked by Belarus to the east and the Russian exclave Kaliningrad to the west. Scholz, and his new defence minister, Boris Pistorius, wanted to transform Germany’s military from a medium-sized operational force to one which can be Europe’s first line of defence if Vladimir Putin ever attacks a Nato territory.

If Scholz’s announcement seemed too good to be true that’s because it was. So far just 30 German soldiers have been sent to Lithuania. The pledge also came as a surprise to the Bundeswehr, Germany’s armed forces, who were not consulted beforehand. Pistorius (whose only military experience is his year in national service more than 40 years ago) believes in the politics of big targets: if you announce the plan, others have to find a way of making it work. ‘The speed of the project clearly shows that Germany understands the new security reality,’ he said. ‘We have to take into account that Putin will one day attack a Nato country.’ According to a classified document leaked to the tabloid Bild, the Bundeswehr is wargaming scenarios of a possible Russian attack on the Suwalki Corridor by May next year.

‘Pistorius wants to send a tank battalion without tanks to Lithuania. What kind of signal is this?’

But if Scholz and Pistorius had consulted the military, they might have been warned against wishful thinking and told that re-galvanising the Bundeswehr is a far harder job than their rhetoric suggests. ‘The army that I am allowed to lead is more or less empty,’ admitted Lieutenant General Alfons Mais, the head of the Bundeswehr, in 2022. ‘The options that we can offer politicians to support the alliance are extremely limited.’ Mais worried that the politicians in Berlin would react to Putin’s invasion by sending arms to Ukraine, running down the troops even more. His fears were justified. It wasn’t long before the few functioning Leopard tanks Germany had were sent to Ukraine.

In an internal memo from November last year, leaked to Der Spiegel, Mais said that across the board the army had only about 60 per cent of the equipment it needs, ‘from A for artillery pieces to Z for tent tarpaulin (Zeltbahn)’. Across a spreadsheet, he listed nearly 2,000 crucial items missing from Germany’s arsenal, from piping and fireproof gloves to, rather pointedly, a new fleet of Leopard tanks. This shortage list, Mais dryly concluded, ‘makes clear the diversity and small-scale nature of the challenges’. All this is before the financial costs of the huge Lithuanian deployment, he said, which had not yet been budgeted.

It’s hard for Pistorius to hide the army’s deficiencies. One of the two tank brigades he has promised to Lithuania, the Panzerbataillon 203 from Augustdorf, North Rhine-Westphalia, has no tanks. All the ones it had have been sent to Ukraine. Pistorius says replacements will be delivered directly to Lithuania in 2026 (assuming the contractors deliver on time) but until then the soldiers will have to practise on simulators. ‘Pistorius wants to send a tank battalion without tanks to Lithuania,’ says Ingo Gädechens, who sits on the Bundestag’s defence committee. ‘What kind of signal is this to our Lithuanian allies?’

Pistorius during a visit to the Panzerbataillon 203 tank squadron in Augustdorf, Germany, 1 February 2023 (Getty Images)

Perhaps Lithuania will give up on Scholz’s promises and instead cut a deal with Poland, which is building up its military with gusto. Poland may soon become the biggest contributor to Europe’s security. Its military has been designed to deter Russia for decades, while Germany has been half-hearted about defence ever since its reunification.

Back then, the German military was capped at 370,000 soldiers and funds previously earmarked for defence forces were instead channelled into economic relief for former East Germany. Investment in the Bundeswehr never picked up. One audit commissioned when Ursula von der Leyen was defence secretary showed that of the Luftwaffe’s 388 aircraft, 121 were ready for immediate deployment. Only one of its four submarines was seaworthy. Of its 180 Boxer armoured combat vehicles, 70 were deemed unfit for deployment.

The nadir came in 2015 when German troops taking part in Nato exercises in Norway had to make do with broom handles painted black to simulate Boxer tank guns because they couldn’t get hold of the real thing. In 2019, a few months before Von der Leyen quit the government to become president of the European Commission, German forces were using mobile phones during a Nato exercise instead of encrypted radio equipment. As recently as December 2022, in an exercise preparing troops for the Nato ‘high readiness response force’, all 18 Puma infantry fighting vehicles being used that day broke down. One spontaneously caught fire.

The depressing thing is that very little has changed, as Ukrainians using German kit have found out. Just before Christmas, Pistorius visited a workshop in Lithuania that was fixing Leopard 2s sent back from Donetsk. He brought an entourage with him, including journalists, who were expecting to see war-damaged vehicles, but most had just broken down and were being fixed. ‘Unfortunately, only a very small number of the battle tanks delivered can still be used by Ukraine,’ admitted Sebastian Schäfer, a Green member of the Bundestag, who was on the trip.

German army numbers, which fell to an all-time low of 177,000 eight years ago, are supposed to be at 183,000, but the military is struggling to find enough recruits to serve even at this strength. Scholz’s goal of 203,000 troops by the end of the decade seems fanciful.

Pistorius is now talking about bringing back conscription. But where would these conscripts sleep? ‘We don’t have any barracks for this,’ said Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, chair of the Bundestag’s defence select committee. ‘We don’t have sufficient staffing levels for training and we have long since reduced further resources for conscription.’

As a last resort Pistorius recently admitted that he’d consider allowing foreigners into the army to boost its numbers. He’s not the first German defence minister to play with this idea – Von der Leyen considered it in 2018, but the scheme never got off the ground as it was met with a lukewarm response from Germany’s neighbours who were concerned the Bundeswehr could poach their best recruits.

Scholz, working with a €100 billion defence budget, is scrambling to restock the Bundeswehr’s depleted kit. He has agreed to spend €3.3 billion on an Israeli missile defence system, the largest export deal in Israel’s history. A €10 billion order for F-35 jets from the USA will be delivered by 2029. Last week, a deal worth €50 million was announced for the procurement of nearly half a million protective decoy flares. A reported €1.5 billion was spent up-dating the Bundeswehr’s communications technology at the beginning of last year, buying enough new radios for 34,000 military vehicles. But there have been reports of breakdowns, weak radio batteries and trouble with installation.

Many of his orders will not arrive until the end of the decade at the earliest, and already there have been delays: an order for 367 military trucks has been held up by rows about whether funds were indeed available for the second instalment.

There’s an old joke in Yes Minister that the role of a defence ministry is not really to defend the country but to make people feel as if they are safe. Pistorius and Scholz are failing on both counts.