If Berlin carries this plan out, German rearmament may be the most significant geopolitical consequence of Russia’s unprovoked aggression.
A Brief History of German Rearmament
Upon its establishment, the Federal Republic of Germany was prohibited from fielding armed forces. It soon became evident, however, that NATO would require German troops in order to defend the central front from Warsaw Pact forces.
Re-arming Germany was deeply controversial even in Western Europe (especially France), but in 1955 the Bundeswehr was brought into existence. The Bundeswehr reached nearly half a million men and had that reputation of fielding the best ground forces in Europe. By the 1980s it formed a critical part of the NATO plan to meet and defeat a Warsaw Pact attack in Central Europe, rather than retreat to the English Channel or rely on strategic nuclear weapons.
Germany’s Anemic Military
Facing the massive economic and social crisis of absorbing East Germany at the Cold War’s end, Germany predictably allowed its military capabilities to deteriorate.
Unlike Poland, Germany lacked a border on the former Soviet Union and a culture of fear about Russian revanchism. Unlike France and the United Kingdom, Germany lacked substantial overseas commitments.
Unlike anyone other than perhaps Japan, Germany was still haunted by the ghosts of World War II aggression. Thus, there was little reason to maintain a large military establishment. Nevertheless, Germany participated in NATO military operations over Kosovo and in Afghanistan.
Restrictions on German forces in the latter led one American soldier to quip “why are the Germans only terrible at war when they’re on our side?” In recent years, the most notable news to come out of German military circles has been about a complete lack of readiness in both the land and air branches.
And then Russia invaded Ukraine, and it appears to have transformed German security policy overnight.
Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared that Germany would increase its defense budget until it exceeded the 2% NATO benchmark, an increase of more than 30%. The announcement was greeted positively by the German public, which seems suddenly to have awoken to the threat of a hostile and resurgent Russia.
And thus far, fears of German rearmament in Europe appear invisible. Scholz has backed up the decision to rearm by taking steps to reduce German dependence on Russian natural gas and will allow the transfer of lethal arms to Ukraine.
What a Rearmed Germany Might Look Like
There’s no doubt Germany will find places to spend its money.
The first increases in spending should go to resolving long-term readiness problems in the Bundeswehr ground and air forces. Indeed, while some of the increases may support Germany’s navy, we would expect the bulk of German rearmament funds to flow into ground and air forces. Germany certainly has the defense industrial base (DIB) to make rearmament happen, and indeed to become the driver of defense investment across the region.
In terms of specific equipment, Germany had more or less decided to go with a combination of F/A-18 Super Hornets, EA-18 Growlers, and Eurofighter Typhoons to replace aging Tornados. It is possible that Germany might expand that deal or even revisit it, given the acquisition of the F-35 by several NATO partners. Could Germany add F-35s?
The Germans are short on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and may try to remedy that problem in a hurry by acquiring aircraft from Turkey or the United States.
Germany may step up scheduled acquisition of Leopard 2 tanks and Puma infantry fighting vehicles.
At sea the Germans are stuck with the overlarge and under capable Baden class frigates, ships specialized for presence and low-intensity warfare that, at the moment, seem like floating white elephants.
Denmark followed up Germany’s decision with a declaration that it would also increase its defense spending beyond the 2% mark. The potential entry of Sweden and Finland into the NATO alliance would give Germany a crucial role coordinating the defense of the alliance’s northern flank.
This is a profound change in German security and foreign policy thinking, and one that cannot be welcome in Moscow. Putin’s invasion has made Russian security far more precarious than it was two weeks ago.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Robert Farley is a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School at the University of Kentucky. Dr. Farley is the author of Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (University Press of Kentucky, 2014), the Battleship Book (Wildside, 2016), and Patents for Power: Intellectual Property Law and the Diffusion of Military Technology (University of Chicago, 2020).