On 18 December 2022, multiple reports emerged regarding technical problems faced by the German armed forces, also known as the Bundeswehr, during a training exercise involving their Puma infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs). The exercise was meant to prepare the Puma brigade to take over as the spearhead land combat vehicles for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) Response Force (NRF), a rapid-response unit designed by NATO to intervene in any theatre of operations within five to 30 days. The Puma IFVs were originally intended to be part of the NRF’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), with Germany scheduled to take over from France as VJTF’s lead nation for 2023.
The Puma is a German IFV that was designed to take over the Marder, which has been the Bundeswehr’s main IFV since the 1970s till today. Designed under a joint project by German arms manufacturers Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Rheinmetall Landsysteme, the Pumas began production in 2010 and were originally scheduled to attain full operational readiness and replace the existing Marder IFVs by 2024. Touted as state-of-the-art and the world’s most modern IFV with a remote-operable 30mm automatic cannon and high modular protection for its onboard crew, the Puma has been considered as a possible acquisition by countries such as Australia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.
The initial reports of the Pumas’ problems were released by German media outlet Der Spiegel, which included excerpts of an email sent by the Bundeswehr’s 10th Panzer (Tank) Division Commander, Major-General Ruprecht von Butler, to his direct superiors and the German Ministry of Defence regarding the state of the Puma IFVs after the failed training exercise involving 18 Pumas in December 2022. A Bundeswehr spokesperson stated in an interview that all 18 Pumas involved in the training exercise had broken down during the exercise, facing technical problems ranging from electronic failures to turret defects, and even a fire in the driver’s compartment caused by cable deficiencies. Furthermore, Major-General Butler had also likened the Bundeswehr’s reliance on the Pumas to “playing the lottery”, and that while the Bundeswehr was already aware of possible problems with the Pumas, they had not expected the failures to occur at such high frequencies.
Just one day after the above-mentioned reports, then-German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht commissioned an in-depth investigation into the Puma’s problems, while also halting all of the previously-scheduled Puma procurement exercises for the Bundeswehr. It was also announced that the older Marder IFVs would be deployed to fulfil the requirements of NATO’s VJTF for 2023, although the 52-year-old Marder’s capabilities were described by the German Ministry of Defence as “significantly degraded” compared to the technologically-superior Puma.
Understanding the Bundeswehr’s Puma problem has to start with a clarification of two baseline conditions. Firstly, media outlets often label the Pumas as a tank, but there are fundamental differences between a tank and an IFV. The Bundeswehr has a multitude of tanks in its inventory, including variants of the Leopard 2 and the Panzerhaubitze 2000 (PzH 2000). However, there is a differentiation made between tanks and IFVs in the Bundeswehr – vehicles like the Leopard 2s are labelled as “panzer” (translates to tanks), while vehicles such as the Marder and Puma are labelled as “schützenpanzer” (translates to “protected tank”). Tanks are traditionally understood by militaries as the primary offensive weapon in land warfare due to its blend of protection, firepower and mobility, while IFVs, as its name suggests, are armoured vehicles used to transport infantry troopers into the battlefield, and to provide fire support in land warfare. Multiple media outlets have labelled the Puma as a tank, but this confusion can be attributed to translation issues, considering the similarities of their labels in German – both include the word “panzer”, which is German for tank. As a result, IFVs such as the Pumas and Marders are often mislabelled and misunderstood as protected “tanks”, and media outlets thereafter classify these IFVs wrongly.
Nevertheless, this clarification does not exonerate the Bundeswehr when it comes to the Puma problem, as all 18 Pumas involved in the exercise had become non-operational, despite previous reports of approvals for usage in 2015, and combat-ready declarations in August 2021. Furthermore, the 18 Pumas that faced technical faults were specifically Puma VJTF23 variants that were upgraded and originally scheduled to form the main bulk of the NRF in 2023, and the very fact that a system-wide failure was only identified merely two weeks before this deadline is an indictment of the Bundeswehr’s relative lack of combat readiness.
This leads to the second condition, which is a need to understand the opaque nature of defence and military sectors. More often than not, transparency is a double-edged sword for militaries all around the world. While transparency can help to reduce misunderstandings between states and help citizens understand their militaries’ strength, open information on a military’s specific capabilities could also expose vulnerabilities and encourage adversaries to consider armed aggression as a possible option in their foreign policy toolboxes. Simply put, it would be strategically unwise for a military to release information that could potentially be weaponized against themselves. The relative lack of technical details in the responses by Puma manufacturers, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Rheinmetall Landsysteme, and the German Ministry of Defence in the immediate aftermath of the media reports, should be understood as decisions that have taken both business and strategic/security considerations into account.
As such, there is obvious cause for concern that can be extrapolated from the public fallout in December 2022, with the Puma’s problems inviting criticism of the ruling government by German opposition members, and multiple reports attributing degrees of causation between the public fallout and the eventual resignation of Christine Lambrecht from her post as Defence Minister on 17 January 2023. The heavily-publicized nature of the Puma’s problems should also be understood as potential indications of a larger systemic problem cutting across the Bundeswehr in terms of its acquisition processes, budget utilization and command structures, all of which are difficult to quantify and qualify using open-source information.
Different Day, Same Problems?
It is particularly noteworthy that the problems with the Puma are not newfound discoveries. While the Puma project was approved in 2002, there have been rumblings of technical issues faced during the developmental process, such as unsealed hatches leaking water, a restricted line-of-sight from the driver’s compartment, and electronic issues. Despite production being completed in 2015, the Pumas were only officially declared combat-ready in 2021, with a particularly long six-year gap between the two phases. This gap can be attributed to the already-existing problems with the Puma, as revealed by a 2018 report by the Bundesrechnungshof, the supreme federal authority for audit matters in Germany. The Puma project faced limited progress and low vehicular availability rates, with federal auditors warning that the Puma’s readiness timeline could stretch out to 2029. The Bundesrechnungshof audit report also revealed that the Puma’s operational readiness for 2016 and 2017 were at 48% and 43% respectively due to a “lack of system stability”, and high failure rates that could not be attributed to a specific source of error. More crucially, the report recommended the Bundeswehr to gameplan for the continued usage of the older Marder IFV beyond 2024, a prediction which has since turned out to be true. The December 2022 reports of the Puma’s failures can be understood as a continuation and affirmation of already-existing problems with the platform itself – the Puma problems are not new, and its persistent problems have earned it the “Pannenpanzer” moniker inside German media circles, which translates to “breakdown tank”.
Furthermore, the problems do not end at just the Puma IFVs, as the Bundeswehr has faced its share of issues despite a €100bn fund being shelved out to boost the Bundeswehr’s combat strength in February 2022, an injection done largely in response to Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine. There have been multiple unconfirmed reports of the lack of available ammunition, with some estimates suggesting that the Bundeswehr only has enough ammunition to sustain about two to three days of warfighting, way short of NATO’s requirements for its members to have 30 days’ worth of ammunition. Close to 50% of the Bundeswehr’s PzH 2000s deployed to aid Ukraine in its warfighting efforts have also faced reliability issues, having had to be rerouted to Lithuania for repairs and replacements of spare parts. While these are selectively isolated incidents lacking official confirmation, it is an undeniable fact that the Bundeswehr is facing operational issues that could affect its ability to guarantee the safety of the German people, an increasingly worrying trend given the increased polarization in the international arena, and the need for European states to arm itself against potential Russian aggression.
The Bundeswehr’s Prestige Hit
The reputation of the Bundeswehr in the defence community precedes itself, especially in the field of land warfare. This is largely driven by the widespread popularity of its locally-developed tank creation, the Leopard 2s, with its variants currently in use by more than 17 countries around the world, including European states like Slovenia and Switzerland, as well as Singapore, Indonesia, and many others. However, the Puma problem has redirected the spotlight back onto the Bundeswehr and its vehicular platforms’ capabilities. There have been instances where the Leopard 2s have displayed deficiencies in combat, most recently in Operation Euphrates Shield, a military operation conducted by the Turkish military to drive ISIS forces out of northern Syria in August 2016. Images of destroyed Leopard 2s were circulated via ISIS promotional materials in 2017, and media outlets have alluded to the vulnerability of the Leopard 2s operating under heavy fire in the Middle East climate.
A clear downward trend can be identified when analyzing the Bundeswehr and its operational readiness, especially in the eight years since the completion of the Pumas’ production in 2015. The above-discussed issues have certainly damaged domestic and international confidence in the Bundeswehr’s land warfighting capabilities, inflicting a rare scar onto the prestige level of a military that has traditionally been viewed as one of the strongest fighting forces in Europe. The Puma was originally designed as a technologically-advanced IFV with multiple industry-first developments in electronics, turret systems and computing, but the failure to string these complicated technical elements in a coherent manner is also an indictment of flaws inside the German defence industry, both in the Bundeswehr and arms manufacturers such as Rheinmetall Landsysteme. Media outlets have compared the Puma to a “paper tiger”, and the Bundeswehr has become a popular topic of ridicule in late-night German comedy shows.
NATO and Ukraine
On 25 February 2022, just one day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, NATO conducted its first-ever collective-defence deployment mission, with the VJTF as the highest-readiness spearhead of NATO’s land-based offence. Comparing the older 70s-era Marder with a fully-operational modern Puma in an isolated vacuum delivers a clear answer – that the overall combat capabilities of NATO’s VJTF for 2023 has been significantly weakened due to the Puma problem. The VJTF was set up by NATO in the aftermath of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and the deployment of the NRF should be seen as NATO’s recognition of an unstable Europe that is increasingly being nudged towards conflict. NATO’s warfighting capabilities now take on elevated levels of importance, and the Bundeswehr’s Puma Problem has implications that stretch beyond Germany’s national security, potentially affecting the stability of Europe as an entire region.
Furthermore, with the VJTF’s IFV spearhead being changed to the Marder, coupled with Germany’s commitment to provide Ukraine with 40 Marder IFVs to combat Russia by March 2023, the Bundeswehr has been presented with resource constraint issues regarding the available fleet of Marder IFVs, with increased pressures to ensure the continued shelf-life of the Marder IFVs, alongside the continued supply of spare parts and maintenance capabilities. Alongside confirmation of the deployment of 14 Leopard 2s to Ukraine, the Bundeswehr will continue to be stretched on multiple fronts in the next few years, a cascading implication that Germany has to continue to handle, even while it continues attempting to salvage its current fleet of 350 Puma IFVs, following an announcement of intention to continue with the Puma project.
The Bundeswehr’s Puma Problem has opened up a can of worms that has the potential to cripple the German military and the safety of the European regional security order, if left to the back-burners. At the nexus of every nation, lies its people – the peace and security of Germany’s people should not be left to chance.
Thomas Lim is a Senior Analyst with the Military Studies Programme of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, a policy-oriented think tank located in Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. He previously served as the chief trainer for ST Engineering, training Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) trainees on how to drive and maintain Singapore’s fleet of tracked vehicles. He is a keen observer of land warfare and vehicular capabilities in combat.