Germany's new defence minister faces pressure on tanks, army upgrade

FILE PHOTO: German interior ministers hold a meeting in Munich

By Sabine Siebold and Sarah Marsh

BERLIN (Reuters) - There will be no grace period for Germany's new defence minister who takes office as pressure is piling on Berlin to send battle tanks to Ukraine and to upgrade its dilapidated armed forces in the face of Europe's biggest conflict since World War II.

Boris Pistorius, 62, will take over on Thursday, just a day before a major arms pledging conference at the U.S. military base of Ramstein in western Germany, succeeding Christine Lambrecht, who quit on Monday following a series of blunders.

It will befall the outgoing Lower Saxony interior minister to explain to partners whether Berlin will deliver German-made Leopard battle tanks to Ukraine or at least allow others to do so, a decision seen as key to Kyiv's efforts to repel Russian troops.

This week, Britain raised the pressure on Berlin by becoming the first Western country to send Western tanks, pledging a squadron of its Challengers, but the Leopards are seen as the best choice to supply Ukraine with a large-scale tank force.

Germany's reticence has raised questions about how serious it is about the "Zeitenwende", or new era of more assertive foreign policy backed by more military spending, that Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced on Feb. 27, just days after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Many Germans viewed the end of the Cold War as the end of major conflict for the West. That optimism, combined with a pacifism rooted in its guilt over its role in two World Wars, meant Germany long neglected defence, effectively outsourcing its security to its U.S. ally, analysts say.

Germany has since become one of Ukraine's top military supporters, having spent 2.2 billion euros on weapons deliveries.

Yet Berlin continued to "move at the speed of shame, dragged by others", deciding weapons deliveries only after others acted first, said Ulrike Franke, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think tank.

A new minister gives Germany an opportunity to change that narrative, but whether it will seize it will depend less on Pistorius and more how Scholz will play it, said ECFR's Rafael Loss.

"Ultimately it's the chancellor's decision and I'm not sure how likely a revolutionary new approach will be."

Still, Pistorius, like Lambrecht a member of Scholz's Social Democrats, is perceived to belong to the more centrist faction of the party than the outgoing minister, who was closer to the more pacifist wing, and could choose to become more involved in decisions. He has also worked closely with security forces as interior minister.

'EMPTY-HANDED' ARMY

Beyond the immediate decision on tanks, Pistorius faces the mammoth task of upgrading Germany's military, the Bundeswehr, which army chief Alfons Mais, on the day of Russia's invasion, described as "more or less empty handed".

Already worn down by decades of underinvestment since the end of the Cold War, the Bundeswehr is in an even worse shape than a year ago given weapons and munitions donated to Ukraine have mostly not yet been replaced, say experts.

"There is still no sense of urgency," a defence industry source said on condition of anonymity.

Even before Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Germany was 20 billion euros short of reaching NATO's target for ammunitions stockpiling, a defence source said.

“The readiness of the Bundeswehr was a disaster even before the war, and the situation has deteriorated due to the arms supplies to Kyiv since,” that person said, noting that an order for new howitzers to replace the 14 sent to Ukraine was expected to be presented to parliament for approval in mid-2023 only. “The backfilling needs to go much more quickly."

The Deutscher Bundeswehrverband, an association that acts as soldiers' union, said the gap between the military's stated tasks and its resources had never been as great as today.

"Judging by the pledges Germany has made to NATO for 2025, the situation is precarious," its head Andre Wuestner told Reuters. Germany is expected to put a complete division of some 20,000 troops and 6,000 vehicles at NATO's disposal by then.

"At the moment, we don't have a single brigade that is ready with their own equipment," Wuestner said, referring to an army unit that usually has some 5,000 troops.

While Lambrecht did pass some significant orders for new military gear during her brief tenure, critics say she was slow in doing so and did not even attempt a major overhaul of the procurement system.

"Germany has lost a decisive year to modernize the Bundeswehr," said Christian Moelling at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

In an embarrassing show of how ill-equipped Germany is to lead European defence, Berlin had to withdraw its modern Puma infantry fighting vehicles from NATO's quick reaction force last month after problems in a drill and replace them with older ones.

While Berlin has relied on the 100 billion euro fund Scholz announced last year to pay for new military equipment, the regular 2023 defence budget has actually declined by about 300 million euros.

At around 50 billion euros it remains well short of 75 billion euros, or 2% of economic output, Germany needs to meet its NATO obligations. Analysts and experts say Pistorius will have to find his own voice to push for more spending and an overhaul of Germany's defence and procurement systems.

"We expect him to sit at the table and convey the interests of our soldiers .. and that he emancipates himself from the chancellery's perspective and is his own man," said Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, the head of Germany's parliamentary defence committee.

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh in Berlin and Sabine Siebold in Brussels; Editing by Tomasz Janowski)