Attrition: The Higher Cost Of Avoiding Problems


December 31, 2015: Two decades of cuts in defense spending are causing Germany major problems that just keep getting worse. Normally the government keeps quiet about this sort of thing. But when the government is compelled (in this case by the November 13 terror attacks in Paris) to send troops abroad the extent of the decline in combat readiness becomes apparent. The most recent example was the German decision to send some of its 198 jet fighters to join the air campaign against ISIL (al Qaeda in Iraq and the Levant) in Syria. Even many Germans were surprised when it was announced that only six of the older Tornado fighters could be sent. Questions were asked and the government admitted that all those years of budget cuts had left it with few jet fighters in shape to go overseas and fight.

In 2014 Germany had 89 Tornado fighters but only 66 capable of flying (but some with deficiencies) and 38 that were fully ready for service. In 2015 the number of fully ready Tornados fell further to 30. That’s only a third of Germany’s Tornados. These are 1970s era aircraft that require more maintenance the older they get. Most of Germany’s jet fighters are the more recent (1990s) Typhoons. In 2014 Germany had 109 of these and 74 were capable of flying (but some with deficiencies) and 42 that were fully ready for service. That’s only 38 percent of Germany’s Typhoons. This is not caused by age but lack of resources (people, equipment, spare parts) for maintenance.

In the last few years Germany has responded to these readiness problems by allocating $6.5 billion to fix serious problems with its Typhoon fighters (radar and needed upgrades), NH90 helicopters (the latest of many problems) and the army G36 assault rifle (needs to be replace). In addition to billions for upgrades and repairs the military will receive larger stocks of spare parts so major systems (like ships, aircraft and armored vehicles) can be used intensively (whether it be peacekeeping, training or combat) without being shut down because there are not enough spares available. Some of these problems go back years and despite the new injection of cash the Defense Ministry admits that it will take up to eight years to apply the additional resources and fix all the problems the money is aimed at.

These are all problems that have been around for a while. For example in 2009 the German Army conducted an evaluation of their new NH90 helicopters and found that for combat missions another model helicopter should be used whenever possible, at least until the NH90 could be fixed. A particular problem was the lack of ground clearance. The NH90 could not land on a piece of ground with any obstacles higher than 16 cm (6.4 inches). That makes many battlefield landing zones problematic. That assumes you could even get on a NH90 and find a seat. The passenger seats could hold more than 110 kg (242 pounds). Combat equipment for German troops weighs 25 kg (55 pounds), meaning any soldier weighing more than 85 kg (187) has to take stuff off, put it on the floor then quickly put it back on before exiting. Then there's the floor, it was not very sturdy and combat troops using the helicopter for a short while caused damage that took the helicopter out of action for repairs. Worse, there is the rear ramp. It could not support troops carrying all their equipment, making it useless for rapid exits of combat troops. There was not enough room in the passenger compartment for door gunners. There were no strap downs for larger weapons, like portable rocket launchers or anti-aircraft missiles. The passenger compartment also did not allow for carrying cargo and passengers at the same time. The winch was not sturdy enough for commandoes to perform fast roping operations. And so on. Most of these problems have since been fixed, sort of. Before changes made it got so bad that only four of the 39 NH90s the army had were available for combat.

Originally Germany ordered 122 NH90s at a cost of over $50 million each. Because of all the problems and continued cuts in the defense budget most of those on order were cancelled. The ten ton NH-90 can carry 21 troops or twelve casualties on stretchers, plus the crew of two. It first flew in 1995. The manufacturer is a consortium of French, German, Dutch and Italian firms that promised to fix all the problems and eventually did, mostly. The Germans and Australians noted that when it worked the NH90 performed quite well. But other users also had problems early on. For example in 2010 Australia received eight of the 50 NH90 helicopters it ordered, and was not happy with the aircraft's performance. The overall complaint was poor reliability, design and durability. Many more spare parts had to be stocked than was originally planned. There were long waits to get needed spares from the manufacturer (NHIndustries). Called the MRH90 in Australian service, the experience was similar to what the Germans encountered with their NH90s.

There were worse problems with some simpler systems. In 2015 the German army finally admitted that after years of user complaints and several rounds of testing, that there were indeed major accuracy and reliability problems with its G36 assault rifle. The G36 is a 3.3 kg (7.3 pound), 999mm (39 inch) long (758mm with stock folded) 5.56mm assault rifle. Effective range is 800 meters and it can use a 30 or 100 round magazine and was designed to be an improvement on the M16 design from the 1960s. On paper the G36 was a success, in combat it was not. This was particularly true in Afghanistan. While the G36 entered service in 1995 it didn’t get exposed to heavy combat use until 2008 and that’s when the complaints from the troops began. The German Army kept insisting there was no major problem but now agrees that a new assault rifle or a major overhaul of existing G36s is needed to make the rifle reliable enough for combat.

The Eurofighter Typhoon had fewer major problems but the Germans put off (for budget reasons) addressing many of the minor problems and manufacturer suggested upgrades. Now the Germans admit that the Typhoon requires more money to become a reliable and effective fighter-bomber.

And the list is a lot longer, proving once again that you can run but you can’t hide when it comes to the maintenance needs of military equipment.




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