What is wrong with the German military? Apparently quite a lot. Consider this; the German Navy has six modern Type 212 submarines and at the end of 2017 it became a major news that none of them were available for service. One damaged its steering mechanism on December 19th when U-35 struck a rock off Norway. The other five 212s are either undergoing repairs or maintenance or waiting for a dry dock to become available for essential work. There were other problems, similar to those that have kept many German warplanes and armored vehicles out of action since the 1990s. One that was frequently mentioned was a lack of spare parts. While that was true, and a common problem throughout the German armed forces, it soon became apparent that there was a larger and more serious problem; poor leadership in the Defense Ministry and among the senior officers (generals and admirals).
This became obvious when analysts and journalists compared German performance in developing and building warships to what other nations were doing. Germany is a major shipbuilder, one of the top five in the world. But its own navy, when given a choice, selects designs that look good on paper but do not perform in reality. That is not a new problem and not unique to Germany. The extent of the incompetence, however, is surprising. Politicians saw building new warships for the German Navy as more about providing jobs and paid little attention to the practicality of the designs selected. This was particularly evident with German surface warships. As Germany replaced its aging Cold War designs the navy sought out and accepted designs that were more suitable for peacekeeping than warfare and now Germany finds itself with a surface fleet of warships that are not only incapable of fighting but often have a hard time remaining capable of going to sea.
For twenty years after the Cold War ended in 1991 German defense planners did not consider the possibility that Germany would again face a military threat. But after 2008 Russia became more and more aggressive and now Russia, with much less efficient shipyards, is building more effective warships. This is particularly embarrassing because the primary combat zone for German warships is the Baltic Sea and Germany’s new NATO partners in East Europe (Poland and the Baltic States) are openly critical of Germany not being able to handle its share of the defense burden in the Baltic.
It’s not just ineffective surface warships but also naval aviation, including ASW (anti-submarine warfare) aircraft, that are, to put it mildly, inadequate. For decades Germany did not seriously consider the need for modern ASW aircraft because; who would they be used against? Now there is a real threat in the Baltic and North Sea and Germany must depend on other NATO nations (and non-NATO nations like Sweden and Finland) to protect German access to the shipping lanes in the Baltic and North Sea.
In one area of warship construction; submarines, Germany remained a world leader and major exporter. To remain competitive German subs had to be designed and built for combat operations. But when the German Navy purchased German-built subs these boats were misused and poorly administered. It was more than “lack of spare parts” that left Germany with no combat ready subs in late 2017 and into 2018. It was extremely poor leadership and planning at the top.
Some things were obvious. Defense spending was sharply cut in the 1990s. This was the “peace dividend”, the expected savings from the demise of the Soviet Union and its enormous military (including the second largest fleet on the planet.) The German Type 212s entered service during this period and the failure to buy sufficient spare parts soon led to subs being sidelined until the spares could be manufactured. In some cases spares were obtained by taking components from subs sidelined for something else so that two subs would not be out of action. But this was more expensive and the situation just kept getting worse until there were no subs available for service and that situation won’t be rectified until early 2018 and won’t improve much until the navy gets a lot more money for spares and maintenance. Note that export users of the Type 212’s weren’t having these problems. More Germans began to notice that.
Germany could use its U-Boats right now because they provided a major threat to increasingly aggressive Russian warships in the Baltic and North Sea. That was always the intent, even though the 212s were developed simply to replace the Cold War era Type 209s and keep a prosperous export business (subs) going. In late 2005 Germany commissioned its first Type 212 submarine, U-31. This was quickly followed by U-32 and two more in 2006 and 2007. Two more entered service in 2015 and 2016. Another two were planned but never ordered. Italy also has four Type 212s.
Type 212s are special boats, as they were among the first use fuel cells (for AIP, or Air Independent Propulsion), which enable them to quietly operate underwater for weeks at a time. They still have diesel propulsion, but this is only used for surface travel when the batteries are recharged. The 212's are also very quiet, quieter than most nuclear boats in service. This makes them an even match for a current nuclear boat equipped with better sensors. The 1,450 ton 212's are much smaller than nuclear boats (57 meters/188 feet long, compared to twice as long and 6,200 tons for the new U.S. Virginia class SSNs). The nuclear boats are used for a lot more than hunting other ships and subs.
While the 212's are mainly attack boats, and well designed and equipped for it, they can, because of their AIP, be used for intelligence collection and landing commandos. While Germany is an American ally, their development of fuel cell technology for subs, and use of these boats in their own navy, helped this technology mature, and eventually available to many more nations. These 212 boats are, expensive (about half a billion dollars each), but that's less than a third the cost of a nuclear boat. The 212's are also highly automated, requiring a crew of only 27. But with six torpedo tubes, and a dozen torpedoes (plus anti-ship missiles, launched from the tubes, as well as mines), they could be, in the wrong hands, a major threat to the U.S. fleet. Cheaper to buy, cheaper to run (you don't need as many skilled sailors for the crew) and very lethal. American admirals always paid attention to who the Germans export these boats to. Most of the exports are the less expensive Type 2014, which are 212s without a lot of the highly classified tech. For export customers, the 212s were reliable and worked as advertised. But the German navy, or at least the senior admirals, refused to read, or pay attention, to the users manual.
American admirals see new German surface warship designs as more examples of what not to do. These German designs were dysfunctional to begin with and supervision of their construction (by the navy) so incompetent that these ships failed sea trials (a relatively uncorrupted process in which navy crews take the new ships to sea and compare their performance to what the design promised and what was needed to stay alive out there). You can try and fake sea trials but it is very difficult especially when you have a free press and many sailors willing to talk about a ship design that could get them killed.
Germany remains a major exporter of high tech gear. Meaning that German defense industries design and export electronics, weapon systems and other military gear that is competitive on world markets. Their own armed forces are not looking for competitive but for politically correct so German manufacturers concentrate on their export markets. Since the 1990s the home market for defense items has, in many sectors, become poisonous and source of much stuff that German manufacturers keep quiet about because the German Defense Ministry was seeking unsatisfactory weapons and equipment for German forces.
The inability of the German Navy to keep six German built submarines in service was all about poor leadership and planning, both on the political side (Defense Ministry) and the military side (the senior officers.) But the problems went far beyond submarines. Pass the schadenfreude, it is one thing the German military has plenty of these days.