German Panzers Return to the Desert

Israel does not protest German sale of 200 Leopard tanks to Saudi Arabia.

Probably not since the Second World War will the world witness the appearance of so many German battle tanks in a desert setting. But instead of the descendants of Rommel’s Afrika Korps, the tanks will be manned by Saudi military personnel.

That’s because Saudi Arabia will soon become the proud owners of up to 200 German Leopard tanks when the recent $2.5 billion deal negotiated with the German government is finalised. The Leopards the Saudis will receive are the latest model (2A7+) in the German arsenal and the best that country’s robust armaments industry can produce.

The German tank purchase is just part of the $60 billion the Saudi Arabian government has spent on an impressive array of weaponry the past couple of years. The United States has also contributed to this Saudi military build up, as the desert kingdom seeks to protect itself from what it perceives as a threat from Iran. Last year, the Saudi military bought 84 US F-15E two-seater warplanes, a special version, at about $100 million per aircraft.

Getting their hands on the German Leopard has always been a long-held, Saudi desire.  In past years, the German government had always turned down Saudi requests to purchase the tank, as they could pose a danger to Israel.

“The Saudis have been asking for Leopards for quite a long, long time and the Germans keep saying no,” said Nick Brown, editor in chief of Jane’s International Defense Review, in the New York Times.

For its part, Israel has been noticeable for its silence on the sale. In the past, Israel has protested similar arms deliveries to the Saudis or issued cautionary warnings. The German publication Der Spiegel, which broke the story, said the deal was actually cleared by both Israel and the United States before Germany would proceed. For the United States, the long-desired tank sale could also be serving as means “to placate the Saudis,” who were furious when President Obama withdrew his support for Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, allowing a long-time ally to fall.

The probable reason for the lack of Israeli objections to the Leopard purchase is that Israel has become a silent associate of Saudi Arabia’s against the looming Iranian threat to both countries. In Israel’s view, any weapon that strengthens the Saudi kingdom and does not jeopardise Israeli security, such as 200 modern German tanks, also indirectly adds to its strength in regard to the Iranian danger. Besides, the Saudis have never represented a direct military threat to Israel, having taken only a very limited role in the Arab wars against her.

Besides opening a new market for German arms sales, the Leopard deal also illustrates the major player in the international armaments market Germany has become. For ten years after the Second World War, Germany was not allowed to make any weapons. Now, it is the third largest exporter of arms in the world after the United States and Russia, employing 80,000 workers in its armaments industry.

But the irony of the situation is that as it makes other nations stronger with its high-quality weapons, Germany itself is becoming militarily weaker and less valuable as an American and NATO ally. Last year, Germany announced defense cuts of up to $11.3 billion that would see “massive reductions in personnel.”

The hardest hit will be the German air force. It will lose 54 percent of its 185 Tornado warplanes and see the remaining order for 37 Eurofighters cancelled. The navy will lose eight frigates and ten patrol boats. The number of German sailors had already been reduced to 17,000, and another 6,000 to 11,000 may still be cut. By contrast France, with a smaller population, has “42,000 active personnel and the U.S. Navy 453,000.”

German army personnel have also been reduced from 220,000 to 185,000. At the end of the Cold War, West Germany alone had about 500,000 well-trained troops and East Germany another 240,000, some of whom were taken into the Bundeswehr after reunification. Germany also suspended the draft last July 1, but this was a desired measure, since the Bundeswehr wants to build a professional army.

The recession and the Cold War’s end have had much to do with the announced cuts. The German army is reorienting its mission from a tank-heavy force trained for combat against the Warsaw Pact into mainly a peace-keeping operation. But this does not account for the fact the training and quality of Germany’s military personnel have deteriorated sharply, while the armed forces have been transformed into a government employment project.

A 2009 report, composed by generals and officers and made public recently in a German newspaper, stated that German soldiers in Afghanistan were insufficiently trained and lacked both proper equipment and discipline, all of which could cause their mission to fail. Above all, the report criticised the soldiers’ training, indicating they could not even serve their own weapons or drive the armoured vehicles properly.

“The training situation of the soldiers in personal weapons and shooting control does not correspond to some extent to the demands in the country of operations,” the report read. “The soldiers generally are not mastering their weapons.”

Three years ago another report was released that stated Germany’s soldiers were simply physically unfit. The report stated that “40 percent of the troops were overweight, compared to 35 percent for their civilian counterparts (of the same age and gender).” The report also claimed German soldiers smoked more and exercised less than civilians.

“It’s not just a German problem,” wrote one military analyst. “The basic problem with European military organizations is that most of them are basically make-work projects. It’s long been known that many European soldiers are not really fit for action. They are uniformed civil servants.”

The analyst excludes from his criticism British troops who “are capable of going into action.” But he further claims European soldiers generally lack equipment and training because they are expensive.

“A disproportionate amount of money is spent on payroll. That keeps the unemployment rate down more effectively than buying needed equipment, or paying for the fuel needed to support training.”

The German army has developed into such a civil service-style bureaucracy that every combat soldier is supported by 35 other soldiers and 15 civilian workers. In the other European Union countries, the average is 16 soldiers and four civilians. It is no wonder the report called the German army “extremely inefficient” in comparison to other European armies.

So while Germany is making wonderful weapons for export, its own military is rotting from within. A major reason for the lack of concern regarding this shameful situation is that the Europeans know they could always rely on a powerful US military. But with an ailing American economy, this is now not the case, as Libya has shown. So with the Middle East and parts of Africa in a turbulent, unpredictable state, where another Rwanda could suddenly appear, America must push the Europeans for better and more combat training and weapons for their troops, so that they can fulfill their missions. Being small and clumsy is generally never good when one goes into a fight.