German Defense Minister Tries to Fix Long Broken System

Ursula von der Leyen dismisses two officials responsible for procurement scandals and calls for a more active German foreign policy.

Former German defense minister Thomas de Maizière welcomes his successor, Ursula von der Leyen, at a reception in Berlin, January 8, 2014
Former German defense minister Thomas de Maizière welcomes his successor, Ursula von der Leyen, at a reception in Berlin, January 8, 2014 (Bundeswehr/Michael Gottschalk)

Germany’s new defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, is changing the character of her country in all military matters. Her next step: sacking those responsible for procurement projects.

Von der Leyen has never shied away from taking on big projects in her political career, whether as a minister of family affairs or of labor and social affairs. Now she is ready to deal with what might be her biggest challenge. Following the long mismanagement of arms procurements in the German Defense Ministry, she has dismissed two of the responsible civil servants.

As a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s third government, Von der Leyen insisted on taking over the Defense Ministry, sending her predecessor, Thomas de Maiziére, back to his former post as secretary of the interior. What surprised some, others saw as her opportunity to put her first in line to succeed Merkel as conservative party leader. And now she is doing everything in her power to prove just that.

Von der Leyen started by declaring that the Bundeswehr would need to become a more attractive employer. The ongoing restructuring of the armed forces, initiated by the suspension of compulsory military service in 2011, should be augmented by reforms to make the army more family friendly. This has hardly been applauded by everyone, as especially the pacifist opposition declared that there is no such thing as a part-time war.

But Von der Leyen kept articulating what she had in mind. In an interview with Der Spiegel, she argued for a more active German foreign policy, including an increased contribution in logistics and personnel to international peacekeeping missions. This was in congruence with Social Democratic foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and President Joachim Gauck, who used the stage at the Munich Security Conference earlier this month to reiterate her promise of a more engaged and involved Germany.

Von der Leyen followed up with a visit to the troops in Senegal and Mali where she reaffirmed Germany’s support for the new Malian government.

Now she has taken up the task of overhauling the management of arms procurement. After a meeting in which the progress of the biggest arms projects was to be discussed, Von der Leyen sacked Secretary of State for Procurement Stephane Beemelmans and the head of the procurement department, Detlef Selhausen. Beemelmans couldn’t explain well enough the delays and cost increases that have occurred over the last few years. Von der Leyen defended her decision to release both men in a letter to the ministry, stating that risks had been systematically downplayed by the responsible staff.

Beemelmans had survived last year’s Euro Hawk scandal, which saw costs for the unmanned aerial vehicle double. Major difficulties are also affecting the aerial reconnaissance system ISIS, the military transport plane A400M, the K130 Braunschweig class corvette and the NH90 helicopter. As a result of the publicity surrounding the Euro Hawk scandal, de Maiziére and Beemelmans agreed to biannual meetings in which the programs were to be assessed. Just one of these meetings meant the end for Beemelsmans.

Arms procurements are always risky and hard to plan but in recent years the responsible ministers often hid behind complexities, citing that decisions were made before the beginning of their term or that they had not been adequately informed about the details. Von der Leyen also played with the image of being new to the world of arms programs but portrayed this as bringing a fresh perspective, not a weakness.

With Beemelsmans and Selhausen gone, ignorance can no longer be an excuse. Von der Leyen is going to bring in an external consultancy to assess Germany’s biggest procurement projects. The aim is to make the system more efficient and transparent.

This development, and Von der Leyen’s support for European countries pooling and sharing their defense resources, might change Germany’s role as a security actor. Chancellor Merkel did not comment on her minister’s recent decisions. But she is aware of Von der Leyen’s ambitions and was caught by surprise when the latter found allies in Steinmeier and Gauck calling for an internationally more engaged Germany.

Ending the decade long mismanagement in procurement while also reforming the Bundeswehr are feats that not only qualify Von der Leyen for higher office domestically; it might also give her the needed credibility and support to push for a more activist Germany in the world. But she has made herself more vulnerable at the same time. When it comes to new problems, as are arising with a potential compensation for Airbus Defense, Von der Leyen is now definitely in charge of her ministry — and responsible for whatever goes on there.