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Germany's chancellor said he'd boost military. How is the German army doing now?

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The German government today announced a new defense minister to replace its last one, who resigned yesterday after a year of missteps. Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine last February, Germany's security apparatus has been under increased scrutiny.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

OLAF SCHOLZ: (Speaking German).

SHAPIRO: Just days after the war began, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a $100 billion boost to upgrade and strengthen his country's military. Has that extra money helped? NPR's Rob Schmitz has traveled the country to find out.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: I was promised gunfire, howitzers and soldiers in action, but when I arrive to the Baumholder military base in southwest Germany, I'm told there won't be any soldiers firing guns. The howitzers, though, are waiting for us.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE RUMBLING)

SCHMITZ: There they are, barrels aimed at low, dark clouds showering rain on the pastoral landscape below. A soldier approaches. There's a delay, he says. The wind and the rain mean the self-propelled howitzer 2000s need to adjust their positions. The soldier, Lieutenant Ron, stares into the rain, relaxed. His face all the way down to the tips of his beard is lathered in green and black paint. Before he joined the army, he competed for the national judo team.

RON: (Through interpreter) It was the first time I wore the German eagle on my chest, and it made me proud. I wanted a job that would make me equally proud where I could still wear the eagle.

SCHMITZ: He found that in the Bundeswehr, Germany's army. Back in the Cold War, the Bundeswehr was well-funded, one of the world's strongest militaries. All men were required to serve either in the military or the civilian corps when they turned 18. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification, government after government chipped away at the Bundeswehr. Conscription was eliminated, and it became harder for leaders to justify a big military in a new era of peace and rebuilding. The Bundeswehr's reputation fell. Its history, often associated with Germany's troubled past, was reassessed. Lieutenant Ron says being a soldier in Germany is not like being a soldier in America.

RON: (Through interpreter) Our history makes us hesitant, afraid of taking the wrong step or assuming the wrong role that could be misunderstood. When I'm on the train in uniform, some people thank me. But plenty of people look at me with contempt.

SCHMITZ: And after Russia invaded Ukraine, he says life inside the Bundeswehr changed.

RON: (Through interpreter) It's changed our motivation. It makes you think more each time you say goodbye to your family that it could be the last time. It's suddenly more real.

SCHMITZ: That's as close as Lieutenant Ron is allowed to approach the war. We're here to report a story on the Zeitenwende, Chancellor Scholz's so-called turning point for Germany's military. But Bundeswehr press officers order us not to talk about it, deeming it too political. They also don't allow Lieutenant Ron to use his surname. They did promise shooting howitzers, though. And after an hour in the rain, we're still waiting.

UNIDENTIFIED GERMAN ARMY OFFICER: (Speaking German).

SCHMITZ: Over Lieutenant Ron's radio, officers say it'll be a while. His radio, the SEM 80/90, is the Bundeswehr standard. These olive-green metal radios are installed in all of the German military's vehicles, tanks, you name it.

NICO LANGE: I think everybody who's spent time in the Bundeswehr has almost an emotional relationship with the SEM, the good, old, big, green SEM.

SCHMITZ: Nico Lange, a former German soldier, has fond memories of the SEM radio. So do many others. That's because the German military has been using the analog system since the early 1980s. It hasn't swapped it out for the now-standard encrypted digital systems used by most modern militaries. In fact, the German military recently signed a special contract with a French company to continue to make the 1980s-era radio system. In 2021, it ordered 30,000 of them for a total bill of more than half a billion dollars.

LANGE: The question is, why is it even necessary? And it is necessary because the process of having real, better-fit digitalization, modern digital equipment that is there already in other armed forces, it takes far too long in Germany.

SCHMITZ: Lange now heads the Zeitenwende Initiative at the Munich Security Conference after serving as chief of staff in Germany's defense ministry. Lange says Germany's military is stuck with an outdated communication system because procuring new equipment takes too long.

LANGE: And I mean, it's also embarrassing for German soldiers if they are coming to an exercise or into common missions with armed forces of other NATO countries, and ours are coming with those dinosaur radios.

SCHMITZ: And it's not just radios. Constantin Wissmann, author of "Germany's Rubbish Army," says German troops are stuck with poor equipment because of one agency with a very long name - the federal office for equipment, information technology and use of the federal armed forces.

CONSTANTIN WISSMANN: But they are not very well known to be efficient. An ex-general once told me, that's the most bureaucratic organization in Germany. So even for something basic, like a new rucksack, the order has to run through up to 12 different offices.

SCHMITZ: When you consider that this office is also in charge of procuring bigger-ticket items like tanks and fighter jets for Germany's military, says Wissmann, you begin to understand the overall scope of Germany's problem. And he says it's a problem that'll not suddenly disappear with a sudden boost in spending.

WISSMANN: I think there are many, many operational problems and bureaucratic problems within the Bundeswehr. The whole procurement of weapons has to be overhauled, and that has not happened yet.

SCHMITZ: Wissmann's not the only one hoping for an overhaul.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE RUMBLING)

SCHMITZ: On a track outside of Munich, Knut Peters watches a tank accelerate around a curve before its tracks seem to glide over a series of speed bumps.

KNUT PETERS: Tank comes around with a speed of more than 50 kilometers per hour. Now it takes a full circle, 180 degrees, then 360 and gets back to us.

SCHMITZ: Peters works for Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, otherwise known as KMW, one of Germany's largest weapons manufacturers.

PETERS: Yeah, this is just a test. So if you push it hard, you can go up to even 75 kilometers per hour.

(SOUNDBITE OF TANK DRIVING)

SCHMITZ: Peters' team is testing a Leopard 2 tank, Europe's answer to the American Abrams tank. The Leopard has been in the news since Russia's invasion of Ukraine began, under the banner free the Leopards. The German government has repeatedly refused to send these state-of-the-art tanks to Kyiv. Peters politely declines to comment when I asked him about the controversy over this. Instead, he invites me for a ride in a Leopard.

You're going to let me ride in a Leopard tank? I wasn't expecting this.

Peters and I climb up on top of the tank and slide into two holes, standing on platforms inside the tank with our torsos sticking out.

PETERS: We have the turret in what we call a 6 o'clock position. So the gun is pointing to the rear of the vehicle, and we're moving forward. In a combat situation, it would be 180 degrees different.

SCHMITZ: Wow.

After a couple of laps on the track, the Leopard comes to a stop, and Peters has something to say.

PETERS: Let me add one point, and that's very serious. This is a vehicle not designed to actually have fun. It's one of the most sophisticated weapons in the world. It's the best tank in the world. And its purpose is to protect our freedom.

SCHMITZ: Back in his office, Peters says Chancellor Scholtz's pledge of $100 billion for Germany's military ignited a process within KMW.

PETERS: It took us only days, like with other companies, to present a whole list of products that we might be able to deliver to the German government.

SCHMITZ: On KMW's list were Leopard tanks, self-propelled howitzers and the Boxer, a modular vehicle that within minutes can be changed from an artillery weapon to a medevac vehicle. That list was delivered to Berlin last March.

PETERS: Regrettably, the 100 billion special budget takes time to become effective. So we haven't seen a single euro yet this year from that budget. As of today, there has been no payments out of that yet.

SCHMITZ: In other words, weapons manufacturers like KMW are waiting for the German government to order weapons, just like German troops are waiting for their government to change their outdated radio communication system or like Kyiv is waiting for Berlin to send Leopard tanks to Ukraine.

LANGE: One starts asking the question, is the speed of how Germany is doing things the right speed when it comes to the changes that are dramatic in Europe and in the world? And it seems Germany is too slow.

SCHMITZ: Nico Lange says it's been nearly a year since Olaf Scholz's Zeitenwende speech, and in that time, his pledge to spend significantly more money on Germany's military has stalled and been watered down by politicians, much to the chagrin of the German public, who he thinks is ready to pay the bill for better security.

LANGE: The German public is ready. The German public is more ready than many people here in Berlin think or are ready themselves.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: At a market in Berlin, social worker Sabine Wustner isn't sure, though.

SABINE WUSTNER: (Through interpreter) I'm completely against building up our army. The more weapons we have, the more possibility of war.

SCHMITZ: But when Wustner is reminded that there is already a war in Europe and then asked, what if war spreads to this part of Europe? - she reconsiders.

WUSTNER: (Through interpreter) Well, yeah. I read yesterday Germany only has enough munitions to last a day. So that makes me nervous. In my view, there shouldn't be any weapons. And if we were to stop producing them, war would end. But I also realize the world doesn't work this way.

SCHMITZ: Germany's deputy minister of defense, Siemtje Moller, agrees.

SIEMTJE MOLLER: After so many years of shortfalls, there's a need for everything.

SCHMITZ: German military analysts agreed the Bundeswehr has been underfunded for so long that this new boost of funding may only succeed in bringing it up to the level of where it should be. From here on, Germany's leaders will need to promise far more funding if they want to get serious about defending the country from potential adversaries. I mentioned to Moller that Germany's military needs new radios, too.

MOLLER: That's a very long story, but we have now an happy ending.

SCHMITZ: Moller says Germany's parliament has just confirmed funding for new radios. Germany's military will finally have digitally encrypted communication systems after decades of waiting.

Back at the Baumholder base, the waiting is still not over, as two self-propelled howitzers still have not begun their target practice. But then, we're told it's finally going to start.

(SOUNDBITE OF HOWITZERS FIRING)

SCHMITZ: After two single shots, a Bundeswehr press officer says that's it. Target practice is over. In the end, I only waited for a couple of hours in the rain, and that's pretty quick compared to how long Germans, Europeans and the West in general have waited for Germany's government to bring its military into the 21st century.

Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Baumholder, Germany. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.