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Germany Hopes Incentive Plan Will Strengthen Its Military


Here's a military problem - broken tanks and fighter jets and helicopters that don't fly. It's a problem facing one of our most important allies in Europe, Germany. Well, today the country's defense minister said there was another problem, a critical shortage of trained personnel. She plans to increase the pay and benefits of the country's armed forces, but critics say that won't help improve their battle readiness. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson sent this report from Berlin.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking German).

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: In this recent German military video, a soldier explains the features of a Dingo armored truck to Kurdish fighters being equipped by Germany for their war against the Islamic State. At a news conference in Berlin, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen said such efforts show how Germany is increasing its role in global security operations. But she says her armed forces are having a tough time keeping up with their commitments because there aren't enough qualified German citizens joining their ranks since conscription ended here three years.


URSULA VON DER LEYEN: (Speaking German).

NELSON: Von der Leyen says it's getting more difficult to recruit people as demographic shifts are causing a pool of qualified young Germans to shrink. Those youngsters are bombarded with similar offers from private companies desperate for recruits, the minister says.


VON DER LEYEN: (Through translator) At the moment, we have four submarines but can only operate two, not because the whole crew is missing, but because we are missing professionals who staff key positions on those vessels.

NELSON: Von der Leyen's incentive plan, which was approved by the cabinet but still has to be voted on by the German Parliament, gives service members a 7 percent pay hike, large bonuses and more opportunities for part-time work. But her efforts are threatened by the controversy over widespread German military equipment failures and shortfalls.

The state of disrepair has grounded scores of military planes and helicopters and left many armored vehicles nonoperational. Von der Leyen experienced some of the problems firsthand when she went to Iraq last month to handover the first shipment of German arms to Kurdish fighters. She arrived, but the guns didn't because the designated transport plane broke down. Her critics say von der Leyen will have to choose between more pay and new equipment. She disagrees.


VON DER LEYEN: (Through translator) It doesn't help to have the most advanced tank if you don't have the personnel to operate this highly complex technology. On the other hand, it doesn't make sense to have military personnel if you don't have the helicopters or airplanes.

NELSON: She is promising extensive reforms, but the widespread deficiencies have hurt the once popular minister's approval ratings. Some analysts say it could jeopardize her chances of becoming Chancellor Angela Merkel's eventual successor. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.