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Spurred by Russian threat, Germany okays $100 billion fund to beef up army

Move will push Berlin to meet NATO defense spending target after years of criticism, and transform neglected Bundeswehr into Europe’s largest military

German soldiers walk beside tank howitzers 2000 at the Bundeswehr army base in Munster, northern Germany, Feb. 14, 2022. (Martin Meissner/AP)
German soldiers walk beside tank howitzers 2000 at the Bundeswehr army base in Munster, northern Germany, Feb. 14, 2022. (Martin Meissner/AP)

BERLIN, Germany — The German parliament voted on Friday for a constitutional amendment to create a special 100 billion euro ($107 billion) fund to rearm the German military and modernize its outdated equipment over the next few years.

Deputies of the Bundestag lower house approved the measure 567 votes to 96 with 20 abstentions after the center-left-led government and the conservative opposition agreed that defense spending would meet the 2% target “on a multi-year average,” with help from the special fund.

The watershed move answers years of criticism from close allies that Berlin was failing to achieve NATO’s target of spending two percent of GDP on defense. The Bundesrat upper house, which represents Germany’s state governments, must still approve the measure.

“This is the moment in which Germany says we are there when Europe needs us,” Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Green party told MPs.

The decision will pave the way for a massive procurement drive three months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine jolted the government into action.

Critics have accused Chancellor Olaf Scholz of timidity in his support for Kyiv and failing to take enough concrete action in terms of arms deliveries. Officials acknowledge that the German military, the Bundeswehr, has for years suffered from neglect and in particular from aging, poorly functioning equipment.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz laughs surrounded by the heads of the German federal states prior to a meeting with the state governors at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, June 2, 2022. (Michael Kappeler/dpa via AP)

Scholz’s center-left Social Democrats and the Union, which led the government for 16 years under ex-Chancellor Angela Merkel, have blamed each other for that. Baerbock told lawmakers Friday that “the shortcomings of the Bundeswehr can’t be sustained for a second longer.”

“This is a historic day,” Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht told parliament. “This is a lot of money, but it is well invested — in the security and peace of our country.”

Earlier this week, Scholz said the planned spending spree amounts to a “quantum leap” that will be greeted with “relief” in Paris, London, Washington and Warsaw. “‘Finally,’ they say, ‘Germany is taking on the security policy responsibility that it has in the 21st century,'” he said.

The opposition insisted during negotiations with Scholz’s coalition that the fund be used exclusively for the Bundeswehr, rather than go toward other things related to national security, such as aid to stabilizing poor countries or civilian cyber-defense measures.

Russia blasted the move on Friday, accusing Germany of “remilitarizing” and using language that summoned up its Nazi past.

“We take that as another confirmation that Berlin is on the path to a new re-militarization,” said Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. “We know only too well how that can end.”

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz waits for the arrival of Ukrainian Parliament Speaker Ruslan Stefanchuk for a meeting, at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, June 3, 2022. (Markus Schreiber/AP)

It appeared to be a reference to Nazi Germany’s re-armament program in the 1930s under Adolf Hitler that plunged the world into war.

The bulk of the German investment — 40.9 billion euros — will go toward the air force with the acquisition of 35 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets to replace aging Tornado aircraft, 15 Eurofighter jets and 60 Chinook CH-47F transport helicopters, made by Boeing.

Nearly 20 billion euros will be earmarked for the navy, mainly for new corvettes, frigates and a 212-model submarine. More than 16 billion euros will beef up the army’s holdings with Marder transport tanks and Fuchs armored troop carriers.

German soldiers stand in line during a visit of Governor Hendrick Wuest at the army base Field Marshal Rommel Barracks in Augustdorf, Germany, Wednesday, March 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

Scholz said this week that the agreement would “considerably strengthen” the security of Germany and its NATO allies.

“Germany will soon have the largest conventional army in Europe within NATO,” he told local media.

The exceptional fund will be financed by additional debt. For that it was necessary to circumvent the “debt brake” rule enshrined in the constitution, which caps government borrowing. This was why the government needed the support of the conservative opposition to muster the two-thirds majority in parliament needed to pass the constitutional amendment.

Since the end of the Cold War, Germany has significantly reduced the military from around 500,000 in 1990 to just 200,000 today. Fewer than 30 percent of German naval ships were “fully operational” according to a report published December on the state of the military. Many of the country’s fighter aircraft are unfit to fly.

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