The new German Minister of Defence

Von der Leyen is the new Minister of Defence in Germany. The previous career of this career politician was coined by offices about social affairs, families, seniors and health topics.
The German media is picking on this particular case, as it's the most obvious mismatch of qualification and office in the new cabinet. The media is picking on this new governing coalition anyway, obviously feeling a great disdain for it and for the expected scarcity of political action on problems.

German MoD compound, (c) Thomess
It's a governing coalition under conservative leadership, after all - and conservatives have (legitimately) represented a "no experiments" attitude in the parliament since the 1960's, interrupted only by the grand experiment of the German reunification. A German who votes for the German conservatives usually understands that this is a vote for relative political inaction, for an administration of Germany instead of for a reform of Germany.

Chancellor Merkel (notionally a conservative) is especially fixated on conserving one thing one; her hold on the office of the chancellor. She's known to be utterly non-ideological, ready to do perfect U-turns on long-held conservative political positions once the pressure for change grows too powerful. This conserves Merkel's power: Merkel extended the career as chancellor into a third term by doing U-turns instead of waiting till voters force U-turns by voting for other parties.

Some media comments pretend that von der Leyen is still a rising star and possible successor of Merkel, but they don't seem to have gotten the memo that our ministry of defence is the graveyard for aspiring politicians' careers and that Merkel kills the political careers of all potential challengers in time.

It's not much of a problem to have an incompetent career politician as minister of defence once, especially as we live in rather quiet times. It is on the other hand a huge problem if you have a series of career politicians with insufficient initial subject matter knowledge in that office for 25 years.

The problem with this is that there's no effective, stern civilian oversight over the ministry for 25 years. The ministry is a bureaucracy, and bureaucracies tend to run in their own best interest instead of in the nation's best interest unless overseers rein in and push back for the better. 
An initially incompetent minister is most likely not able to do so, as such a person would be briefed for weeks on the subject matter (with some focus on memorizing, not on discussing) and thus the civil service and the senior officer corps can shape their own overseer, making it an ineffective and worthless one.

Just one example; the inspector of the army may brief the new minister on the army structure and say that this and this brigade are tasked to be army formations capable of combined arms tactics ("Gefecht der verbundenen Waffen"). An ignorant minister wouldn't know better. An incompetent person would not notice that said brigade has no artillery component and would not ask whether its mechanized infantry (Panzergrenadier) battalion has mortars as artillery substitutes. The ignorant minister would thus not learn that even mortars are absent. The horrible fact that the entire brigade* has no indirect fire weapons and thus no combined arms capability to speak of** would remain obscure.

It's the same with a great many other topics; the bureaucrats in and without uniform can tell an ignorant minister their story - including their wishlists, which their new civilian overseer cannot understand.

This wouldn't be so very bad if politicians were effective at acquiring deep knowledge while in office. Sadly, the rule of thumb is that politicians are too busy while in the cabinet and cannot learn deeply during this time; they need to base their approach off what they learned previously. This is both a strong case for term limits and a strong case for not admitting subject matter ignoramuses into office.

Sadly, the Bundeswehr will likely get another four years on autopilot, driven by bureaucratic self-interest and inertia rather than by well-aimed reforms. There may be reorganizations and some decisions on big ticket items, and the press may call this "reform", but it's likely not going to be what the Bundeswehr really needs.


*: Panzerbrigade 12, which misleads about its combined arms mission on its homepage, Panzergrenadierbrigade 37 
**: Infantry + armour is a trivial combination. It takes at least additional mortars to qualify as "combined arms", if not the more capable artillery. Panzerbrigade 12 has no more powerful indirect fire weapon than 40 mm underbarrel grenade launchers.

P.S.: Our Heer unofficially gave up the concept of actual army formations. Our army formations are not set up to deploy as such, but serve as pools from which individual units can be pulled for deployments. The table of organisation is relevant for administrative and chain of command purposes, not as a potential order of battle in a conflict. As such, it's a fake army structure, a racket. We would have artillery and battlefield air defences in all brigades otherwise.

I avoided pointing out von der Leyen's gender as I think that this is an unessential part of the issue. The media loves poking at it because it's such an obvious hint towards incompetence.


  1. What advice would you give such a Minister in such a position?
    How can she both improve herself as a Minister and the effectiveness of the armed forces? Or is the situation hopeless?

    A trustworthy alternative source of information and guidance outside the bureaucracy would seem to be necessary.

    1. My advice to her is to retire from politics altogether.
      She attempted to introduce internet censorship in her previous office.

      She might get lucky and find some extraordinary insider advisers, though.

  2. No competent minister for 25 years. That's 1988 Manfred Wörner as the last capable one in office.
    Instead of complaining, why not create a solution?
    You are writing a book, make it an introductionary manual for future nitwit ministers of armed forces.

    1. Dunnigan wrote that book already.

      Besides, as "Mr. Geopowers" Förster advised me, 'never fall for the illusion that a blogger might have influence on policy'. He had none, and geopowers was read by many if not most in the German MoD.