Monday, September 29, 2014

German Ebola Aid Plane Grounded • Aircraft's Technical Problems Highlight Germany's Lack of Military Readiness

The Wall Street Journal
By Anton Troianovski

Updated Sept. 29, 2014 12:14 p.m. ET

BERLIN—A German military transport plane delivering medical aid to Ebola-stricken regions spent the weekend grounded by technical problems in the Canary Islands, further highlighting the country's poor state of military readiness.

Coming less than a week after a leaked government report to lawmakers showed that some of the German military's oldest hardware is falling into disrepair, the incident is piling pressure on Chancellor Angela Merkel's government to fix the country's defenses.

One of two aging Transall C-160 transport planes scheduled to arrive in Dakar, Senegal, on Saturday couldn't take off from an airport on the Atlantic island of Gran Canaria because of a mechanical defect, a spokesman for the German Air Force said. A substitute airplane en route from Germany Monday afternoon was expected to drop off spare parts for the stricken plane and bring its medical payload to Dakar in the evening, two days behind schedule.

The problem came days after equipment problems delayed German weapons and trainers being sent to Kurds fighting Islamist militants in Iraq. According to last week's leaked defense ministry report, seen by The Wall Street Journal, no more than seven of the Navy's 43 helicopters, one of four submarines and 70 of the Army's 180 Boxer armored vehicles are operational—largely because of a lack of spare parts and other problems, the report said.

Opposition parties have seized on the string of mishaps to criticize Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, who is the first woman to hold the post and a close ally of Ms. Merkel.

"Problems that have piled up over the years will of course not be solved in one fell swoop," Ms. von der Leyen told German public radio Monday. "This is truly a large building site."

Ms. von der Leyen suggested in an interview published in the Bild am Sonntag newspaper on Sunday that the military may need budget increases in the medium term. But despite the revelations, leading politicians in all major parties have shown little appetite to spend more money on defense. The government's focus on delivering a balanced budget and voters' longtime aversion to the use of force mean German leaders have little incentive to increase to military spending.

Instead of emphasizing a need for more money, officials have shifted some blame on the defense industry while acknowledging a need for better management.

Germany's 1960s-era Transall C-160 planes, tactical transport aircraft that are operating the Ebola Airlift, are slated to be replaced by Airbus A400Ms. Delivery of the aircraft has been delayed repeatedly because of years of technical glitches and worries about funding.

"We've been waiting for the large A400M airplane for four years," Ms. von der Leyen said in Monday's radio interview. "We have helicopters that have been delayed for five or six years."

On Monday Airbus announced that the four engines of an A400M ordered by the German Air Force had been successfully run simultaneously for the first time. An Airbus spokeswoman didn't immediately return a request for comment on Ms. von der Leyen's criticism.

Defense Ministry spokesman Jens Flosdorff on Monday described the operability of certain equipment and weapons systems as being in a "very critical" situation.

"There are responsibilities which Germany can't withdraw from, specifically Ebola or the fight against Islamic State in Iraq," Mr. Flosdorff said.

Mr. Flosdorff said Germany was able to fulfill its short-term commitments to its North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies despite the equipment problems. But he acknowledged the military is lagging on medium-term targets for operational reaction capabilities.

Commitments for Eurofighter combat jets and certain weapons systems are two planned goals that "perhaps were judged too optimistically last year," Mr. Flosdorff told reporters. "The alliance and defense capabilities aren't in question."

An Air Force spokesman acknowledged that equipment problems have increased lately, "which is really due to the age of the airplanes and the rather high burden on air transport."

Germany's C-160 planes are also supporting international forces in Afghanistan and ferrying aid to war-torn northern Iraq. With the Ebola airlift, the spokesman said, "the full capacity of air transport with the C-160 has been reached."

— Harriet Torry contributed to this article.

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