In 2013, Ursula von der Leyen was appointed as Germany’s first female defence minister. By placing a major party figure such as von der Leyen at the head of the Defence Ministry, Merkel was widely seen as reinvigorating the scandal-ridden ministry’s morale and prestige. Along with Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble and Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere, von der Leyen is one of only three ministers to remain with Merkel since she became chancellor in 2005.
Von der Leyen chairs the EPP Defence Ministers Meeting, which gathers EPP defence ministers ahead of meetings of the Council of the European Union.
While some other party officials were, like Merkel, also elected with scores over 90% to the CDU executive board at a party convention in December 2014, von der Leyen scraped only 70.5%.
Within her first year in office, von der Leyen visited the Bundeswehr troops stationed in Afghanistan three times and oversaw the gradual withdrawal of German soldiers from the country as NATO was winding down its 13-year combat mission ISAF. In summer 2014, she was instrumental in Germany’s decision to resupply the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters with lethal assistance. In September 2015, she signalled that she was open to delaying the withdrawal of 850 German soldiers from Afghanistan beyond 2016 after the Taliban’s surprise seizure of the northern city of Kunduz; German forces used to be based in Kunduz as part of NATO-led ISAF and remain stationed in the north of the country.
Following criticism from German officials of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan‘s military crackdown against Kurdish militants in August 2015, von der Leyen decided to let Germany’s three-year Patriot missile batteries mission to southern Turkey lapse in January 2016 instead of seeking parliamentary approval to extend it. That same month, she participated in the first joint cabinet meeting of the governments of Germany and Turkey in Berlin. By April 2016, under von der Leyen’s leadership, the German Federal Armed Forces announced they would commit 65 million Euro to establish a permanent presence at Incirlik Air Base, as part of Germany’s commitment to the military intervention against ISIL.
At the Munich Security Conference in 2015, von der Leyen publicly defended the German refusal to supply Ukraine with weapons. Stressing that it was important to remain united in Europe over Ukraine, she argued that negotiations with Russia, unlike with Islamic State jihadists, were possible. Germany sees Ukraine and Russia as a chance to prove that in the 21st century, developed nations should solve disputes at the negotiating table, not with weapons, she said. In addition, she noted, Russia has an almost infinite supply of weapons it could send in to Ukraine. She questioned whether any effort by the West could match that or, more important, achieve the outcome sought by Ukraine and its supporters. On the contrary, von der Leyen said giving the Ukrainians arms to help them defend themselves could have unintended and fateful consequences. “Weapons deliveries would be a fire accelerant,” von der Leyen was quoted as telling the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily. “And it could give the Kremlin the excuse to openly intervene in this conflict.”
When Hungary used a water canon and tear gas to drive asylum seekers back from the Hungarian-Serbian border in September 2015, von der Leyen publicly criticized the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and called the measures “not acceptable and against the European rules that we have.”
Under von der Leyen’s leadership, the German parliament approved government plans in early 2016 to send up to 650 soldiers to Mali, boosting its presence in the U.N. peacekeeping mission MINUSMA in the West African country.
Armed forces reform
In 2014, von der Leyen introduced a €100 million scheme to make the Bundeswehr more attractive to new recruits, including by offering crèches for soldiers’ children, limiting postings to match school term dates, and considerable rises in hardship allowances for difficult postings.
Early in her tenure, von der Leyen pledged to get a grip on Germany’s military equipment budget after publishing a KPMG report on repeated failures in controlling suppliers, costs and delivery deadlines, e.g., with the Airbus A400M Atlas transport plane, Eurofighter Typhoon jet and the Boxer armoured fighting vehicle.
In 2015, von der Leyen publicly criticized Airbus over delays in the delivery of A400M military transport planes, complaining that the company had a serious problem with product quality. Under her leadership, the ministry agreed to accept 13 million euros in compensation for delays in deliveries of both the second and third A400M aircraft; in 2016, she asked for an additional 12.7 million euros in damages for delays in the delivery of a fourth plane.
German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen after being received by Vice Admiral AR Karve, Chief of Staff, Western Naval Command during her visit to India
During a 2015 visit to India, von der Leyen expressed support for a project initiated by the Indian government to build six small German TKMS diesel-electric submarines for a total cost of $11 billion.