“Good job the Germans sent Britain some ventilator,” a Twitter user named @AlenaGermangirl tweeted last week.
“How many? When? They’ve not exactly been rushing to Italy’s help,” Andrew Neil, one of Britain’s most famous journalists, tweeted back.
Britain’s celebrated master of the political interview was clearly behind on the news. Two days previously, the Bundeswehr had donated 60 of its own ventilators to the UK and was now delivering them. Given that Germany’s military is often ridiculed for the poor state of its equipment, its generous act towards the UK with its celebrated armed forces should have been cause for jubilation. Yet the donation didn’t make the headlines — a bit odd in a country that has recently seen senior politicians lambaste Germany amid the Brexit debate.
The UK is not the only recent recipient of Bundeswehr assistance. On March 28, at the peak of Italy’s coronavirus outbreak, the Bundeswehr’s Airbus A310 Medevac – a flying intensive-care unit — airlifted six Italian coronavirus patients from the hotspot of Bergamo to Cologne hospitals. The next day the Luftwaffe was on international coronavirus duty again. An A400M transport aircraft flew to Strasbourg and brought two French coronavirus patients to Stuttgart, where ground-based colleagues transported them to the Bundeswehr’s hospital in Ulm. On the same day, the A310 Medevac made another trip to Bergamo and collected another six coronavirus patients. Four were airlifted to Hamburg and brought to local hospitals, while the other two were flown to Cologne and brought to a hospital in the nearby city of Koblenz.
And so it continued. To date, the Luftwaffe, working with various ground-based German Army units, have airlifted 22 Italian and two French intensive-care corona patients to Germany, where they have been taken to military and civilian hospitals. It has donated and delivered 60 ventilators to the UK. And it’s using its space on NATO’s massive Antonov transport aircraft for transport of coronavirus medical equipment. The Antonov is part of the alliance’s Strategic Airlift International Solutions (SALIS) initiative, which became operational last fall and to which ten NATO member states belong. In the next few days the Bundeswehr will use the Antonov for three corona supplies flights, the German Ministry of Defense told me.
Other armed forces are helping coronavirus patients a bit too. Turkey has donated an A400M-load of medical supplies to the UK, flown there by the Turkish Air Force. Russia has, rather controversially, sent 100 medical specialists from its armed forces to Italy. The U.S. Air Force has flown coronavirus tests kits from Italy to the U.S. for evaluation, and the U.S. government has made its Italy-based service personnel – some 30,000 men and women – available to the Italians. But many NATO member states, including some with armed forces deemed superior to the Bundeswehr, have failed to use them for the benefit of corona-stricken allies.
Indeed, no country’s military has done so much for allies’ coronavirus patients as the Bundeswehr. Sure, 22 Italian intensive-care patients are a minimal share of the more than 165,000 Italians infected by the virus. But the Bundeswehr’s efforts are part of wider coronavirus assistance by the German government, which has in recent weeks sent generous donations of medical supplies to Italy, Spain and other countries. Berlin is sending the aid even with the virus spreading rapidly in Germany too, where the number of infections is now approaching 140,000. And at home, the Bundeswehr has – like some other countries’ armed forces – been assisting civilian authorities. Of the 400 requests for assistance it received, it has to date taken on 138 and completed 88. 100 Bundeswehr medics are, for example, assisting local health authorities in the state of Brandenburg, while the hospital in Ulm has lent an intensive-care ambulance to a civilian hospital.
That’s the same Bundeswehr that’s habitually ridiculed for the state of its readiness. Last year, the annual report on the Bundeswehr’s readiness from the Bundestag’s Bundeswehr commissioner noted that while many platforms reached the desired 70 percent readiness, others – including the Puma infantry fighting vehicle, the A400M and the N90 transport helicopter — languished below 40 percent. Such figures have led to headlines like “Germany’s military has become a complete joke,” as the British magazine Spectator proclaimed last year.
But when it comes to coronavirus, the Bundeswehr is no joke. To be sure, responding to pandemics is not the core mission of a military, or a military alliance, but COVID-19 is NATO’s worst alliance-wide national security crisis since its founding. If any country’s military has risen to the task, it’s Germany, of whom so little was expected. Let’s give a cheer for the Bundeswehr.