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German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen (L) and German General Gert-Johannes Hagemann (L) talk to Peshmerga fighters on October 02, 2014 in Hammelburg, Germany.

Timm Schamberger/Getty Images

It should have been a perfect photo opportunity. Late last month, Germany's Defence Minister travelled to Iraq to trumpet the arrival of weapons and trainers to assist Kurdish fighters. The military aid marked a turning point for Germany, which had long refused to supply arms in active conflicts.

There was only one problem: The weapons and paratroopers weren't there. They were stuck en route, hobbled by a lack of available transportation and malfunctioning equipment.

The embarrassing episode in Iraq is just one of a series of recent revelations about the lack of readiness of Germany's military, raising questions about the country's ability to play a larger role in global crises. A September report to lawmakers indicated that only one of the country's four submarines is operational and fewer than half of its fighter jets are ready to fly.

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Earlier this week, a government-commissioned study examined nine major weapons projects and called for major reforms in the way the military procures equipment to avoid expensive and problematic delays.

The disclosures underscore the gap between Germany's stated desire to do more in the international arena and the resources at its disposal for such situations. Ursula von der Leyen, the Defence Minister who is often mentioned as a possible successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, said last month that the country cannot currently meet its obligations to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in the event of an emergency – partly due to a lack of spare parts.

"This is a consequence of a lack of leadership," said Joachim Krause, director of the Institute of Security Policy at Kiel University. "I hope that more and more people are getting concerned … the outcome is a disaster."

While Germany is Europe's economic leader and a linchpin of diplomacy in the region, it takes a back seat in matters that involve the use of force. Mindful of a history of military aggression, many Germans along all points of the political spectrum have pacifist tendencies and are reluctant to boost defence spending. A poll conducted earlier this year by the Koerber Foundation found that four-fifths of Germans favoured less involvement in military missions abroad.

The result has been a piecemeal approach. Germany sent troops to join the NATO force in Afghanistan but declined to participate in the air strikes in support of Libyan rebels. After much public and parliamentary debate, it is sending weapons to assist Kurdish fighters in Iraq, but it is not taking part in the strikes against the Islamic State.

The country's media has seized on the mismatch between Germany's rhetoric and military capacities. "Greetings allies!" noted one writer for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. "We're watching you and meanwhile talking about how we're assuming more responsibility in the world."

Ms. Merkel and her ministers have said they want the country to contribute more to international efforts, but the government is not eager to pay for it. Last year, Germany's defence budget was equivalent to 1.3 per cent of the country's gross domestic product, according to the World Bank. By contrast, military spending in France and Britain amounted to 2.2 per cent and 2.3 per cent of their economic output. Germany has pledged to increase its defence spending to 2 per cent of GDP, in line with European standards, but doesn't face any penalties if it fails to do so.

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Increasing military spending would be an unpopular move, noted Christian Mölling, a defence expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. "Communicating the fact that you need more money because you've spent so poorly and unwisely over the last decade is a very difficult thing to do," he said.

"The solution is not necessarily more money," added Prof. Krause. "If you have no clear strategic concept of what you want to do, more money will be spent uselessly." He commended Ms. von der Leyen for tackling problems in the military procurement process but said she had yet to articulate a broader vision for the country's defence forces.

The debate over the military's lack of preparedness poses a major test for Ms. von der Leyen, 55, who became defence minister last year. The first woman ever to hold the post, she is a mother of seven and a rising star in Ms. Merkel's coalition government.

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