- By Jessica Parker
- BBC correspondent in Berlin
Europe will need 10 years before it is fully ready to defend itself, the head of Germany’s largest defense company, Rheinmetall, told the BBC.
Armin Papperger said that ammunition stocks are currently “empty”.
He made the comments during a visit by Chancellor Olaf Scholz to a foundation-laying ceremony for a major new weapons manufacturing plant in Lower Saxony.
Defense Minister Boris Pistorius and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen were also present.
The comments come a day after comments by US presidential candidate Donald Trump sparked fresh concern in Europe.
The frontrunner for the Republican nomination said he once told a world leader he would not protect NATO members who don’t pay their dues and would even “encourage” aggressors to ” do what they want.”
Rheinmetall said it would invest more than $300 million (£274 million) in the new facility. Ultimately, it should produce 200,000 artillery shells per year.
Mr Papperger said it would take “a lot of time” to prepare against an “aggressor who wants to fight against NATO”.
“We will be good in three or four years, but to be really prepared we need 10 years,” he said.
“We need to produce 1.5 million cartridges [of ammunition] in Europe,” added Papperger. He said a large amount of European ammunition was being sent to Ukraine, leaving little room for European stocks.
“As long as there is war, we must help Ukraine, but later we [will] it takes five years at least and 10 years to really complete [ammunition stocks] upwards,” he said.
Chancellor Scholz declined to say whether he was concerned by Mr Trump’s comments, saying he was “absolutely sure” that NATO was “essential” for the United States, Canada and European countries.
“We stand by it, the President of the United States stands by it, and I am sure the American people will as well,” he continued.
But he stressed that Russian President Vladimir Putin had demonstrated “imperial ambitions” and added: “If you want peace, you must succeed in deterring possible aggressors.”
Asked by the BBC if she thought Europe should be ready to stand alone if the US withdrew its support, Ms Frederiksen said Europe had to be ready “no matter what”. She added that “Russia becoming more and more aggressive” was proof that Europe needed to step up its efforts.
“We need to accelerate and that’s why I’m here today,” she said.
It has been almost two years since Chancellor Scholz declared Zeitenwende – a turning point in Germany’s foreign and defense policy – following President Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
It was widely believed that a policy of “change through trade” with Russia had failed.
The Allies hoped that Germany, Europe’s largest economy, would take an increasingly assertive security role and abandon its traditional caution.
Yet in 2023, Germany was among a majority of NATO members expected to fall short of the 2% spending target.
Berlin is expected to reach 2% in 2024 – but only thanks to a one-off fund.
Europe is investing more since Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, says Dr Claudia Major of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
“But if we are very honest, we know that at the moment, in a conventional conflict, the Europeans are not capable of defending themselves without the support of the United States,” she added.
According to her, “a lot has been done” since Zeitenwende, but still not enough to address all of the global security challenges.
Mr Papperger acknowledges that Zeitenwende is “not just a word” and believes that trust between the government and defense contractors has improved.
Rheinmetall’s share price has been rising steadily since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Germany’s past weighs heavily on this debate, as rearmament led to military and moral catastrophe in the 20th century.
Although no one knows what will happen in this year’s US elections, Mr Trump’s latest comments are being described as a wake-up call for all of Europe – although it is difficult to call them the first.