* Germany taking on more responsibilities in NATO
* Report highlights continued gaps in personnel, equipment
* Author welcomes government reforms, urges faster action
By Andrea Shalal
BERLIN, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Germany’s military must move faster to tackle persistent gaps in personnel and equipment that are hampering troops at a time when the country is taking on more responsibilities in NATO, a new report said on Tuesday.
The annual report by Hans-Peter Bartels, parliamentary ombudsman for the armed forces, follows a spate of media reports about shortfalls in everything from tanks to body armour that have raised concerns about whether Germany will be ready to take command of a NATO rapid response force next year.
General Volker Wieker, inspector general of the German military, told reporters at a separate event on Tuesday that Germany would have the needed equipment to head NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) in eastern Europe from 2019.
He said the military had a long-range plan to address what he called “still unsatisfactory” gaps in its capabilities, but it would take at least 10 years to catch up after years of declining military spending.
Bartels, a Social Democrat, said necessary reforms introduced by conservative Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, including increases in military spending, had to be accelerated.
“As the biggest country in the European Union, the second largest nation in NATO and a country in the middle of Europe, Germany has a clear mandate for collective defence in Europe,” Bartels told reporters.
Germany and other NATO members have revamped military plans and sharply increased war games after Moscow’s 2014 annexation of the Crimea region of Ukraine and increased Russian military activities beyond even those seen during the Cold War.
Germany’s military face additional overseas responsibilities, including 13 foreign missions from Mali to Afghanistan.
Bartels said parts of the navy, and the helicopters of the army and the air force were on “overload”, while the readiness of some weapons systems were “dramatically worse” due to a shortage of spare parts and increased use for exercises.
None of Germany’s six submarines are currently combat-ready and there have been days when no single A400M military transport was available for military use, Bartels added.
Pilots of a wide array of aircraft, including Eurofighter and Tornado fighter jets and all major helicopters, were lacking flight hours to complete their training because too few aircraft were ready for use, the report found.
Bartels said the German navy had only nine frigates available, compared to 15 that had been planned, and they were more frequently in maintenance because of their increasing age.
“We haven’t seen noticeable improvements on the equipment front” since von der Leyen took office 2013, he said.
One ministry official said the usage rates of tanks and other weapons had nearly doubled over the past year due to increased exercises, increasing maintenance needs and demand for spare parts that were not available as a result of cutbacks.
But improvements were becoming visible in some areas, the official said, adding: “We’re in the middle of the turnaround.”
On the personnel front, 21,000 officer and junior officer positions were unfilled, he said, leaving those that were in place facing increased stress and shouldering the burdens.
Bartels’ report comes amid a prolonged period of political uncertainty in Germany, which remains without a formal government nearly five months after its national election.
On Tuesday members of the Social Democrats started voting on whether to enter a new coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives in a postal ballot which could yet scupper her chances of a fourth term in office. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Gareth Jones)