By Stephen Brown
BERLIN (Reuters) - Ursula von der Leyen, whose ambitions of succeeding Angela Merkel are too transparent for German taste, is finding out the hard way why her job as defense minister is considered the most dangerous in the cabinet, nicknamed the 'ejector seat'.
News that Germany's military hardware is in such a state of disrepair that it is struggling to meet NATO commitments or keep a promise to arm Iraqi Kurds against Islamic State has put the minister in the firing line.
Dubbed "the War Minister" by a magazine for wanting to put military muscle behind Germany’s growing presence in geo-political affairs, von der Leyen is one of the only contenders to succeed the popular Merkel as conservative leader.
But the defense equipment scandal, which erupted last week, is an unmitigated embarrassment for Germany which could put an end to such ambitions.
Meanwhile, the satirists and headline-writers are having a field day.
Many German tanks "are only held together by von der Leyen's hairspray", said one TV show after the forces acknowledged that only 70 of their 180 Boxer armored fighting vehicles, seven of 43 navy helicopters or 42 of 109 air force Eurofighters and 38 of 89 Tornado fighters were operational. The list goes on.
As well as casting doubt on commitments on air defense for NATO allies in the Baltics if the Ukraine crisis escalates, it coincided with a spate of breakdowns of military planes taking weapons to Iraq and aid to African states hit by Ebola.
"What it comes down to is that you promise your allies you will do certain things if an ally is attacked but in the end it turns out that you are not capable of doing what you promised," said Christian Tuschhoff, a foreign policy expert at Berlin's Free University. "So it's serious and it's very embarrassing."
The hawks are complaining that, while Germany's planes can't even get off the ground, smaller allies like Belgium and Denmark are joining the air strikes against Islamic State. The doves say Germany is clearly not cut out for action and should bring the troops home from foreign missions.
The 55-year-old defense minister, whose talent for self-promotion is matched by her toughness, is taking the criticism on the chin, acknowledging that fixing the Bundeswehr's military equipment problems will take years rather than months.
She has defended the Bundeswehr's reputation, saying that it "demonstrates its capabilities in 17 overseas missions around the world daily" in places such as Afghanistan and Mali.
Former military chief Harald Kujat said the problem has been caused by years of cost-cutting and the need to fulfill more foreign missions on the same budget. At 1.29 percent of Germany's overall economic output, defense spending is "shamefully" under NATO's 2 percent target, he said.
Von der Leyen's critics in government and opposition accuse her of being distracted by photo opportunities, grandiose global strategies and gimmicks to make the military a more attractive career, such as opening kindergartens in army barracks.
She would be "well-advised to do fewer photo calls and more work", said Thorsten Schaefer-Guembel, deputy chairman of the Social Democrats (SPD), Merkel's current coalition partners.
But Constanze Stelzenmueller, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, a think-tank, said it was "ludicrous" to blame von der Leyen when she has only been in the job since last December.
"Even if she had not taken a single photo, this is not something she could have fixed," said Stelzenmueller, calling for "national consensus from the top down and a chancellor who says to the country 'we have now raised the defense budget'".
But the government, especially the powerful Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble who wants a balanced federal budget and no new debt next year, argues it is not a money problem as nearly half a billion euros of the military budget was unused last year.
With no chance of more cash to modernise hardware, and procurement systems that are notoriously slow, the minister has limited options, though she does have Merkel's "full support".
When von der Leyen got the job last year, a senior member of the governing Christian Democrats (CDU) said privately it was a "gift" that would make or break her leadership aspirations.
The post has a poor survival rate: there have been eight chancellors since 1949 but 17 defense ministers, only one of whom - the SPD's Helmut Schmidt - went on to become chancellor.
Von der Leyen's predecessor Thomas de Maiziere fell foul of cost overruns for drones. His predecessor, Bavarian aristocrat Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, quit in a plagiarism scandal. Before him, Franz Josef Jung quit over civilian deaths in Afghanistan.
The best-known resignation was in the 1962 "Spiegel Affair" when Franz Josef Strauss accused the magazine of treason for the cover story "Only Partially Ready to Defend" on the Bundeswehr's inability to see off the communist threat in the Cold War.
But von der Leyen has a history of standing her ground. In her previous post as labor minister, with the biggest budget in the government, she defied Merkel by backing an opposition bill for boardroom quotas for women. As family minister before that, she had fought for more childcare facilities for working women.
In the staid world of German politics, where ambition is best nurtured in private, von der Leyen is not wildly popular.
A doctor and mother of seven, she is admired and envied in equal measure by colleagues who variously call her "Problem-Uschi" (short for Ursula) and "Teflon-Uschi" behind her back.
Thorsten Faas, politics professor at Mainz University, said von der Leyen's limited backing from the CDU in parliament meant her chances of the leadership were currently "modest at best".
In one poll in August, 63 percent could not imagine her as chancellor. But in a ranking of top politicians last week, she was sixth and her standing rose despite the Bundeswehr scandal.
For Stelzenmueller, the crisis could help von der Leyen "if she handles it shrewdly", while Tuschhoff said she has support of senior officers with "a big interest in a strong minister".
"But the post of defense minister is always an extremely dangerous one," the Berlin professor said. "We have lost a lot of ministers along the way, or 'in mid-air' if you will."
(Writing by Stephen Brown; Editing by Madeline Chambers and Giles Elgood)