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German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen gives a statement to the media prior she faces the defence commission of the lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Germany May 10, 2017. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

(reuters_tickers)

By Andrea Shalal

BERLIN (Reuters) - The German defence ministry announced a possible delay in another big arms programme on Tuesday, marking a further setback for a military already faced with a probe into right-wing radicalism in its ranks.

State Secretary Ralf Brauksiepe told lawmakers it was unclear if a 1.5 billion-euro (1.29 billion pounds) purchase of five new military corvettes - spending added to the 2017 budget after delays in another multibillion-euro warship programme - could be presented to the budget committee before a general election in September.

The possible delay threatens to compound acquisition issues dogging the military as it tries to rebuild after years of post-Cold War spending cuts and prepare for added responsibilities.

Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen took office in late 2013 vowing to rebuild the military after 25 years of spending cuts, but her three biggest arms programmes have been delayed.

Her handling of the recent right-wing scandal has left some questioning the leadership skills of a woman once seen as a possible successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel.

It comes amid a crackdown on Nazi-era military memorabilia at military bases and criminal investigations launched after the arrest of two officers and a student believed to have been planning a major attack and then blaming it on migrants.

A third officer was later suspended from duties for making far-right comments.

"She's run aground on her own ambitions," said Greens lawmaker Tobias Lindner, a member of the budget committee.

Other programmes delayed in recent months include a 5 billion euro missile defence programme, a new drone and the multi-role MKS 180 warship.

Germany is supposed to be taking on added responsibilities within NATO and the European Union. It is also having trouble recruiting experts, particularly in the growing cyber sector.

Von der Leyen drew fire in recent weeks for blasting the military's "weak leadership" after it emerged that one of the arrested officers had been allowed to stay in the military despite writing a "clearly racist" master's thesis.

Merkel stood by von der Leyen after she apologised for the sweeping nature of her remarks, but her handling of the scandal raised eyebrows among other party members and has triggered frustration in the troops.

Lawmakers and some officers also chafe at what they see as von der Leyen's quest for publicity. "She's downgraded the visibility of the officers and it's all about her," said one military officer.

The German federal cartel office could decide on the corvette programme as early as Thursday, a spokesman said.

(With additional reporting by Sabine Siebold and Anneli Palmen; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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