The German Defense Rebuild in the New Strategic Context

By Robbin Laird

In my co-authored book on the return of direct defense in Europe published prior to the Russo-Ukrainian war, we highlighted how we saw the German situation and its potential role in shaping a more effective European defense capability.

“The Nordics are the most active coalition partners of Germany and they are focused significantly on direct defense as a core issue and seeing a combination of defense modernization and social mobilization as necessary to deal with the new Russia. What will be the common German and Nordic convergences in meeting the direct defense challenge?

“There clearly are some in play, such as the purchase of common submarines for Norway built in Germany with the Germans committing to the same buy as well….

“What exactly constitutes direct defense of Germany that is focused on Poland, Central Europe, and Ukraine? What mix of forces would be most useful here? Again, this not a question of simply increasing defense spending; it is a question of spending it on what capabilities and with whom to work to provide for enhanced direct defense.”

Or I could put it another way: What do the NATO allies in the perimeter of German defense expect Germany to be able to do for a more credible forward defense of the region?

This means specifically, the Nordics and notably with the addition of Finland and Sweden this means how to turn the Baltic Sea into a NATO-lake?

It also means coming to terms with Poland, a state at odds on “European values” with Germany.

It also means projecting power to the front-line Baltic states as well as to Romania.

And given the presence of Kaliningrad as a threat within Europe itself, Germany has to be prepared with its closest neighbors to destroy Russian military forces in Kaliningrad as part of any escalating crisis management scenario.

In other words, simply sketching the new context means that unlike the Cold War where West Germany built its defense to provide a bulwark for shock absorbing a direct hit, Germany now most find ways to credibly defend against direct strikes by Russian air and missile forces as well as project power to the defense perimeter at distance.

Put in other words, reversing the decline in defense spending is not enough.

There is a need for a clear defense policy and strategy which shapes tools which Germany needs to work not only to defend its territory against air and missile attacks but also which allow it to work effectively to work with its partners on the perimeter of Germany to shape integrated defense capabilities.

Clearly, Germany faces many challenges to be able to do so, but I think it is crucial to highlight the target goals to reach in terms of real force and crisis management capabilities which dovetail with core allies whose territory would most likely be where the battle would be generated by Russian actions.

In other words, credible defense resets on the capability of Germany and core European allies to deploy forces and work closely together in a crisis. It is not about simply hosting U.S. forces, which are increasingly stretched and going through their own very challenging transition from the land wars.

With the initial influx of monies, the initial challenge will be simply to take Germany from not having a combat ready force to one with much higher levels of readiness. The second challenge is to fill the obvious gap in combat fighters which will be done with an F-35 buy and adding more modern Eurofighters. The third challenge is to enhance the ISR capabilities of the forces, which is being done in part by buying P-8s.

That is a major effort all by itself, but that really only gets us part of the way to project power. For that to become a core reality, the maritime forces need to be strengthened, integrated with various aspects of airpower, a modernization of the ground forces, notably with enhanced firepower moved rapidly across the battlespace, and integrated air and missile defense.

But I would add a cautionary note to all of this. The United States is stretched thin and in significant political change. If there was ever a time for enhanced European defense, it is now. The United States needs to reshape, rebuild and re-enforce its integrated air and maritime capabilities with appropriate levels of ground forces.

The answer is not for the United States to build an American-dominated European defense structure. It is time for the United States to assist in the rebuild of the direct defense of Europe by engaging in defense innovation and creative force redesign whereby European nations clearly can shape more effective integrated defense capabilities. The presence of a significant European F-35 force, for example, can be used as one pillar to do so.

For Germany, this means a defense rebuild that looks for Germany to shape a backbone for the core Central European defense structure, one in which not only can Germany operate as a base projecting power forward but able to credibly defend itself against air and missile attack reinforced by core allies, including the United States.

Germany can contribute significantly to the new NATO Force Model. What has been clearly recognized is that NATO has had only trip wire forces in the frontline states like the Baltic states. This simply is not a credible warfighting or deterrent posture. So now NATO is shaping a new NATO Force Model, clearly it is early days to know what this really will amount to, but what Germany actually crafts in this domain will be a key part of what the new NATO Force Model will actually look like.

Linas Kojala and Justinas Kulys highlighted the new NATO approach in a recent July 5, 2022 Polish article:

“This is briefly mentioned in the Madrid summit declaration, but without entering into detail.  According to Jens Stoltenberg, NATO will increase the size of its higher readiness forces from the current 40,000 within the NATO Response Force (NRF) to over 300,000 troops in the new Force Model. These forces will be pre-assigned to specific NATO defence plans, will have specific tasks and areas of responsibility and will be subordinated to SACEUR. They will have an increased level of readiness of up to ten days (100,000 troops), around 10–30 days (200,000 troops) and up to 30–180 days (500,000 troops). The plans for the new NATO Force Model are to be completed next year.

“The first country to publicly declare units for the new Force Model was Germany. Berlin wants to assign 15,000 troops, including an armoured division with two brigades, 65 combat and transport aircraft, 20 warships and special forces units.”

The coming of Sweden and Finland into NATO will also decisively affect the demand side on German security and defense policy.

Linas Kojala and Justinas Kulys highlight this development as follows: “The Baltic Sea should become a NATO fortress. This would require more enhanced cooperation followed by the prompt membership of Finland and Sweden. Securing Gotland Island is a vital interest for Lithuania in the Baltic Sea.

“A possible attack on it could leave the Baltic States fully covered by hostile air and sea defence systems. Swedish and Finnish membership of NATO would result in two regional military powers making official security commitments to each other, making it possible for NATO to create a more integrated security system in the Baltic Sea region. Regional maritime command, defensive plans and the assignment of necessary forces could also be considered useful tools in strengthening resilience in the Baltic Sea.”

There is probably no area where change in the German approach to Russia would be more evident than in the Baltic sea region. As November 2020 study on Germany’s approach to Baltic sea security or what they called BSC noted: “Although Germany is taking on more responsibility in the Baltic Sea region, the world is changing faster than Germany is changing its approach. The country’s policies accordingly lack strategic direction and vision – and above all, action.”

The featured graphic at the beginning of this article comes from the BSR study and provides a good mapping of the areas to which Germany needs to build capabilities to project power on a sustained basis. All of the countries highlighted in blue plus Sweden and Finland should be states where Germany can project power to reinforce coalition capabilities dependent on the crisis.

As mentioned above, Kaliningrad provides a significant threat as well as opportunity for Germany and its allies to deal with Russia. The earlier article by Linas Kojala and Justinas Kulys provides a good characterization of threat from the Suwalki Gap seen from the perspective of the Baltic States: “The Suwalki Gap, an approximately 100-kilometre-wide land border between Lithuania and Poland, is the only land connection between the Baltic States and their NATO Allies, surrounded by the heavily militarised Russian Kaliningrad Oblast and by Belarus.

“As Lithuania is discussing the possible fortification of its border next to the Suwalki Gap, the NATO Allies could also contribute to strengthening the Alliance’s Achilles heel in the region. As Lithuania can complete the military fortification processes by itself, there is a need for closer NATO-EU cooperation in improving civil infrastructure (railways, roads, etc) that could also be used by NATO Allies if needed. Also, with the Russian military build-up seen in Belarus, creative military solutions such as a multinational battalion focused on defending the Suwalki gap could be considered.”

But clearly, Germany has a long way to go. As a July 10, 2022 DW article put it:

“In this rush toward progress, some also believe the Bundeswehr must see a change in mentality. One of the foundations of German security policy after the Second World War was military restraint, a consensus common to both German politics and society. During peacetime, the German military become comfortable. Many processes have become overly bureaucratic and decision making is slow. 

 “This is now taking its toll. Now that worst case scenario seems much closer, the Bundeswehr has to transform itself into a fighting force that can withstand tough battles. “Times are changing yet again,” said Frank Sauer of the Bundeswehr University in Munich, alluding to Chancellor Scholz’ speech when the Russian invasion began. “In principle, the NATO contingents that had been on the eastern flank in the Baltics were only meant to be a kind of trip wire,” the military researcher told DW. The idea was merely to slow down a potential Russian invasion of NATO territory so that the alliance would gain time to organize.

 “But in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine, they are now saying: We can’t just put up a trip wire,” Sauer said. “We have to be capable of defending from the start. That’s why this massive increase was decided.” For the Bundeswehr, he said, this is extremely significant in that it is not only helping to ramp up forces to defend, say, Lithuania, “but because Germany is expected to be the logistical hub through which everything will be handled.” This, he said, is a major strategic realignment in Europe with lasting effects for the Bundeswehr.

 As Sauer put it, “if the question is: can it be done? I would say ‘yes.’ But whether we’ll be able to do it, I don’t know, because it’s such a challenge.”

For the first article in this series:

Meeting the Challenges of Re-crafting German Defense and Security Policy

And for our co-authored book on the return of direct defense: