Germany and Direct Defense in Europe: Enabler or Barrier to Deterrence?

By Robbin Laird

The Cold War has not returned; but the Russians have.

And Putin is clearly working to leverage the fissures in Europe. European disaggregation is clearly significantly underway; and the Trump challenge is less about whether the US cares about European defense; it is much more a strategic shift of American attention to dealing with a more direct threat to the United States posed in the Pacific from North Korea and China.

NATO underwent a significant change from a core focus on collective or direct defense to crisis management against non-peer competitors and to building forces for the land wars in the Middle East. Three US Administrations certainly drove NATO in this direction looking for allies to engage in the Middle East and to sort through ways to have new crisis management burden sharing arrangements.

The only problem is that we collectively altered NATO and European forces in a direction, which is of less relevance to the challenges facing the Europe, we have rather than the one which many European leaders wish was still here.

As Judy Dempsey put it with regard to the recent Munich Security Conference:  “This obsession with the “old” West during this year’s Munich Security Conference will delay any strategic realignment of its priorities as Russia and China, but also Japan and India, move on to define their interests. The West reacts as the rest of the world changes.”

Nowhere is this truer than with regard to Germany, which has an underfunded military with low level or readiness. Their current situation leaves a yawing gap in the Center of Europe.

The reality currently is a difficult one.

For example, for Germany to play its role in the recent Trident Juncture 2018 exercise, they had to cannibalize the entire Bundeswehr to show up! They did show up which demonstrated German commitment; but the challenge is to show up with at the right time, at the right place and the appropriate and most credible forces.

In a recent trip to Germany, I had a chance to talk with recently retired senior Bundeswehr officers and officials about the state of the German military and their concerns about how Germany was going to play an effective for NATO’s conventional deterrence to be credible against Putin’s Russia. They focused on how Germany could enable an effective direct defense role in the years ahead but they were worried that the effort was too slow and too little to play the role which a credible conventional and nuclear defense within Europe required.

The broad point was that until 1996 the Germans had a solid force capable of providing for territorial defense and with it the logistical support for NATO forces to operate from Germany.  That is no longer the case. Military infrastructure – including communication systems  have been dismantled without a clear turn around with regard to building the kind of infrastructure for direct defense against an adversary who has prioritized significant strike systems against NATO Europe.

A good example of the overhang of past thinking persisting into the present is that the core Eurofighter support center in Germany is built above ground, for building bunkers is too expensive. There is no active defense; there is no bunkering of parts or anything remotely connected to the needs of the return of direct defense.

Obviously, the Germans are not alone and there is the broader question of the significant rebuild in European infrastructure, which is necessary to prepare for sustained operations in the face of Russian aggression. Indeed, the challenge of shaping an infrastructure where the railroads can carry military equipment over bridges without crushing them, or creating West-East links on the same gauge of railway are challenges to be addressed if a conventional direct defense capability is to be recreated in Europe.

As one retired Bundeswehr General put it: “NATO has the longest border in its history, but where are the forces which can move rapidly to the threat of a Russian leader who clearly hopes to pressure Europe at points of his choosing?

It was very clear from discussions during my visits to Finland, Norway and Denmark over the past three years that the return of direct defense is not really about a return to the Cold War and the Soviet-Western conflict. Direct defense has changed as the tools available to the Russians have changed, notably with an ability to leverage cyber tools to leverage Western digital society to be able to achieve military and political objectives with means other than direct use of lethal force.

This is why the West needs to shape new approaches and evolve thinking about crisis management in the digital age. It means that NATO countries need to work as hard at infrastructure defense in the digital age as they have been working on terrorism since September 11th.

Put in other terms, robustness in infrastructure can provide a key element of defense in dealing with 21stcentury adversaries, as important as the build up of classic lethal capabilities. Germany has agreed to provide the core logistics hub for NATO at the German city of Ulm. Will this be a logistics hub based on the Fed Ex principles of the last 25 years? Or will it be one designed with the Russian strike force as the central threat?

The German government has pledged to increase its defense spending and shape new capabilities by 2031. Yet the German economy at the start of 2019 faces serious signs of slowdown, which look likely to continue in the coming decade.  As Harald Malmgren has highlighted:

The primary engine of the German economy has long been its industrial exports, accounting for almost half of Germany’s GDP.  World trade has now slowed to a crawl, and looks likely to remain slower than at any time since WWII.  China, Germany’s primary growth market, no longer wants industrial machinery from Germany, as China is producing the same types of industrial goods formerly imported from Germany.  In the years ahead, China will try to take away much of the German export markets by offering Chinese alternatives. Germany’s economy may continue growing in the coming decade, but at a far slower pace than experienced in the decades since the 1950s.

Will German political leadership give priority attention to military security when the economy is suffering weakness of its employment conditions and rising costs of its social overhead commitments?

One may ask if Germany’s economy will divert attention not only security but also from continuing demands of its leadership role in management of the European Union and the European Monetary System embodied in its Euro currency.

Will Germany’s political center of gravity drift towards greater nationalism, with diminishing interest in security of its European neighbors?

Germany’s financial commitment to defense will likely be challenged by domestic political priorities. 2031 is a long way off.

As a German colleague put it: “Unless we have an agreement with Putin to sit on his hands until the 2030s, what exactly are we going to do in the meantime to act against the Russians”

In my discussions in Germany, several questions were raised which highlighted some of the challenges facing Germany.

As one senior procurement official put it: “We don’t really know what to buy because we don’t know what are interests are.”

Another senior retired Bundeswehr General put it bluntly: “Most of our politicians have not really grasped that German defense lies in the Baltics and in what we used to call Eastern Europe.  What can we bring credibly to the fight now and in the near future?”

And senior Luftwaffe generals have clearly indicated that the state of the air force is nowhere near where it needs to be.  Two examples suggest the problem.

One illustration is that after training to fly the Eurofighter, the pilot will wait more than two years for an actual combat aircraft.

A second is the nature of the logistics system itself. When the Germans take a Eurofighter in for deep maintenance the Air Force has to wait 300 days for it to come back from industry to fly again.

A future combat system developed jointly with France will not be able to deliver a new combat aircraft until the decade beginning in 2040. Air force modernization requires formulation of defense capabilities for the interim that are unrelated to the a the future combat system program with France which will not deliver a new combat aircraft until the 2040s.

Several air forces are looking to develop new air systems after the F-35 in that time frame, such as the USAF, the Japanese and the British, but all of those will pass through the F-35 interoperability transformation which is already under way among Germany’s Northern European neighbors.

The air modernization problem when joined with the short to mid-term contribution of Germany to deterrence today really is about two key items.

First, the Germans need to have an aircraft which can integrate with mobile air defenses and reinforce defenses at the perimeter of Europe, not just fly at “air shows and do air policing,” as one senior retired General put it to me.

The second is to have a relevant nuclear capable aircraft which can keep Germany involved in the nuclear equation, something which clearly some coalition partners in the current government would wish to see go away.  The current mission is delivered by the aging Tornado, an aircraft which the British are retiring shortly and the last one left the Middle East just recently.

The Tornado replacement decision really is at the heart of the credibility of near to mid term German credibility.  The British are replacing their Tornado with a combination of an advanced Eurofighter, which can be interoperable with the F-35 and continuously evolving new weapons systems.

For Germany, the Tornado replacement issue entails a number of questions and challenges.

First, will Germany remain part of nuclear deterrence by participation in that mission? And how can they do this with an aircraft which can not fly into contested airspace?

Second, will the Luftwaffe work with the RAF, British industry and the British government to get access to the UK Typhoon and ensure that its capabilities flow into the projected new German “Tranche IV” Eurofighter?

Third, how will the Luftwaffe replace the integrated ground attack capabilities of Tornado not done by Eurofighter?

Fourth, how will the Luftwaffe ensure that it can operate with F-35s?

A recent op ed by two recent Luftwaffe chiefs published in Die Welt last week made it clear that German credibility is at stake, not simply finding answers to how to deal with its industrial interests or its pique with Donald Trump.

Due to its age, the German contribution to the Tornado has already lost credibility. The discrepancy will be even greater as the F-35s become operational in Italy, the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium and Turkey within a few years.

If the German contribution continues to be untrustworthy or can no longer be provided, this would also have negative effects on the strategically indispensable US guarantee and the nuclear disposition of NATO because of the resulting imbalance in the risk and burden sharing in NATO.

A termination of the NATO-Russia Basic Act and the stationing of nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe could be the result. When deciding on the successor to the Bundeswehr’s Tornado fighter plane, it is not just an important military decision with a European political and industrial significance, but a strategic decision with an impact on the European security order as a whole and Germany’s role as a leading nation.

If Germany sticks with the path it has now taken, it will leave the circle of security leadership nations in the EU and NATO, degrading itself to become a secondary support force.

It is necessary and corresponds to responsible policy for our country to deal with the issue of succession to the tornado of the Bundeswehr once again objectively and with the necessary strategic vision and to revise the decisions taken so far.

Dr. Harald Malmgren provided the economic comments in the article.

The featured photo shows Norwegian and German military personnel training with a PATRIOT surface to air missile system in Norway on Oct. 24, 2018 during exercise Trident Juncture 18. Photo credited to Allied Joint Force Command Naples.

When we went to Fort Sill to discuss ADA with the US Army, the patriot community there praised the competence and professionalism of their German compatriots.  

With Poland acquiring Patriot, a German investment in taking Patriot forward into Poland and working joint training and con-ops with the Poles could be kind of step forward by the Germans which can build a solid way ahead.

And as the MEADS-based TLVS system comes on line, integration of that capability with its Tornado replacement aircraft could provide Germany with flexibility both to provide direct defense to Germany and  to provide for a protected logistics hub, and to move integrated fire teams throughout the region.

Germany could in the short term build up their long range artillery force to provide a contribution as well to Baltic defense which could be integrated into an integrated air-sea-land joint fires approach against any Russian forces being inserted into the Baltics in times of crisis.

The MEADS Multifunction Fire Control Radar, shown in its German configuration, can detect and track advanced threats with 360-degree coverage and no blind spots. Unlike fielded radars, it is highly mobile and C-130 transportable. Image: MEADS International, Inc.

There are a number of short to mid-term tasks which Germany could fund on an accelerated basis; simply projecting what a force might look like in the 2030s or what a new air combat system might look like in the 2040s is not enough.  Have a longer range approach makes a great of sense; but how do ensure that you can deter in the present as the future evolves?

This article was first published by Breaking Defense on February 20, 2019.

For our report on Germany and Direct Defense, see the following: