Future of Europe’s 10 Nation Army – defence: can the EU actually protect itself against Russia? Driving Forces. (Part 1 of a 3 part series)
Telegraph.co.uk September 2018.
In a former British Army camp in northern Germany, tanks are on manoeuvre. Officers watch from a metal gantry as orange flashes light up the heath and the sound of live firing reverberates in the distance. The German army is training on the latest upgrade of its Leopard 2 battle tanks, but this is no ordinary military unit. The crews operating the tanks are a mix of German and Dutch soldiers all operating under a single command, in what has been called a German attempt to create a European army.
This is no mere joint-training exercise. The Dutch soldiers are fully integrated into the German army’s 414 Tank Battalion, and live and work with their German counterparts. Dutch soldiers take orders from German officers, and vice versa.
If you ask the senior officers what their mission is, you get the official statement: it’s the “defence of Germany and the Netherlands within the framework of Nato”. But if you ask the tank crews, you get a simpler answer. “It’s the defence of Europe,” says Capt Alexander Läufer, who leads a platoon of four tanks.
With the renewed threat of Russian aggression under Vladimir Putin, and Donald Trump’s ambivalence about the US role as the continent’s protector, EU governments and generals are beginning to ask whether the bloc can defend itself.
Europe alone, and underfunded
Ask any military analyst and the short answer is that it cannot. German Nato troops recently simulated a Russian attack on a forward unit in training.
According to one source, the “Russians” overwhelmed European Nato forces in just 18 minutes. And given Mr Trump’s mixed messages on Nato– he called the alliance “obsolete” before changing his mind, and at first refused to commit to Article V, its mutual defence clause – that’s troubling. The nightmare scenario begins with just such an attack on Nato’s eastern flank in Poland or one of the Baltic states.
Nato invokes its mutual defence clause, but Article V does not mandate military action: it only obliges Nato members to offer such action as they “deem necessary”. President Trump issues strong words of condemnation but is not ready to commit troops or risk a nuclear war. As Russian forces continue to advance westward, Europe is left to rely on its own militaries.
While Russia is holding its largest war games since the Soviet era, decades of budget cuts since the end of the Cold War have left Europe’s armies underequipped and starved of resources.
Earlier this year, the German parliament’s military watchdog warned that the country’s armed forces are “not equipped to meet the tasks before them”.
During the Cold War, the West German Bundeswehr was Europe’s first line of defence, with 3,787 tanks and almost 500,000 active troops. Today it has 179,000 troops, and in February it emerged that only 95 of its 244 remaining Leopard battle tanks were operational.
In 2014, the German army was so short of guns that soldiers had to train with broomsticks. But it is not only the German armed forces: the Netherlands scrapped its last remaining tanks in 2011.
Unable to make up the shortfall alone, governments are looking to share the burden through military cooperation. “International cooperation is the sine qua non for the development of powerful armed forces today,” says Lt-Gen Jörg Vollmer, the Germany army’s chief of staff. “This need has been recognised by all Nato member states. In the case of the German army, international cooperation is a reality.”
Last year, to great fanfare, the European Union announced Permanent Structured Cooperation (Pesco), its new military integration framework. But the scheme has been hamstrung by infighting among member states over what its focus should be.
Plans for major armament projects have been put off and, aside from a new open borders agreement for military forces, all that has been agreed is a series of small pet projects of a few member states. Countries are looking for alternative ways to cooperate.
Frustrated by the slow pace of Pesco, France has launched its own European Intervention Initiative to build a rapid reaction force that can be deployed to trouble-spots abroad.
Poland, nervous at Russian intentions on its eastern flank, is pushing for its own bilateral agreement with the US to base American troops permanently in the country outside Nato and has indicated that it is willing to invest up to €2 billion (£1.8 billion) in the plan.
Romania and the Czech Republic are planning to follow in the Netherlands’ footsteps and integrate a brigade each into the German army under its Framework Nations Concept.
“We want to become more European, but we also want to remain transatlantic. Joint action strengthens European countries and the transatlantic alliance,” says Lt-Gen Vollmer. “The army will continue on this path and serve as a pioneer and model for the practical implementation of the political will for deeper cooperation of European armed forces.”
Critics have accused Germany of trying quietly to create a European army under its own command.
“Whether at the end of this lies a European army or an army for Europe, I cannot say,” Lt-Gen Vollmers says. “That is a political issue for European governments and parliaments.”
But there is no mistaking that 414 Tank Battalion is a showcase for the scheme. There is a steady stream of visitors to the former British Camp Hohne, including the King of the Netherlands, who showed up in uniform and drove a tank.
“It’s going very well,” Lt-Col Marco Niemeyer, the battalion commander says. “What we’ve done here is we’ve shown what can be done in terms of integrating soldiers from different national armies. Now it’s up to the politicians to decide where to go with it.”
German and Dutch troops live together in the Hohne, now renamed Lower Saxony Barracks and under German control. The two militaries have been integrated up the chain of command, with Col Niemeyer reporting to the Netherlands 43rd Mechanised Brigade, which in turn reports to Germany’s 1st Panzer Division. But the battalion is more than just show. It is contributing a company of tanks to Nato’s spearhead VJTF rapid response task force, founded in response to Russian aggression in Ukraine.
“For the Netherlands, the obvious benefit was we got to have tanks again,” says Major Chris Sievers, the battalion’s Dutch second-in-command. After the Netherlands gave up its last tanks in 2011, integrating with the German army gave them access to brand new Leopard tanks.
“All we brought are our uniforms and our good looks,” Maj Sievers jokes. In fact the Dutch brought a state-of-the-art battle computer system for the tanks to replace the Germans’ outdated radio sets. Any deployment of the battalion has to be approved by both the German and Dutch parliaments, but there are provisions for each country to operate its crews’ tanks independently if it chooses.
The soldiers wear their own national uniforms and are under the disciplinary control of their officers. Officially they communicate in German, but the tank crews switch to English when necessary. Maj Sievers says one of his Dutch officers has even started speaking German to him when they’re alone “because it’s easier”. “Look at places like Afghanistan. We work together there,” says Corporal Simon Könecke, a German shell loader in one of the tank crews. “If we can do it on a mission, why can’t we do the same thing here in Europe?”