Rebuilding the German Bundeswehr Through European Integration
By Jake Grant Gore
Defense analysts and civilian news sources have been abuzz in recent months over the string of scandals and structural failures uncovered in Germany’s Bundeswehr. With multiple vehicles left unmaintained and nonfunctional, an unreliable family of main service rifles, and a recent far-right terror plot involving multiple service members, many sources doubt the Bundeswehr will be able to stand on its own two feet in the face of an ambitious Russia and the shadow of a self-centered United States. However, these sources completely miss the fact that the Bundeswehr was explicitly crafted for the geopolitical conditions of the Cold War, and has never been structured (or restructured) to operate independently. While Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has recently seen an inherited mess grow all the more messy since 2015, a compelling new strategy of directly integrating other European Union militaries into German units may be able to offer solutions to problems beyond even just recent troop shortages. A surge in apparent desire to lead the building of a truly integrated EU military will both save the Bundeswehr from its own recently-apparent incompetence and provide a path towards Germany’s military leadership appropriately matching the prowess of its economic leadership.
After the end of the Second World War and the destruction of the Third Reich’s Wehrmacht, the Bundeswehr was formed in 1955 primarily with the help of the US and UK to be a solely defensive force. However, unlike its twin, the Japan Self Defense Forces, the West German military was expected to have its capabilities fully tested in the event that the Cold War went hot. While maintaining a reputation through much of the 20th Century of being well-trained, well-equipped, and well-managed, its small size in comparison to the combined Eastern Bloc militaries and presence just where the fighting was expected to start meant that the Bundeswehr on its own would never be anything more than a speedbump to the Warsaw Pact armored divisions expected to flow in from East Germany. That was just its purpose: to be both bait and a speedbump just significant enough to stall the opposing force long enough for Anglo-American armor and airpower to organize and respond accordingly. Through the entirety of the Cold War, coordination with other NATO members for a multilateral defensive response to Soviet incursion remained the sole purpose of West German military forces.
Military exercises and deployments after the integration of East German forces in 1990 show us that the Bundeswehr has hardly adapted to the post-Soviet world. Despite the elimination of a potential Soviet threat, German military action in recent decades has followed the same paradigm of solely multilateral action (see Kosovo, Afghanistan, the current campaign to aid Kurdish YPG/YPJ fighters), not once having deployed in a unilateral fashion. With the Russian Federation growing more militarily bold as well as confident in other nations’ reliance on their energy exports and a new wave of support for isolationism emerging in the US and UK, there is a genuine need for Germany to take an active leadership role militarily. As Britain plans to leave the EU and France’s economic prospects are looking rather grim, Germany is Europe’s best hope for effective military leadership in the future. The best way for Germany to make this a reality will be to cooperate more closely with other EU members’ militaries, in line with the previous preference for a multinational approach, and can use such an approach to provide perhaps the greatest boost to EU stability seen in years.
Earlier this year, in an unprecedented step towards a common European defense force, Ursula von der Leyen secured troops from the Romanian and Czech Republic militaries for direct integration into Bundeswehr command. This move saw Romania’s 81st Mechanized Brigade merge into Germany’s Rapid Response Forces Division and the Czech 4th Rapid Deployment Brigade (a premier unit of the highly capable Czech army) join the German 10th Armored Division. This is a major step towards a greater model of European cooperation with the Bundeswehr, particularly when considering the Rapid Response Forces Division already included a Dutch unit, as did another one of Germany’s Armored Divisions. This was likely a move initially designed to reduce immediate troop shortages while promoting European cooperation, but as a greater strategy it could solve a number of the Bundeswehr’s other problems.
The Bundeswehr faces notable troops shortages and a lack of domestic popularity that contributes to qualified citizens often preferring to work as civilians, which has led to a talent gap in comparison to other major militaries. Its lack of domestic popularity in a nation with such a troubled memory of recent wars both explains the shortage of skilled personnel and promises public outrage at the possibility of reinstating conscription. Public opinion in Germany strongly limits the realistic political possibility of military improvement, however recent spending trends show that Germans are far less concerned about increased defense spending in general than about actually having to serve themselves. The Bundeswehr will undoubtedly have to work on a significant public relations shift and increase incentives to entice more German volunteers. It is, of course, impossible to tell how long this could take. Integration of other EU troops again seems the perfect answer here, as it provides equipped and trained troops immediately while avoiding the major domestic challenge of increasing German participation. Through this plan of integration, highly motivated soldiers from other EU nations would gain the opportunity to serve in a larger professional military (likely with great civilian benefits), and the German military would have access to a large number of specialized troops such as direly-needed vehicle maintenance personnel and experienced pilots. Integration clearly provides the most immediate solution to Germany’s longstanding personnel shortages.
While not all European nations have the fighter jets or main battle tanks that France and Britain do, and could not significantly supplement Germany’s shortcomings there without drastically increased military expenditure, the aforementioned service rifle debacle presents an excellent example of where integration could be invaluable. The German arms industry is indeed among the world’s largest and is generally known for an incredibly high standard of quality, yet major German manufacturers such as Heckler & Koch have recently focused on creating expensive designs for the global market rather than continuing support for the older G36 series, Germany’s troubled main-issue family of rifles. The need for immediate replacement of a weapons system, such as these rifles, could be greatly aided by a close relationship with other European militaries. The Czech Republic, for instance, has an arms industry which has historically rivalled Germany’s in quality, and has produced a number of surprisingly cheap popular and effective next-generation systems in recent years. Increased ties to other EU militaries in the vein of von der Leyen’s recent moves towards integration would undoubtedly give the Bundeswehr easy access to a wide range of excellent designs, making recent supply problems far easier to solve. An option along the lines of closer cooperation with the Czech military and its major small arms producer, CZ, would certainly have been faster and cheaper than von der Leyen’s chosen plan of holding design trials for a new rifle to be manufactured, which have already been flooded with likely-expensive prototypes or current premium systems from major global firms like H&K and Rheinmetall. These manufacturers typically look to sell large contracts for next-generation models rather than proposing retrofits of existing weapons systems, as the adoption of a brand new rifle by one large nation often prompts allies and rivals alike to look at similar designs. Picking a proven system with low manufacturing costs (such as CZ’s BREN II) is by far in the Bundeswehr’s best interests, as they plan to entirely replace all G36 rifles in service through the next 7 years. Integration is an effective answer to Germany’s supply problems for small arms and infantry equipment, and through multinational cooperation in the spirit of Eurofighter and Eurocopter, could even eventually be made to provide larger systems like vehicles.
Ultimately, a great deal of work remains to be done in planning the rollout of any greater European integration movements for the Bundeswehr. As more nations join the Bundeswehr, a primary language for integrated units will have to be chosen. The troops and their families will likely be relocated to Germany, and the terms of their pensions and benefits will have to be drawn out between Germany and their nation of origin. Some Eastern European nations in the EU still hold major stores of Warsaw Pact ammunition instead of NATO rounds and operate Soviet equipment, suggesting a potential need for standardization projects in the future. However, despite the obvious obstacles involved with something as massive as creating a major European common defense force via the Bundeswehr, this is the best possible way forward for the rebirth of German military prowess and the stability of the European Union. German-led integration will provide the perfect starting point for the construction of a true European Union military. In the future, an EU military may even be able to effectively hold the mantle of responsibility for humanitarian intervention as a fundamentally multinational force. Since reunifying with the East German Volksarmee in 1990, the Bundeswehr has lacked the capabilities of the much more independent militaries of France and Britain. For the first time since its inception, the German military now has a strategy for vastly improving its own operational capacity while promoting European integration in an incredibly visible manner.