What Germany brings to NATO — and what it doesn’t

What Germany brings to NATO — and what it doesn’t
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Concern over NATO defense investment levels and efficiency has a history encompassing several U.S. administrations. The Trump administration is certainly more direct in calling out inadequate spending, but it is simply being straightforward in communicating longstanding criticisms.  

For reasons outlined in the latest National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy, the United States seeks greater alliance investment in capabilities, capacities and readiness. Therefore, pressure on allies to meet their spending obligations can — and should — be seen as a commitment to the operational health of the alliance, not as a condemnation.  

Although most of NATO’s members do not meet the 2 percent target agreed to at the 2014 Wales Summit, Germany rightly has come under special scrutiny. Its large and growing economy, geographic position and desire and obligation to assume greater leadership roles all combine to put much greater impetus on Germany than other allies.


Without a doubt, Germany must address its approach toward investing in the military tool of diplomacy. The German national security establishment largely understands this but it needs to be communicated much more clearly to Germany’s voting public. And the United States should not overlook what Germany already brings to the alliance.  

What does Germany bring to the table? Here is a short list:

Enables global operations. Germany remains indispensable in our ability to project military power to Europe, Africa and the Middle East. It hosts nearly 50,000 U.S. uniformed military and interagency civilians in key global facilities. Despite periodic issues such as noise and environmental protection, the U.S. enjoys broad freedom of operation and military mobility.

Provides core military competencies. The German military provides the alliance excellence in capability and capacity in several areas: medical services, tactical bridging, artillery and joint logistics. They show excellence in capability, though perhaps lack capacity, in others: anti-submarine warfare, mechanized warfare and cyber operations. Additionally, German staff officers tend to be first-rate planners with extensive experience in establishing and running deployed, multinational forward-operating bases and garrisons.

Deploys willingly. Germany deploys regularly to the Baltic States, directly deterring Russian aggression by leading the enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battle group in Lithuania since early 2017 and with air policing since 2004. Once politically committed, Germany can be relied on to deploy and assume leadership for the long term. They’ve been deployed off the Horn of Africa for 10 years, led the northern sector in Afghanistan for 15 years, and been in Kosovo for almost 20 years.

Assumes leadership roles. In addition to deployed locations, Germany hosts several multinational headquarters, including the soon-to-be-established NATO Joint Support and Enabling Command, which will address, among other topics, military mobility and freedom of movement. Germany is the prime organizer of NATO’s Framework Nation Concept and, most recently, the efforts to rationalize European Union defense cooperation through Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO).  

Competes with military technologies. The German defense industry excels in several areas, despite a much smaller internal market and tight restrictions on exports. Germany maintains a technological advantage in optics, air-independent submarine propulsion, electronic sensors, satellites, cryptography and cyber defense. Land systems, such as the Leopard, Puma and Boxer, compete at the highest levels. The Panzerhaubitze 2000 self-propelled howitzer, its non-nuclear submarines, and a variety small arms are leading-edge products.

Still, Germany has limitations. Among them:

Historical legacies. More than 70 years later, the painful experience of World War II remains in nearly all aspects of German security and defense politics. This is manifest in strict parliamentary oversight of military operations, reluctance to conduct offensive operations, public skepticism of the military as an effective tool of diplomacy, and lack of a strong national security culture.  

Risk aversion. Public skepticism means there is little to be won politically by being pro-military and even less by being expeditionary or interventionist. Moreover, there is much to be lost politically for appearing aggressive, being responsible for injured soldiers, and especially for causing inadvertent collateral damage. Therefore, while the German armed forces do deploy, they tend to avoid high-risk areas and operations. Within the defense establishment this puts a premium on not failing, as opposed to succeeding.

Readiness. Two decades of defense budget cuts, along with the shift from high-intensity conflict to out-of-area deployments, have negatively affected readiness through less acquisition, less modernization, reduced industrial capability and reductions in trained technicians. Further, the lack of a Cold War operational imperative pushed technical and safety requirements away from typical military standards to much higher civilian standards and nearly eliminated the ability to waive minor deficiencies.

With all this in mind, the United States can do several things to encourage Germany and show its appreciation of the access that Germany offers. U.S. forces forward-deploy for various strategic reasons and the ability to operate from, through and over Germany should not be undervalued. This means ensuring respect of their sovereignty and laws, and keeping Germany informed of potentially controversial operations even when technically not necessary.

Regarding defense spending, we should make more specific arguments with Germany. Focusing on readiness should be first; this has the advantage of not requiring major acquisitions, while also appealing to German pride by exposing embarrassing lapses in capacity. Next, focus on NATO capability targets, which Germany obligated itself to meet. Most importantly, defense investment must come with solid explanations of threats faced by the alliance, opportunities presented by cohesion, and confidence that additional spending will create conditions for continued prosperity.

We should encourage Germany to continue its leadership, and find ways to assist its efforts. Additionally, we can encourage other countries to accept Germany’s lead and express approval of German decisions.

German risk aversion is well known in U.S. defense and security circles, such that they are rarely considered as potential partners in kinetic operations. We should actively look for ways that they can join, to force a more strategic national security culture that encourages readiness and investment in training and equipment. For example, we could offer high-confidence targets with the remotest chance of collateral damage, request battle damage assessments of U.S. strikes, or request intelligence support.

German military reticence and low spending certainly is a source of serious frustration, but the U.S.-German defense relationship remains strong — even vital. We should not take for granted the enormous advantage of being able to operate forward in a country with world-class infrastructure. We should leverage areas of German expertise, and encourage development of capability, capacity and readiness. All of this will help to ease Germany into a security leadership role commensurate with its economic power.

Col. Terry L. Anderson is an associate professor at the National War College. He was the U.S. senior defense official in Berlin from 2015-2018.

[Note: The views expressed in this paper are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.]