NATO military exercises can help Germany assess its armed forces

NATO military exercises can help Germany assess its armed forces
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On the heels of Russia’s enormous military exercise in its eastern provinces, NATO is in the midst of its own large exercise: Trident Juncture 2018. The Russian event, Vostok-18, held in mid-September, involved some 300,000 Russian troops and more than 3,000 Chinese troops — in other words, a very large exercise with clear geopolitical overtones. And so, one should anticipate NATO’s much smaller, but still largest post-Cold War exercise, will have its own political overtones. One of them is the prominent role, performance and lessons-to-be-learned of Germany and the German Armed Forces, the Bundeswehr.

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German defense readiness and investment will be tested, though all the results may not be obvious on the surface and will require close attention to identify issues. This is important because criticism of its defense spending might be moderated by visible and competent performance in this exercise. What to watch?

The Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF). The 9th Panzer Brigade, which will form the core of the VJTF in 2019, is likely to perform well. From loading and offloading its equipment, through tactical employment, to command and control of its several multinational attachments, leadership of the task force no doubt will be sound. But how many units beyond the 9th lack equipment and personnel, lack resources to train, or are otherwise unavailable for deployment to bring this unit up to speed? The test will come in 2019 when the VJTF/9th Brigade will be trained at full strength, at the ready, but unavailable for major exercises. How will Germany participate next year?

The Navy. For the first time in decades, a U.S. aircraft carrier is operating in the far north Atlantic. The USS Truman’s participation in Trident Juncture is a rare opportunity for the alliance to exercise with a carrier strike group in this region. Germany is participating with its navy, but primarily in the Baltic Sea and under the complementary exercise, “Northern Coasts.”  Acquisition, maintenance and manning issues mean the German navy is not able to take full advantage of this opportunity. This is especially unfortunate because the German F221 Frigate “Hessen” deployed with the USS Truman for most of the first half of 2018.  

Logistics. At a tactical level, German ability to receive, stage, move and integrate its own and allied materiel surely will be first-rate. The available infrastructure (ports, rail, heavy equipment transporters) and administrative and logistical capabilities are excellent — for the size of the exercise. Military mobility is a high-priority element to be tested during this exercise. Germany is likely to shine tactically, though a scratch of the surface might reveal severe limitations for anything larger. Pay special attention to available heavy transporters and flatbed rail cars, as well as defense of the points of embarkation and debarkation.   

The larger test will be for the still-forming Joint Support and Enabling Command (JSEC).  Already beginning its work at the Multinational Joint Headquarters in Ulm, this new command will be responsible for organizing and protecting allied troop movements within Europe. In all fairness, it is too early to expect much during Trident Juncture 2018. However, there will be plenty of lessons learned, and hopefully applied to the continued development of this important, strategic contribution that NATO expected to be operational by the end of 2019.

There are plenty of other aspects of German participation in this exercise that warrant close observation, for example: the performance of the A400M and all rotary-wing aircraft, maritime intelligence collection by submarine and/or P-3C, and multinational interoperability — especially German-United Kingdom and with non-NATO Finland and Sweden. However, these three areas — VJTF, navy and logistics — are the most critical components of German participation in Trident Juncture this year.

These components are likely to perform well in their given missions. The very capable personnel of the German military and its world-class military equipment, when mission capable, are going to show a great deal of competence. However, the lengths to which the Bundeswehr will have to go to mask some severe shortcomings brought on by years of underinvestment may not be as easily recognized.

Germany should use Trident Juncture to make brutally honest assessments on the state of its armed forces, and communicate those to the public. In fact, there may be an opportunity here to highlight the competence of the force, while making the case that it is being asked to do too much with too little. An irony of German defense politics is that constant negative stories about readiness or acquisition incompetence make the public and politicians reluctant to provide more funding.

A sizable portion of the interested German public sees the Scandinavians as a bit more "measured" than others allies, regarding the Russian threat, so their calling for more NATO attention and capabilities may resonate more broadly. The message: The entire alliance trusts and needs the Bundeswehr, but it must be credibly resourced.          

Col. Terry 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 here 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.]