Berlin, Germany and the International Fighter Conference 2018: A Look Back


By Robbin Laird

I spent a good deal of the 1980s traveling within and dealing with German security issues.

A key challenge in the early part of the decade was the Euromissile challenge and working common positions among European partners and with the United States to deal with Soviet intrusions and policies towards Western Europe.

I lectured on these issues and wrote several books on the subject as well.

It was a tough political environment, for President Reagan certainly was winning no popularity contests in Western Europe at the time.

At the Fighter Conference, we heard that we unexpectedly won the Cold War and were unprepared for the consequences.

I get the point but in 1985 I formed a working group at the Institute for Defense Analysis with both government and non-governmental experts to look at the prospects and possibilities for German unification and how we might deal with the Soviets to achieve this outcome.

Several future members of the Clinton Administration were in that group and we discussed quite often what role might a unified Germany play in Europe and would it act like a “normal” state after unification.

Several of us cautioned the more optimistic members that dealing with East Germany would take time for West Germany to pay for and culturally integrate.

Others were more optimistic and expected the pace of change to be rapid and the emergence of the new Germany to be a significant player in the rebuild of Europe more generally.

When the moment came, we could provide inputs to the process and again I wrote several pieces, including a couple of books on the subject as well.

So when I returned to Berlin for the international fighter conference this month, naturally thoughts of the 1980s and then the 1990s came flooding back into my mind, notably as I was not too far from Checkpoint Charlie, which is a museum for the current generation, but a fact of life for mine.

What then ensued in the 1990s would set the stage for where we are now.

Germany along with most European states in the wake of the collapse of the Wall and the emergence of collapsed Soviet Union, celebrated their good luck with a defense holiday.

And with this defense holiday, direct defense became a museum piece along with Checkpoint Charlie.

After the Crimean takeover by the Russians in 2014, the beginning of a new phase was emerging, one where direct defense had to now be considered as a realistic challenge for Europe, NATO and the United States.

But the Cold War required one type of political-military structure but now is required a quite different one.

How to build a relevant direct defense structure for Europe is not consensual and some states are more advanced in dealing with the challenges than others.

Notably, Northern Europe is accelerating their concern with direct defense.

This leaves a fundamental question with regard to Germany.

What is the direct defense strategy of Germany today?

Notably with European disaggregation and conflict with the US President, how is German to shape a realistic and resourced defense strategy?

What is the relationship of Germany to Poland in central front defense?

What is the relationship of Germany to the newly refocused Nordics on Northern European defense?

What kind of force structure does Germany need to build as a non-nuclear power facing a resurgent Russia, and one which clearly emphasizes the central role of nuclear weapons?

At the International Fighter Conference 2018, a representative from the German Ministry of Defence provided a perspective on how Germany is resetting its defense posture.

He argued that the current security environment was increasingly complex, increasingly volatile, increasingly dynamic and increasingly difficult to predict.

All of this is true, but how will Germany defend itself against resurgent Russia?

He noted that the last 25 years have seen a steady downward trend in defense resources and personnel.

He underscored that the German government is now focused on reversing three trends.

First, they are reversing the personnel trend with growth in the number of personal and abolishing the upper limits constraint.

Second, they are reversing the decline of investment in materiel, with a new procurement push. He noted that maintenance funds have been been boosted from 2.6 billion Euros in 2013 to 3.2 billion Euros in 2017.

Third, he noted a reversal of the funding trend.

But although there is an increased defense budget, there is no real increase in the defense spending as a share of GDP.

It is anticipated that such growth will occur so that there would be a 29% increase from 2013 to 2021 by about 10 billion euros.

He argued that the strategic direction was to “become more European, but to stay transatlantic.”

In the brief, there was an emphasis on the various out of area missions in which Germany has participated under UN approval.

Clearly, a major trend has been to take the residual force which was the result of the drawdown through 2013 and make it more capable of operating in areas of counter-insurgency operations.

But with the return of direct defense, nuclear deterrence and how Germany can contribute more effectively to Central European, Northern European and Southern Europe defense has returned as a key question.

And this will require a strategy which can guide where resources can transform the Bundeswehr into a force much more capable of contributing to the direct defense of Europe. 

It is not about leading the various committees within NATO and the European Union on how to think about the future in abstract terms.

It is about building relevant force structure with some sense of urgency.

This is the challenge facing Germany and as it does so, it can then build out future capabilities which can leverage the transformation of its forces in the short to mid-term.

A recent German Ministry of Defense study provided some texture to what might be the way ahead for Germany as well.

According to a Canadian military officer who has studied the classified study which has now been de-classified, the German MOD has a very realistic sense of the challenges it faces.

According to J. Paul de B. Taillon:

In response to the ongoing political, financial and economic uncertainty and instability, strategists at Germany’s Ministry of Defence developed six possible scenarios and the potential cascading political consequences.

The resulting “Strategic Forecast 2040” was published in February 2017 and sent a very distinct message that the “structure of Western Europe since World War II, and of all of Europe since 1991, is no more.

And Germany intends to look out for itself…..”

After decades of peace, the EU and NATO may be experiencing a slow and painful breakup “under the weight of an increasingly divergent set of interests among their members.

So, Germany must make its own plans and it must plan for the worst.”

Given the dire scenarios propounded by the German study, other EU nations would be prudent to create contingency plans for the possible demise of an EU dream, as well as considering the necessity for rearmament programs to address future defence and security requirements. 

The International Fighter Conference 2018 was held from November 12-14 2018 and was organized by IQPC Germany.