Shaping a Way Ahead for German Defense in the Near to Mid Term: Where Does the Lift Helicopter Decision Fit In?


By Robbin Laird

When the Chancellor of Germany announced at the end of February 2022 the need for Germany to up its defense spending and to shape a new approach to defense, perhaps a new phase in German defense is underway.

But overcoming the atrophy of strategic culture, and a hollowing out of German forces will not be corrected in the near term.

When I published with my co-author our book on the return of direct defense in Europe, we highlighted the challenge as follows:

“If Germany is directly threatened by Russian nuclear modernization, notably by a lowering of the nuclear threshold, by pressures on Poland, the Baltics, and Northern Europe, along with Russian actions in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, what actions might Germany need to take and who are the coalition partners likely to do something forcibly to enforce the values which Germany holds?

“The Russian challenge coupled with the dynamics of change in the coalitions of which Germany is a part are not reinforcing a relatively laissez-faire defense policy.  At the same time, the challenge is to rethink direct defense in terms of the threats, and the efforts of SPECIFIC coalition partners with whom Germany expects to work in a crisis.

“The good thing about coalitions is that they provide a nation with enhanced impact when the coalition acts together, such as in the first Gulf War. The problem with coalitions is that they are slow to act, and if improperly built, the lowest common denominator blocks effective action, and it is crisis management and ability to act effectively and rapidly which will increasingly be required to deal with Russia, and other authoritarian states.

“Germany has not been built to take defense and security decisions. Whereas with regard to the EU, Paul Lever in his book Berlin Rules has forcefully made the case that Germany makes decisions and sets agendas, none of this proactive approach is seen in defense and security.

“But given the Russian challenge and the changing nature of the coalition which is NATO, Germany faces the need to change or simply not effectively defend itself in times of crisis.”

NATO expansion since collapse of the Soviet Union. Credit NATO, September 1, 2017.

“Reversing the decline in defense spending without a clear defense policy which defines what tools GERMANY needs to work with those coalition partners willing to act in their defense is not enough; and hoping the nuclear challenge simply goes away as the last German nuclear-capable aircraft flies into retirement is simply a wish and not a policy.

“What are the policy challenges to be met by Germany?”

The key question which we highlighted revolves precisely around what will in fact be the real defense policy agenda will Germany craft and who will be the core allies with whom they will work to do so?

What tools indeed does Germany need to work with those coalition partners willing to focus on proactive defense?

The decision to now get on with replacing the Tornado with the F-35 provides a partial answer to the question. For building an F-35 capability along with core allies on the continent is clearly a way ahead to shape new capabilities, driven by cooperation with key European F-35 partners as well.

But the forthcoming decision on what rotary wing lift to add to the force is equally important.

To understand why it is a strategic decision, not simply a simple platform decision, one needs to look at the strategic environment and what roles Germany needs to play in the short-to-midterm in terms of European defense.

The Russians have focused along with other authoritarian powers on what I have labelled “seam warfare.” When visiting Poland last year, I discussed this concept with Polish officers and analysts and highlighted the following characterization of this aspect of warfare:

“In working the direct defense of Europe under the impact of the diverse tools sets of the global authoritarian powers, Russia and China, what is required is crafting effective defense and security forces integrated with core allies across the spectrum of conflict.

“For Europeans, the challenge is to have the kind of secure and robust infrastructure combined with viable conventional forces to deter the authoritarians from being tempted for a broader scale attack, but even more likely, the pursuit of seam warfare.

“Effective crisis management requires escalation control ranging from HADR operations through gray zone conflict to higher levels of lethal combat.

“A core challenge to be met is what one might call the ability to conduct effective seam warfare, namely through working with partners and allies to reduce the seams left open in European defense which the authoritarian powers can exploit.

“Force integratability and mobility are key elements in the ability for a country’s forces to collaborate with allies at the point where the adversary is working a seam to enhance their ability to maximize their political or military advantage.

“The Russians focus on what the West calls hybrid war but in my view is better understood as working the seams in their geography to expand their influence and to recover strategic space lost in the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decline of Russia.

“For Poland, in addition to providing for their own territorial defense, the Russians are working the seams in the Polish political space, notably, with regard to the Nordic and Baltic regions, the Black Sea region, Romania and Ukraine.

“This a region which remains contested from the Russian point of view, and for the defense of Polish interests, an ability not only to enhance the defense of Polish territory, but the ability to move force packages to close seams which the Russians pressure is crucial as well.”

What this means for Germany is the need to have capabilities to move force in support of allies with real military capability to deploy force rapidly to close a seam and to reinforce both security and defense needs to shore up coalition capabilities rapidly.

This is about force insertion to both deter and defend with allies the key choke points or seams which the Russians seek to exploit to get the kind of crisis management outcomes they seek.

Having the right insertion force package to move on the European chessboard is crucial for Germany.

And the acquisition of the right lift helicopter is a key element enabling such a force insertion package.

In the next piece, I will address the CH-47 versus CH-53K options in shaping such a capability, and argue the case that the CH-53K is the clear choice to do so.

Featured Photo: British Soldiers with Enhanced Forward Presence Battle Group Poland arrived to Rukla, Lithuania after a two-day tactical road march across Eastern Europe, June 18, 2017, as part of Saber Strike 17. The Poland-based Battle Group conducted the convoy portion of the Field Training Exercise to demonstrate their ability to execute a forward passage of lines across the only land connection between the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which is known as the Suwalki Gap.



Photo by Sgt. Justin Geiger

7th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment