Why do soldiers serve the nation

German defense policy

Bjorn Müller

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Björn Müller is a political scientist and freelance specialist journalist for various media. He researches and publishes mainly on topics of foreign, security and defense policy.

NATO's framework nation concept is Germany's military-political strategy to create an "army of Europeans". Even so, it is hardly known to the general public. An introduction.

Cooperation with European armies has a long tradition in the Bundeswehr, and it is closest to the Netherlands: soldiers from the German-Dutch corps set up in 1995 at a military parade in Münster. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

Generally speaking, the framework nation concept describes a form of military cooperation between Germany and European countries within NATO. The core idea of ​​the concept: The Bundeswehr offers smaller European armed forces in particular a framework in which military resources are pooled, jointly planned and procured. In addition, the partners should be able to be integrated into the Bundeswehr with units of their armed forces in order to form large joint associations. In this way, a powerful association of European armies is to be created in the long term.

Germany presented the project to NATO in 2013. A year later, at the Summit of the Military Alliance in Wales, the Framework Nations Concept was adopted; mostly called under its English name "Framework Nations Concept" - FNC for short. At the beginning ten states were involved in the German FNC group, now there are 21 - including EU states that are not members of NATO. In addition to Germany, Great Britain and Italy are also pursuing their own framework nation concepts. However, these differ significantly from the German initiative in terms of objectives and measures.

Falling defense budgets lead to more cooperation

The impetus for the military planners of the Bundeswehr to develop the "Framework Nations Concept" came from the decline in military spending in Europe. After the end of the Cold War, the Europeans steadily reduced their defense spending. The effects: Large countries like Germany retained a broad spectrum of military capabilities from infantry to air transport and missile defense, but they continued to thin them out. The German army shrank from ten to three divisions today and lost its military power. This approach is called "breadth before depth" in the Bundeswehr. Smaller states gave up their entire capabilities: The Netherlands, for example, has not had its own armored force since 2011. In the case of the new NATO members in Central and Eastern Europe such as Poland, the modernization of the armed forces to NATO standards remained piecemeal.

In addition, the scarce financial resources were increasingly being invested in skills that were needed to cope with the peace and stabilization operations in which the Bundeswehr has also been involved since the 1990s. For this purpose, mobile and flexibly deployable "light" infantry units were used. On the other hand, savings were made on investments in complex and expensive capabilities such as military logistics and heavy weapons such as tanks. As a result, the gaps and imbalances in the military portfolio of the NATO countries grew.

In order to remain able to act, the European armies increasingly worked together. Even before the introduction of the framework nation concept, structures were created in the Bundeswehr and other European armed forces in order to be able to accommodate units from other armies for operations. To coordinate this, NATO's crisis reaction headquarters were set up - most of them as cooperation between a "framework nation" and smaller partners. In such cases, the larger armies provided most of the personnel, took over a large part of the maintenance costs and carried out the operation. One example of this is the leadership role of the Bundeswehr in the North Regional Command during NATO's ISAF mission in Afghanistan (2001-2014).

Military capability gaps were also addressed using this Framework Nations approach. In 2004 the Bundeswehr initiated the development of a joint program for strategic air transport between NATO and EU countries, called SALIS (Strategic Airlift International Solution). A stopgap. Since the Europeans do not have enough wide-bodied transport aircraft for long distances, they still charter such aircraft through private providers to this day. In this way, they can quickly bring material and troops to remote areas of operation such as Afghanistan. The Bundeswehr is taking the mammoth proportion of flight hours and thus guaranteeing low prices for smaller SALIS partners such as Norway, who only use mini contingents.

The framework nation concept is intended to close skill gaps

But the core problem of the European armed forces remained: their steadily dwindling military substance due to shrinking defense budgets, exacerbated by the financial crisis from 2008. Germany wants to address this cardinal weakness with its framework nation concept. The resulting skill gaps should be closed. To this end, the Bundeswehr uses the NATO planning goals as a benchmark. In these, the member states jointly determine which military capabilities NATO needs and distribute the contributions among themselves.

This is how the alliance is to implement its military "Level of Ambition", which was last defined in 2006. In addition to defending the alliance area, NATO wants to be able to handle two large and up to six smaller military operations at the same time. So far, the states have tried to achieve their armaments goals mainly alone and in uncoordinated cooperation. This is also due to national interests, preferring to serve one's own industry. For example, European armies currently use 17 different main battle tank models. Establishing generally binding rules on armaments via NATO always failed because the states did not want to restrict their sovereignty on this point.

The framework nation concept therefore relies on "coalitions of willing" who agree to achieve NATO planning goals through joint armaments projects. In this way, skill gaps are to be closed gradually. There are now 24 such FNC clusters. In those countries, countries work together on skills in which they are particularly interested, such as anti-submarine combat, logistics or medical care. There is no supranational control via NATO or sanction mechanisms against participants who do not fulfill what has been promised. The individual states retain sovereignty over their involvement in the FNC. In addition, it is not publicly known for all clusters which specific projects are behind them and which countries are participating and how.

The projects for the development and procurement of common material are intended to facilitate the establishment of large military units in the cluster states. The Bundeswehr also serves as a framework for this. So there are so-called "affiliation agreements" between the German army and the land forces of the Czech Republic and Romania. The bulky term means something like "approach". Both armies divide individual brigades (around 5,000 soldiers) into Bundeswehr divisions (up to 20,000 soldiers), but retain command of their associated troops. The integration serves the common training and the standardization of operational concepts. Bundeswehr and partner units should be able to work together seamlessly or, as it is called in the military, become "interoperable".

This dovetailing of the Bundeswehr with the armed forces of the Netherlands is furthest advanced. A German-Dutch corps has existed since 1995. Most recently, both states have mutually subordinated e.g. tank units and armored infantry units and are working on making their marine infantry interoperable. Such collaborations are intended to ensure that the partners' requirements for the weapon systems used are aligned and facilitate the formation of capability clusters. That means, for example: In the "Pioneer Cluster" of the FNC, a cooperation aims at the acquisition of an amphibious bridge system. This allows tanks and supplies to cross rivers. This would enable NATO units to operate more flexibly in Eastern Europe, which is important in order to achieve the desired credible deterrent against Russia. Coordinated army troops would make it easier to agree on a bridge system. By combining such individual projects, a well-coordinated network of European armed forces is to be created.

Both Germany and smaller countries benefit

This perspective - an "army of Europeans" - only received real potential for realization with the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, European states have again attached more importance to conventional armed forces, which have extensive national and alliance defense capabilities. As a result, there is an increased political will to invest in the military again. The framework nation concept is particularly important for Germany with a view to Eastern Europe. Poland and the Baltic states are demanding credible military backing from Germany against Russia.

From a German point of view, the FNC is the appropriate approach for this and corresponds to Berlin's classic leadership concept in European politics of being the "first among equals" to coordinate and bring together interests. The framework nation concept supplements Germany's claim to be Europe's leading economic power with a military-political pillar. Germany could thus score particularly well in Eastern Europe. Most of the FNC states come from there. In important policy areas such as migration and energy supply - keyword Nordstream 2 - they are often resolute opponents of Germany and reject its policy. A serious problem for the Federal Republic of Germany, because that weakens its traditional political leadership role in this region. A convincing appearance as a military leaning against Russia via the FNC would be a lever for increased political influence in Eastern Europe and would have the potential to balance the difficulties there in other political fields. If, on the other hand, Germany does not provide a military contribution that is convincing to back up against Russia, it will further weaken its leadership role in Eastern Europe.

If Berlin succeeds in assuming this leading role, it could also strengthen the EU's common defense policy. Because Germany wants to interweave the FNC with the military measures in the EU. The project has also been open to non-NATO countries and organizations since 2016. Germany aims to connect the FNC clusters with projects of the permanent structured military cooperation of the EU (PESCO). According to the Ministry of Defense, four PESCO projects with German coordination responsibility have elements in common with FNC projects. In addition, work communication between the FNC states has been running via the FNC Digital Workspace since 2017 - a database provided by the European Defense Agency.

Potentials of the framework nations concept

In general, the framework nation concept offers both political and economic advantages for Germany. In a resulting European military network, it would be a crucial coordinator whose political weight will increase. A good example of this is the planned NATO logistics command in Ulm. Only larger armies such as the Bundeswehr can provide the necessary military personnel for such complex military organizations and take on a leadership role. The FNC also creates a favorable business environment for the German arms industry. Especially since it is particularly well positioned in those areas in which the Eastern European FNC partners have a great need for modernization - e.g. with tanks.

The smaller participants in the FNC, such as Finland to Romania, see the advantage of using the capability clusters to access the most modern weapon systems that they could not afford on their own. Docking with FNC projects enables them to get involved in the ongoing expansion of NATO structures and to have a say in military policy. Especially for the Eastern Europeans the FNC offers a possibility to implement the delayed modernization of their armies, which are still armed in bulk with material from the times of the Eastern Bloc.

In the short term, the partners would like to benefit from the military know-how of the Bundeswehr in order to quickly increase their own combat strength. Poland's armored troops are cooperating with those of the German army. The Poles want to improve their knowledge of the use of their most modern battle tank - the German Leopard 2. It should be interesting for the Romanians to see how the Bundeswehr uses drones to precisely control artillery fire. An important skill in today's warfare that the Romanian army still lacks.

National interests and funding jeopardize implementation

The framework nations concept has great potential to position Europe better militarily; however, its implementation is at risk. One problem: France, Germany's closest partner for shaping European security policy, regards the FNC with suspicion. With the continent's first military power, it is feared that the German defense industry in particular will benefit from the FNC clusters and that it will expand its position in the European armaments market at the expense of French competition. Until recently, Paris tried to thwart the implementation of the FNC at NATO in 2014. The most important FNC partner in Eastern Europe, Poland, on the other hand, is pursuing a military-political course of its own. It is uncertain whether the country will ultimately be ready to permanently integrate itself into structures dominated by Germany.

In general, the high flexibility of the FNC is both strength and weakness. It is attractive for states to participate first, as they are completely free to choose those clusters that correspond to their own interests. However, there is no binding force. If the individual's interest changes, it is easy to withdraw.

The biggest hurdle for the FNC's success, however, is its funding. The concept is based on the approach of lower costs for everyone through burden sharing. But it cannot be implemented with further shrinking or stagnating defense budgets. The participants must invest in their armed forces sustainably and reliably over the long term. A look at the participating states of the FNC and their budget planning reveals a mixed picture. From NATO's point of view, only the Baltic states and Poland are investing sufficiently in their defense budgets and are achieving the goal of two percent of gross domestic product. Other countries only increase spending slightly, such as the Czech Republic, or save on defense, such as Finland.

Germany is also vulnerable on this point: According to NATO, the share of German defense expenditure in 2018 was 1.23 percent of GDP - even if absolute expenditure rose again to 42 billion euros. The Ministry of Defense estimates an increase in the budget to 1.5 percent of GDP by 2024 as the first target. However, this implementation is controversial in the federal government and is not reflected in the medium-term financial planning.

Germany has committed itself entirely to the framework nations concept. According to the Bundeswehr conception from 2018, multinational capability planning is to be the standard for the German armed forces in the future. The new capability profile, also issued in 2018, expressly provides for the Bundeswehr to be upgraded to become a framework army in line with the concept by 2031. It remains to be seen whether Germany can financially fulfill the leadership role envisaged therein.

Sources and references

Federal Ministry of Defense (2018): A new capability profile completes the concept for modernizing the Bundeswehr. Available online at: https://www.bmvg.de/de/aktuelles/neues-faehigkeitsprofil-der-bundeswehr-27550

Federal Ministry of Defense (2016): The 2016 White Paper on Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr. Available online at: https://www.bmvg.de/portal/a/bmvg/start/weissbuch/downloads/

Federal Ministry of Defense (2013): Conception of the Bundeswehr. Available online at: http://www.planungsamt.bundeswehr.de/portal/a/plgabw/start/grundlagen/konzeption_der_bundeswehr/

Glatz, Rainer L. & Zapfe, Martin (2017): The NATO framework nation concept, in: CSS Analyzes in Security Policy No. 218, ETH Zurich.

Major, Claudia & Mölling, Christian (2014): The framework nation concept. Germany's contribution to ensuring that Europe remains defensible, in: SWP-Aktuell 67, SWP Berlin.

Ruiz Palmer, Diego A. (2016): The Framework Nations' Concept and NATO: Game-Changer for a New Strategic Era or Missed Opportunity?, in: Research Paper No. 132, NATO Defense College Rome.