Germany is beginning 2019 with two high-profile roles in the realms of defense, and diplomacy. As of 1 January, a German brigade will form the core of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) at the same time that the nation is beginning a two-year stint as a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council. Berlin has pledged to assume a larger role in global affairs. These two endeavors will certainly give it the opportunity to do just that in the coming year. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has seen her domestic political clout deteriorate over the last year, and is now turning her attention to the international front in the hopes of securing a more prominent position for Germany on the world stage.
With its seat on the UN Security Council, Germany will look to extend and strengthen multilateralism and the strength of the UN. Climate control, peacekeeping, crisis management, and conflict resolution are other subjects that the Germans appear poised to address during their time on the security council. Germany will also use its position to push back against the United States and President Trump’s “America First” policies which are in direct opposition to the multilateralism so coveted by Berlin.
Germany is taking on a vital role as it assumes the lead in NATO’s VJTF. The 9th Panzerlehr Brigade will act as the main component for the task force in 2019, with supporting attachments coming from the Netherlands and Norway. France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, Latvia and Lithuania will also be providing forces as well. The VJTF is a brigade-sized formation of 8,000 NATO troops and serves as a rapid reaction force. Its creation came about following the 2014 Wales Summit where NATO leaders agreed the establishment of such a force was necessary given events taking place in Ukraine at the time. Although the VJTF can be deployed to any region of Europe its primarily focused on potential deployment and operations in the Baltic states during a crisis.
With these new positions of international responsibility, and leadership also comes added scrutiny for Angela Merkel. Her coalition government is a fragile entity at the moment and any misstep abroad could collapse the entire structure.
With the political situation in Germany still unresolved, the German government is unable to make firm decisions on any matters involving the budget, including defense spending. Until a new coalition government is formed, the Germans cannot move ahead on existing proposals to increase the defense budget. As the political paralysis continues, voices both at home and abroad are warning the German government about the current levels of spending, and the readiness of the Bundeswehr. In a nutshell, even though German defense spending has risen slightly over the past four years it remains below the 2% of economic output that is mandated for NATO members to follow. To make matters even worse, the current readiness level of the Bundeswehr is poor to say the least, and some of Germany’s closest allies have taken notice.
On Monday, US Army Secretary Mark Esper cautioned Germany that if it does not increase its defense spending the result will be a weakened NATO alliance. Esper’s comments were made to reporters during a visit to US troops in Germany. Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, and Germany’s former ambassador to the US echoed Esper’s warning. He criticized Germany’s contribution to the war on ISIS which did not include a combat role. Ischinger also pushed for Chancellor Angela Merkel to make certain Germany lives up to its NATO commitments.
2017 was not a stellar year for the Bundeswehr. The German Navy’s Baden-Wurttemberg class frigates were heralded as a new type of warship for the 21st century. Unfortunately, the lead ship of the class was riddled with so many hardware and software defects that the German Navy refused to commission her and sent the frigate back to the shipbuilder. Surface ships are not the only headache for Germany’s naval arm. It has no operational diesel submarines for the moment, a result of low funding, and a general lack of spare parts.
Every service branch is suffering from similar problems. Only half of the German Army’s Leopard 2 main battle tanks are currently operational even though the service is in the midst of upgrading and expanding the MBT force. Just 30 of the Luftwaffe’s 95 Tornado fighters are currently operational. Given these current conditions it’s not likely that Germany could put together a strong military force at short notice should Russia suddenly expand its adventurism to the Baltics.
As Mark Esper said on Monday, a weakened German military is not only a problem for Berlin. It is an even greater problem for NATO.
Earlier this week Lithuania took a major step towards reducing its energy dependence on Russia. On Monday, the first LNG (Liquid Natural Gas) shipment arrived from the United States, marking the first time an ex-Soviet state has purchased and imported US natural gas. The shipment is viewed as a symbolic economic, and geopolitical act. Economically, the shipment is proof of Lithuania’s wish to cut its reliance on Russia for most of its energy needs. Importing US natural gas now, as well as Norwegian gas, puts Moscow on notice that Vilnius has alternative sources of energy available.
Geopolitically, this shipment is a strong indication of the US-Lithuanian relationship, and the significance both sides put on these relations as the security situation in the Baltics remains fluid. Helping to diminish Europe’s reliance on Russian gas has become an important policy objective for the United States. In the weeks since President Trump’s visit to Warsaw and the G20 summit in Hamburg energy assistance for Eastern Europe and the Baltics has taken on a higher priority. The Trump administration is finally grasping the importance of energy geopolitics in the current chess match with Russia.
For the moment, US LNG imports are not a threat to Russia’s firm grip on Lithuanian energy markets. This year Gazprom, the Russian energy conglomerate, has regained half of Lithuania’s natural gas market. Until the numbers of LNG shipments from the US and other energy sources rises considerably, Russia can focus its attention on other aspects of the increasingly complex, and tense geopolitical landscape in the Baltics and Eastern Europe.
There has been a great deal of public concern and posturing by NATO over recent Russian military activity in the exclave of Kaliningrad. NATO officials and politicians from member-nations have labeled Russia’s movement of SS-26 Stone (Iskander) short-range ballistic missiles, SA-21 Growler (S-400) surface-to-air missiles, and now SS-C-5 Stooge (K-300P Bastion) land-based anti-ship missiles as ‘destabilizing.’ At first glance, the observation seems accurate. Russia is currently introducing a considerable number of these weapons platforms. The SS-26 Stones are particularly worrisome since they are nuclear capable. All of these platforms can be either offensive or defensive in nature depending on Moscow’s intentions.
Behind closed doors in Brussels, NATO military leaders understand what the motivation behind Russia’s buildup in Kaliningrad. Moscow has initiated it as a counter to the component of the US/NATO ballistic missile defense shield now under construction in Poland. The first site, situated in Romania, became operational in May of this year. That site does not concern Russia as much as the one in Poland does. Geographically, Poland is much closer to Russian territory than Romania. The placement of the Aegis Ashore site in Poland is viewed as a potential offensive threat by Moscow. Aegis Ashore uses the same vertical launch system and magazine that US Navy destroyers and cruisers are equipped with to launch SM-3 surface-to-air missiles. What makes Russia especially anxious is the fact that the VLS can also launch Tomahawk cruise missiles just as easily.
So Moscow’s latest moves are in response to Aegis Ashore coming to Poland, and the recent NATO military buildup in close proximity to Russia’s western border. Eastern Europe has become quite the chessboard in recent years with move and countermove between Russia and NATO continuing at a regular pace. The tension that comes with the situation cannot be discounted or minimized since Moscow’s view of the situation is strikingly different from NATO’s. With that in mind, it also has to be noted that the military buildups by both sides have been, for the most part, gradual and controlled.
The military situation in the Baltics and Eastern Europe could be one of the first challenges the Trump administration finds on its plate in January, 2017. President-elect Trump’s desire for better relations with Russia, Vladimir Putin’s own aspirations, and geopolitical realities will intersect. From that point, we could be looking at anything from a de-escalation of East-West tensions to a sharp rise in them leading to armed conflict.
*Authors Note- Between Thanksgiving and Christmas we will be taking a closer look at some of the foreign policy challenges that await the Trump Administration. Putin and the situation in Eastern Europe will be one of them*
While the Obama administration has struggled to construct a cohesive policy to deal with an aggressive Russia, the Pentagon not having any trouble. Plans to increase US military capabilities in Eastern Europe continue to evolve and move forward at a respectable pace. Recognizing the need for a credible combat presence on the ground in Eastern Europe, the Pentagon unveiled its plan to base an armored brigade there in 2017. The equipment will remain in place while the troops rotate in and out at six or twelve month increments. The equipment going to Eastern Europe in the future will be best available to the US Army. M-1A2 Abrams battle tanks, the latest version of the M-2 Bradley IFV, M-109A6 Paladin and MLRS artillery systems, to name some. The move is hoped to reassure allies in the region of how committed the US is when it comes to European security.
The basing and rotation concept is not new and bears a striking resemblance to the REFORGER system used by the US during the Cold War. REFORGER was a simple but effective system where troops from the United States would fly to Europe in the event of increased tensions, marry up to prepositioned equipment in Europe and deploy forward.
Rotations of the brigade will increase US Army combat strength in Europe to three brigades. The 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team in Italy and the 2nd Cavalry Brigade in Germany are the main US Army combat units currently in Europe. Neither brigade is a heavy maneuver force. The 173rd is made up of airborne infantry and the 2nd Cav is a Stryker unit. They do not have the combat power to go head to head against Russian armor or motorized infantry units. A US armored brigade, on the other hand, does. Should a crisis between NATO and Russia ever break out in Europe, US tanks will be in high demand. Basing a heavy brigade near a potential Eastern European flashpoint only makes good strategic sense.