Linchpin of NATO : W. German Forces Get Top Rating

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Times Staff Writer

The German armed forces, once the most formidable and efficient fighting machine in the world, were disbanded in disgrace after World War II. Since then, a new German fighting force has been built, and it has become one of the best anywhere--this time in the service of the Western democracies.

The military force built in the nation created in the Western part of prewar Germany is widely regarded as the linchpin of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s defenses against the forces of the Warsaw Pact countries. Its 495,000 active-duty soldiers, sailors and airmen can quickly be augmented by 770,000 reservists in time of crisis.

The West German army is in many ways the best-equipped and best-trained army on the central front, according to James Meachham, defense correspondent of The Economist, the British newsweekly.


‘Confident Professional Gloss’

“In particular,” Meachham has written, “the West German ground and air forces now have a confident professional gloss about them that was lacking even a decade ago, because then they were still trying to shake off the stigma of militarism.”

A general officer in one of the Western armies concurs, commenting: “The German army is surprisingly efficient, and is getting better and better. The officer corps is thoroughly trained; staff work is excellent. Further, the West German army is probably the best-equipped, in terms of value for money, of any fighting force in the world. The Leopard II is probably NATO’s best tank, and the same could be said about the Gepard anti-aircraft system.”

Half of NATO Forces

The West German army, with 340,000 men, deploys a total of 38 brigades, including two home defense reserve units, which make up half of NATO’s forces in Central Europe.

West German armed forces also account for half of NATO’s ground-based air-defense units. The West German air force provides 30% of NATO’s combat aircraft, and the West German navy supplies 30% of NATO’s combat forces in the waters off Northern and Western Europe.

The army’s brigades are organized into 12 divisions that form three corps deployed in the north, center and south of the central front, between other allied formations--the U.S. V and VII Corps, the British 1st Corps and Danish, Dutch and Belgian units.

By virtually all accounts, morale among the soldiers is good, even though fully 54% of the men are conscripts. This is due in part to training standards and the professionalism that has always characterized Germany armies. And it is due, too, military experts say, to a tactical doctrine known as auftrag.


Auftrag means assignment, or mission, but in this context it means something more. Brig. Gen. Klaus Naumann, chief military planner in the West German Defense Ministry, explains it like this:

“When we order a junior commander to take a tactical objective, how he does it is up to him. It gives him greater flexibility and responsibility than if he were told how to do it. He does not wait for further orders; he gets on with the job. Anyway, in battle conditions, communications are not dependable.

“It also means that you do not need as many staff officers working out plans, and a higher percentage of your manpower can be devoted to combat tasks.”

Fewer Staff Officers

Military specialists estimate that the number of staff officers at division and corps level in the West German army is only 30% of what it is in the U.S. Army, which tends toward much greater supervision of junior officers.

Gen. Naumann and other officers point out that traditionally the strength of the German army has been in its noncommissioned officer corps. Sergeants are given a great deal of authority and responsibility, plus the training to qualify them for leadership.

“The old lessons are still true,” Naumann said. “The important thing in an army is the cohesion of small units. You can do anything with well-motivated soldiers. What you must inculcate is team spirit. The men must respect their leaders.”


In 1943, at the height of World War II, the Wehrmacht, as the armed forces of Nazi Germany were called, had risen to a peak strength of 10 million men. The army had 4.5 million soldiers organized into 274 divisions. At the time of Germany’s defeat in 1945, the Wehrmacht was still several times larger than it had been in 1939, at the start of the war.

After the war, West Germany was prohibited from maintaining armed forces, and anti-military sentiment was deep and widespread. Then, 30 years ago, West Germany established the Bundeswehr, as the new military is called, as an element of the NATO defense structure.

Decorated WWII Veterans

Until the mid-1970s, many of the West German army commanders at company and battalion level were men who had fought in World War II and won decorations for valor. No fewer than 540 of the officers who joined the new German colors wore the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.

These veterans passed on their expertise to a generation of conscripts at a time when most Germans had nothing but distaste for military uniforms.

One of the problems encountered in creating a highly motivated new military force was the restriction placed on offensive strategy. Traditionally, German strategy emphasizes attack coupled with speed and surprise--the blitzkrieg, or lightning war -- but the Bundeswehr had to adopt strictly defensive concepts.

This doctrine has not changed. The West German army, like other NATO forces, may not initiate an attack. It may not even respond to a hostile act until the enemy actually crosses the West German border.

Confined to defense, the West German army handed military planners in Moscow a strategic advantage.


‘Easier to Attack’

“It is always easier for the military to attack,” Naumann said. “But it is not possible for us, politically, to create an offensive strategy. All the fears of the 1940s would come back. But if war breaks out, then we and NATO are not confined to defense only, and the Warsaw Pact countries know this. This is part of our deterrent.”

A key facet of West German military strategy is known as “forward defense,” blocking any aggression as close to the border as possible. This has raised tactical questions, for in the event of a massive attack, most military units would normally fall back to regroup and organize a counterattack.

But because 30% of West Germany’s people live within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the East German-Czechoslovak border, forward defense is considered the only realistic strategy.

The West German army may be faced with complex problems of strategy and tactics, but it has others, too, chief among them a future lack of manpower.

“The shortage of manpower colors every decision they make,” a Western military specialist observed. “The subject pops up every time you talk to someone in the military.”

Lowest Birthrate in Europe

West Germany’s birthrate is the lowest in Europe. The present force level of 495,000 men can be maintained for the next few years, but after that some new steps will be needed if West Germany is to meet its NATO manpower commitment.


The Defense Ministry’s first step will be to increase the conscript period from 15 to 18 months. This will go into effect in 1989.

The ministry is also hoping to increase its budget for personnel in the hope of making army life more attractive so that professional soldiers will stay in uniform longer.

Political considerations keep the armed forces from making use of conscientious objectors, who refuse to serve even in noncombat roles, and 30% of the men available as potential conscripts describe themselves as conscientious objectors.

The Defense Ministry is also trying to find ways to make use of women, most of whom are barred by the constitution from serving in the armed forces. At present only women doctors are allowed to serve, but the ministry has given tentative approval for 20,000 women to volunteer for noncombatant duties.

Political Activity Permitted

Outsiders are sometimes surprised to learn that political activity is legal in the West German armed forces. Men on active duty can and have been elected to public office, even to the Bundestag, or Federal Assembly. Roughly 1,400 servicemen hold seats in regional and national legislative bodies.

Some critics suggest that promotion in the armed forces is sometimes determined by politics. The news magazine Stern recently polled servicemen and found that, among enlisted men, 43% favored the opposition Social Democratic Party, 34% the ruling Christian Democratic Union, and 18% the Greens party of radical environmentalists.


Among officers, preferences were reversed, with 72% supporting the Christian Democrats, 20% the Social Democrats and a small minority the Greens.

“You find foreigners who think allowing soldiers to participate in politics is a bad thing,” Naumann said. “But the former policy, of divorcing the army from the political life of the country, led to the rise of (Adolf) Hitler (who led the National Socialist movement that brought Germany to ruin in 1945). The lesson we have learned is never again to isolate the military from politics.”

Another military problem, according to some observers, is the lack of a spirit of adventure among many young German soldiers.

Excitement Lacking

“They prefer to be based near their homes,” a foreign officer said, “and they want to be stationed in a state with good schools for their children.” He indicated that this is understandable, but it doesn’t make for much excitement or gung-ho spirit.

The West German army, unlike its U.S. and British counterparts, does not offer the opportunity of overseas duty.

Still, the foreign officer said, “when you ask a German conscript in the field if he enjoys the army, he will say no, but if you ask him whether he enjoys this particular maneuver he is on, he will say, yes, it is great fun.”


Senior defense planners recognize this and are continually pressing for a larger budget that will allow for more field maneuvers involving substantial numbers of troops.

In the past, the German army relied heavily on farm boys for soldiers and, for officers, on men who had grown up with a tradition of hunting and field sports. Such men had a natural sense of field-craft and terrain--the ability, as Napoleon put it, to know what was on the other side of the hill.

Today most West German soldiers come from an urban background.

High-Tech Skills Desired

“True,” Naumann admitted, “we have a lot of city boys these days. But in today’s army we want young men with high-tech skills. So while we need those with natural infantry fighting instincts, our major task is to operate sophisticated weapons. So we take these city boys, teach them high-tech skills, and at the same time make them learn how to endure physical hardships. Actually, I think conscription gives us a high-quality mix of personnel.

“If trouble comes, I don’t think we have to worry too much about how our servicemen will perform. We can count on them.”