Berlin Security Conference: Commanding Generals Discuss Readiness of Joint Land Forces in Europe

The 2021 Berlin Security Conference (19th Congress on European Security and Defence) hosted a panel chaired by the Inspector of the German Army, Lieutenant General Alfons Mais, to discuss issues of readiness and availability regarding land forces in a joint and combined environment. Panelists included General Christopher Cavoli (Commanding General of US Army Europe and Africa), Lieutenant General Martin Wijnen (Commander of the Royal Netherlands Army), Lieutenant General Slawomir Wojciechowski (Commanding General of NATO Multinational Corps North East), and Dr. Ivo Pikner (Research Fellow at the Czech University of Defence). The participants highlighted the importance of interoperability and cooperative efforts to maintain a posture of credible deterrence in Europe. The following key points of discussion reflect the factors being considered by these senior leaders.

Defining Readiness

General Cavoli broke availability and readiness down to their most fundamental aspects. An “available” unit is cohesive, built into the standing force structure, equipped to standard, and committed to that readiness posture. Units assigned another mission or that have elements such as enabler units detached to fulfill other tasks cannot be considered “available.”

Within this context, General Cavoli defined units’ readiness at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels. At the tactical level, an organization must have deployable personnel who are trained and able to perform the essential tasks necessary of them. Additionally, it must be properly equipped “down to the last screwdriver,” and that equipment properly maintained.

Four questions define a unit’s operational readiness. First, does it have enough collection and analysis to allow it to generate situational understanding for the force? Does it have enough enabling organizations to allow it to fight the adversary throughout his full depth? Does it have enough maneuver units to win the close fight when it comes? Does it have the appropriate type and quantity of C4 (Command, Control, Communications, Computers) systems to maintain control in a contested environment?

Strategic level questions of readiness ask if the Army is capable of moving the force it has from its home garrisons to the point of crisis (does it have the assets, the necessary agreements in place, etc.). Once that force is deployed, does the Army have the procedures and practices to keep the force connected to the political direction leaders require them to move? Finally, is that force interoperable with the other members of the alliance that it’s going to fight within?

The issue of readiness, especially in regard to multinational interoperability was also heavily emphasized by General Wojciechowski, whose headquarters oversees NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroups, the Baltic Air Policing mission, as well as integration of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF). In the context of Eastern Europe and Russia, he stated that a firm deterrence posture requires available forces as a first responder, a role filled by the NATO force command structure. However, he cautions that even with Multinational Corps Northeast (MNC-NE) operating in the area and having regional command functions, it may not be enough to meet those requirements.

General Wojciechowski identifies a need for more unity of command and unity of effort to achieve better coordination. The Enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroups and their host nation brigades are only the first echelon, and NATO force structures need to train more with the designated/earmarked forces that would reinforce them in wartime scenarios. The conflict between peacetime and wartime structures is especially an issue with regard to enabler units. He advocates engaging all the relevant players in the region to conduct more joint and multi-domain training to achieve shorter integration times in the field. This need to train together in peacetime needs “commitment of the identified forces, otherwise we fail before we begin fighting.”

Force modernization and capability development are also a collective effort

General Mais noted the challenges of needing to reduce weaknesses and close capability gaps, particularly in regard to C2 digitization and interoperability, in the post-COVID environment of constrained budget lines and limited resources due to economic downturns.  These limits “force us to prioritize who’s doing what, who’s filling which gap, how we can interact better, share the burden, and build reliable and ready land formations together.” The need to coordinate capability development projects to ensure efficiency and avoid redundant efforts was also highlighted by Thomas Silberhorn, Parliamentary State Secretary of the German Federal Ministry of Defence, during his opening speech to the conference. These efforts officially began with the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) policy in 2017.

Remarks submitted to the panel by French Lieutenant General (retired) Arnaud Sainte-Claire Deville also corroborated these issues. General Deville identified the need for allied forces to pool resources to avoid falling behind in certain technologies, and that without cooperation, European armies risk becoming central armies with no deterrent capabilities. Speaking for France’s Nexter Group, he highlighted the role that industry plays in these efforts, with equipment commonality in the I German/Dutch Corps enabling greater interoperability. KMW+Nexter Defense Systems (KNDS) intends to provide similar capabilities to Franco-German multinational units.

The changing nature of warfare presents an institutional challenge, from force structure to leader development

Organizational modernization was also a key topic for these leaders. General Wijnen presented the challenge facing the Royal Netherlands Army (RNA) as a cultural issue to grow out of the comfort zone of manageable and predictable operations a la Afghanistan/peacekeeping deployments. Noting the shortfalls identified during exercises, he describes the Dutch approach as an “operate as we are” philosophy, meaning they must be ready to fight with today’s army with all its shortfalls and gaps.

General Wijnen identified three challenges facing the RNA to ameliorate these issues. First, they must improve their tactical decision-making processes so that whatever the situation, leaders are equipped to face any operational dilemma and act more quickly than adversaries. Second, they emphasize more thorough knowledge of their land forces doctrine. Third, they need to make better use of their intelligence and information assets.

Although the nature of recent Dutch deployments has left leaders’ abilities to deal with uncertainty underdeveloped, General Wijnen notes that this is not the first time that the force has had to change its mission. The shift to UN peace operations in the 1990s presented the same issues in reverse, and it is not impossible for organizations to re-learn how to conduct agile, rapid operations.

Dr. Pikner also described how Czech forces had to transform to meet the changing nature of warfare. The Czech 2030 operating concept follows the Czech 2025 concept in preparing for hybrid instability with a short warning time. He stated that the force must be able to confront non-military threats such as rebel forces, organized crime, and insider threats at the point of crisis. Therefore, while the establishment of the new Czech airborne regiment provides the force additional expeditionary capability, the Czech territorial forces are able to react to hybrid threats.

All panelists noted the organizational need to shift back to higher echelons and structures. In response to a question regarding USAREUR-AF’s role, especially with the new V Corps’ activation, General Cavoli stated that the USAREUR-AF has transformed in both organization and function into a theater army in all but name. Conducting large operations requires such a theater structure.

Similarly, General Mais was asked about the feasibility of German contribution of larger formations as reinforcements. He responded that the German land forces must provide the framework for a division headquarters, even if it receives attachments such as Czech or Dutch brigades. General Cavoli agreed that the divisional echelon is critical for large scale operations, especially with regard to ownership and control of key enabler assets such as logistical, medical, and EW functions. “All those things need to belong to the same force to reach the readiness goals,” he added. General Wijnen noted how this is a departure from previous operations where functions such as logistics were separated from tactical units and consolidated for economical purposes: “We need to organize for effective operations, not efficient operations.”

For these military leaders, issues of readiness and availability go far beyond technological solutions to capability gaps. Improving organizational structures, command relationships, and interoperability remain critically important, especially for the land domain.