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Framework nations: a German answer to a European problem?

Image credit: Markus Grossalber

Image credit: Markus Grossalber

In the autumn of 2013, outgoing German Minister of Defence Thomas De Maizière presented his NATO colleagues with a proposal to develop a so-called ‘framework nations concept’. Articulating a vision of common capability development by clusters of nations, this concept was meant to provide a new impetus for multinational cooperation in the NATO Defence Planning Process. Importantly, this would entail a radical break with the time-honoured procedure of apportioning target requirements on a purely national basis. Given the recent speeches at the Munich Security Conference on Germany’s role in the world, we thought European Geostrategy readers would appreciate some thoughts on the framework nations proposal and how it could affect the Western security architecture.

Defence planners in Berlin seem to be acutely aware of the growing discrepancy between the rhetoric and reality of European cooperation on capability development. Instead of slogans like ‘smart defence’ and ‘pooling and sharing’, the framework nations concept is meant to offer a practical mechanism for realising deep cooperation amongst volunteering nations. The key idea is that those nations who retain a broad spectrum of capabilities would act as cluster coordinators with a view to meeting Alliance defence planning targets on a tailor-made multinational basis. This effectively boils down to an open-ended invitation for smaller Allies to plug into those enabling capabilities only the big nations can provide: headquarters, communication and information systems, joint intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance etc. Contrary to the operational notion of framework nation command, this concept envisages structural cooperation amongst participating nations, including an ad-hoc defined approach to industrials aspects.

To some extent, the framework nations concept risks reinventing the wheel: the efficiency gains that can be realised through multinational cooperation have long been known. However, the political corollary of how to assure access to shared capabilities has so far never received satisfactory answers. So what is different this time round? The present squeeze on European defence budgets makes it ever more difficult for smaller European states to maintain a broad spectrum of capabilities. Countries that have good military relations with Germany and who struggle to meet the investment threshold for maintaining a wide range of military assets, such as the Netherlands, may feel tempted to accept Germany’s invitation and integrate some capabilities with the Bundeswehr – especially in the domain of land warfare. It bears emphasising that this benefits smaller nations more than larger ones. If no capability clusters emerge from the Cardiff summit, it will not be those Allies who maintain a broad spectrum of capabilities that are worse of, but the Alliance in its entirety.

The debate on the availability of multinational assets constitutes the Achilles heel of defence cooperation. Germany is adamant that capability planning and operational deployment constitute two parallel universes, as the latter requires parliamentary approval. The number of nations interested in partnering with Germany may of course dwindle if it is clear that multinational capabilities are unlikely to be used in expeditionary operations. Participating in a German-led framework essentially means conforming to a more restrained strategic culture. This stands in stark contrast to the extravert orientation of Franco-British defence cooperation. At the same time, recent deliberations over intervention in Syria show that domestic politics can constrain every Ally. This is what makes the Munich speeches so interesting: if Germany as a nation is genuinely willing to enhance its international responsibility, as Ursula von der Leyen suggested, this may offset the biggest drawback of the framework nations concept.

This is not necessarily a complete break with the past. During much of the Cold War, the Bundeswehr constituted the tactical backbone of NATO’s conventional defence posture. It was itself glued to a US-led, multinational command structure that featured similar debates over the assured availability of forces. The framework nations concept’ dissociation between capability development and operational engagement also harks back to the notion coined by the first German Deputy SACEUR Gerd Schmückle that the primary purpose of armed force is to deter, not to wage war. This view was also actively promoted by former Generalinspekteur Ulrich de Maizière (indeed, the father of). If the United States fully intend to scale back their military role on the European continent, Germany can fill the vacuum by assuming a greater role along principles established many decades ago.

As Hans Kundnani has written, the debate on Germany’s strategic posture is only just beginning. The framework nations concept may not be entirely to the liking of those Allies who have been urging Germany to play a greater role in securing the unruly parts of Africa or Central Asia. Doubts will persist over whether capability improvements thus generated can make a meaningful contribution to sharing the burden for global security. But the present crisis in Ukraine suggests that more immediate concerns may cause such concerns to fall by the wayside. NATO defence planners must be surely paying close attention to the modernisation of Russia’s armed forces. In any case, when it comes to preparing for defensive battles anywhere between the Dniester, Dnieper and Donetz, Bundeswehr memories go back a very long time.

Vol. 6, No. 15 (2014)

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