To Deter Russia, Europe Needs More Military Integration

German and Dutch troops have deployed a binational battle-ready unit to Lithuania. More EU countries should follow their example.

Braw-Elisabeth-foreign-policy-columnist3
Elisabeth Braw
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
A military handout photo shows a Leopard 2a6 main battle tank firing during exercises as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Lithuania.
A military handout photo shows a Leopard 2a6 main battle tank firing during exercises as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Lithuania.
A military handout photo shows a Leopard 2a6 main battle tank firing during a joint German and Dutch exercise held in Latvia as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Lithuania on Oct. 20, 2021. Andy Meier/NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Lithuania

Putin’s War

French President Emmanuel Macron recently proposed a new European security pact, which joins his long-standing proposal for a European army. Other countries, trying to show European military muscle of a different kind, are sending weapons to Ukraine and troops to neighboring NATO countries.

But away from the spotlights, the Dutch and German armies are pulling off spectacular integration. In a first anywhere in Europe, a binational unit consisting of Dutch and German soldiers is about to complete a NATO deployment. Other countries should learn from the Dutch-German integration. They’ll discover that it works, but they’ll also learn that it involves painstaking efforts even when just two like-minded countries are involved.

On Feb. 9, a pioneering military unit finished an equally pioneering rotation as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Lithuania. The 414 Tank Battalion comprises both German and Dutch soldiers, some 300 of the former and 100 of the latter, and they’ve been serving in Lithuania since July last year. They’re the first permanently binational contingent to deploy as part of Enhanced Forward Presence, the NATO battlegroups dispatched to Poland and the Baltic states as a deterrent against Russia.

French President Emmanuel Macron recently proposed a new European security pact, which joins his long-standing proposal for a European army. Other countries, trying to show European military muscle of a different kind, are sending weapons to Ukraine and troops to neighboring NATO countries.

But away from the spotlights, the Dutch and German armies are pulling off spectacular integration. In a first anywhere in Europe, a binational unit consisting of Dutch and German soldiers is about to complete a NATO deployment. Other countries should learn from the Dutch-German integration. They’ll discover that it works, but they’ll also learn that it involves painstaking efforts even when just two like-minded countries are involved.

On Feb. 9, a pioneering military unit finished an equally pioneering rotation as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Lithuania. The 414 Tank Battalion comprises both German and Dutch soldiers, some 300 of the former and 100 of the latter, and they’ve been serving in Lithuania since July last year. They’re the first permanently binational contingent to deploy as part of Enhanced Forward Presence, the NATO battlegroups dispatched to Poland and the Baltic states as a deterrent against Russia.

The 1st Panzer Division is one of three German Army divisions. The Dutch 43rd Mechanized Brigade, for its part, is one of the Dutch Army’s three combat brigades. In 2014, the Dutch Army was about to lose its remaining few tanks, which would have rendered the 43rd rather impotent. Conveniently, the 1st Panzer Division is based in Oldenburg, some two hours by car from the 43rd Mechanized’s home in Havelte. They integrated in 2016.

“My division commander and I pushed a bit in our chains of command for the deployment of the 414 Tank Battalion because we felt that this would put our integration to the test,” the 43rd Mechanized Brigade’s commander, Brig. Gen. Roland de Jong, told me. “And now we have proof that it works.” Indeed, it works so well that earlier this month Lithuania’s president called on Germany to commit more troops to his country. (He seemed unaware of the Dutch role in the contingent.) The Germans promised to add another 350 soldiers.


A German Iron Cross and a Dutch lion can be seen on a main battle tank as a machine gun fires during exercises.

A German Iron Cross and a Dutch lion can be seen on a main battle tank as a machine gun fires during a joint exercise held in Latvia in a military handout photo on Oct. 20, 2021. Pascal Warner/NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Lithuania/WT-Media

Military integration between countries, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a popular suggestion among think tankers and politicians. Every so often, especially when a crisis seems to be appearing on the horizon, the idea of a European army is floated. For example, on a visit to Verdun, France, for the 100th anniversary of the World War I armistice in 2018, Macron argued that Europe can’t be protected without a “true European army.” Since then, not very much has happened. Indeed, apart from calls from Macron for more diplomacy, France has remained strangely silent on the crises now facing Europe, including a potential large-scale Russian attack on Ukraine.

Instead, the closest thing to a European army currently in existence is Germany’s 1st Panzer Division. Or, more accurately, the German and Dutch 1st Division, because it’s now fully integrated. De Jong explained the setup in an interview with me last month: “The working language within the 414 Panzerbattalion [Tank Battalion] is German. Of course the officers and NCOs [noncommissioned officers] speak better German than the soldiers, but they all understand the commands. Within my brigade I have six German officers, who all speak Dutch. I have a deputy commander operations, a colonel, who speaks very good Dutch. And we [the Dutch] have a full colonel and nine other Dutch officers in the 1st Panzer Division, where they speak German.”

Conducting the integration, though, has been far more complicated than observers might assume. “To make this workable, you have to continue to invest in interoperability,” de Jong told me. “The first level is technical. If you don’t have interoperable radios, you can’t communicate. So we provided the Germans with our battlefield communications system.” But that’s just the first—and easiest—part. Then, de Jong explained, “you have techniques, tactics, procedures. Our officers and NCOs are trained in the German system. And then you have the matter of cultural interoperability. Although we’re neighboring countries, we’re absolutely not the same people. … Sometimes all this creates tensions. So you have to work on it.”

On top of that, there are practical matters such as education and certification. Each side, for example, had to decide to accept the other soldiers’ driver’s licenses. They had to decide whether it was OK for a German medic to treat Dutch soldiers as a standard, not just in an emergency, and for Dutch mechanics similarly to be allowed to repair the Germans’ tanks.

Now, six years later, the 414 Tank Battalion is finishing its deployment in Lithuania, the first time in post-World War II history a permanently integrated unit comprising two countries has deployed to a third country. That’s surely a good sign given that Macron and various other European leaders—past and present—have for years been advancing the idea of some form of joint European military capability.

If Russian leader Vladimir Putin backs down from the Ukrainian border this time, European countries can thank their lucky star—Washington. In their current setup, they are hardly able to deter Russia. That, of course, is the reason Macron and others argue that a “true European army” is indispensable.

But as de Jong and his troops—and indeed European politicians and other officers—know, military integration isn’t easy. Europe’s best efforts to date are otherwise the never-deployed EU Battlegroups and the Eurocorps, which functions as the EU Battlegroup headquarters. The Netherlands and Belgium form a joint navy, whose vessels patrol various waters. That’s no mean feat, but it’s hardly as complicated as having soldiers of two nationalities permanently serving alongside one another.

The integration hasn’t been perfect. Indeed, for its first deployment the 414 Tank Battalion had to borrow equipment from other Dutch and German units, and the 1st Panzer Division is likely to need another couple of years before it’s fully combat-ready with its own equipment. But when the 414th returns on its next rotation, it will be commanded by a Dutch officer.

What’s more, the two allies are in the process of integrating the Dutch Army’s two other combat brigades into Germany’s Bundeswehr. The Dutch 11th Airmobile Brigade has already been made part of the Bundeswehr’s Rapid Forces Division; like the fully integrated 43rd Mechanized, it’s even listed on the Rapid Forces’ list of units.

Pending approval by the new governments in Berlin and The Hague, the Dutch Army’s 13th Light Brigade will also be integrated into the Bundeswehr: an army’s whole combat capability, integrated into another country’s army. Logistically, it’s a staggering achievement—and politically, too, considering that a mere 82 years ago the Netherlands was occupied by Nazi Germany.

The Dutch crew of a main battle tank poses in a military handout photo.

The Dutch crew of a main battle tank poses in a military handout photo during a joint exercise held in Latvia on Oct. 20, 2021. Cinthia Nijssen/NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence in Lithuania/Netherlands Defense Media Center

At the moment, the two armies are even writing a joint Common Army Vision. “The German and Dutch armies are constantly in contact with each other to discuss further cooperation, which they do through a formal entity called Army Steering Group,” a spokesman for the German Army told me.

Such integration requires enormous trust. “The Dutch-German integration is quite unique; it is nearly without caveats and works very well,” noted Bart Groothuis, a Dutch defense expert and member of the European Parliament for the Dutch center-right People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy. “But if there were to be a crisis in the Baltics, would we, for example, have the logistics to resupply it? The answer is no. So why are we then so happy about it?”

To be sure, the 1st Panzer Division won’t be supplanting U.S. forces in Europe anytime soon: U.S. European Command has more than 60,000 military and civilian personnel, not to mention superb equipment stored in various European countries. And when crises loom, Washington can send more. On Feb. 6, 1,700 members of the 82nd Airborne Division deployed to Poland from Fort Bragg.

To have reached the 1st Panzer Division’s level of integration is, however, a remarkable achievement for any two countries. Building trust (not to mention overcoming language barriers) are just one part of the challenge. “There also has to be the military and political will to make it happen,” de Jong noted. “If politicians are only interested in a picture in a newspaper, the whole thing will fall apart.”

With such integration, Europe’s various armed forces could turn into a mighty force, one capable of looking after the continent and any deserving neighbors.

Of course, the whole thing will equally fall apart of the countries disagree on when it should be used. If Germany had wanted to send the 414 Tank Battalion to Lithuania and the Netherlands had refused, it would have been useless. The unit’s deployment, NATO spokeswoman Oana Lungescu told me, “is a strong display of Germany’s and the Netherlands’ commitment and capabilities. At a time of unprecedented security challenges, the ability of allies to act together quickly and effectively remains essential.”

Thanks to the Bundeswehr, the Dutch Army has maximized its striking and rapid-forces capabilities at minimal expense. The Bundeswehr has, of course, gained new soldiers and officers. And both sides share equipment that would otherwise have to be duplicated. Indeed, interoperability and cultural hurdles notwithstanding, integrating one’s armed forces with those of a neighbor seems commonsense. With such integration, Europe’s various armed forces could turn into a mighty force, one capable of looking after the continent and any deserving neighbors.

Imagine what fully integrated European armed forces would be able to do now that Russia is flexing its muscles. Finland and Sweden are, in fact, working hard to combine, for example, defense planning and use of airfields. But integration has the most potential if it involves a larger and a smaller country. Germany is, in fact, working to replicate the 1st Panzer Division success. And perhaps Macron should start small by having France team up with Belgium?

Indeed, other European armed services could simply visit the 1st Panzer Division to find out what’s involved. “The Dutch-German cooperation could demonstrate to other European NATO member states how to establish deployable multinational units,” the German Army spokesman told me. “Our allies could use the Dutch-German experiences to identify approaches that they themselves could use. That would help European armed forces to increasingly establish large joint units for the defense of Europe.”

There must be massive interest in your unit, I told de Jong. “Yes,” he said, “but people never say, ‘We’ll do the same.’” Virtually no countries are as close and similar as Germany and the Netherlands, but even close friends Sweden and Finland haven’t dared venture into full-fledged integration.

I asked de Jong what his advice would be to other countries. “Don’t start with integration,” he replied. “Start with proper cooperation!”

Elisabeth Braw is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where she focuses on defense against emerging national security challenges, such as hybrid and gray-zone threats. She is also a member of the U.K. National Preparedness Commission. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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