Making the Bundeswehr the most capable army in Europe not only requires money in the form of special assets. Equally important are willingness to innovate, new concepts, good training and modern equipment. Despite the shock of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the war offers Germany a rare opportunity to improve on these four factors by systematically absorbing the Ukrainian army’s operational experience and applying it to the German armed forces and defense industry.
The high-intensity nature of this conventional war between two major state armies has been alien to most Western armed forces since the 1991 Gulf War. Direct deliveries of Western weapon systems such as the Panzerhaubitze 2000 to the Ukraine change this deficit of experience just as little as the exchange of rings with allies such as the Czech Republic. In contrast, the war on the Ukrainian side creates the strategic currency of operational experience, which is valuable for Western armies.
First evaluations of the war in Ukraine by international defense experts and analysts show that the Ukrainian resistance was underestimated and the Russian superiority was overestimated in advance. Traditionally, EU and NATO armed forces, as well as the armies of strategic competitors, analyze conflicts and wars in order to learn for future conflicts. Expectations, for example, about the use of new concepts and the chances of technologies or assumptions about the behavior of the opponent are critically examined. Training with partners also plays an important role.
Western trainers have been in constant contact with Ukrainian soldiers in recent years, many of them with front-line experience in the Donbass. Joint exercises between NATO troops and the Ukrainian army have helped transfer knowledge. It is crucial for the Bundeswehr and its allies to continue this exchange, because the current war is an important source of information due to its character, the material used and the innovations that have been identified.
The war in Ukraine, waged by two state armies, is undoubtedly the most intense conventional conflict in recent decades. The participation of Russia, NATO’s main opponent, also makes it directly relevant for the alliance in terms of its own risks. These include, for example, the vulnerability of one’s own rear, the ability to keep one’s troops mobile and operational under enemy fire, and the need to ensure supplies and industrial production when consumption is high.
This war uses modern Russian, Ukrainian and now Western war material, many of which have been designed precisely for such wars, but have hitherto – and fortunately – only rarely or never been used. In war, performance differences between the systems and their use come to light relentlessly; these need to be recognized and evaluated.
Like every conflict, the Ukraine war also produces military innovations. So far, the Ukrainian armed forces seem better than the Russian army at using digital integration to connect different units. However, the more equipment that arrives from the West, the more demanding training, maintenance and integration become. The patchwork of different systems that can be seen in Ukraine also reflects the reality of the Bundeswehr, for example when it leads NATO combat troops in Lithuania.
Traditionally, the Bundeswehr sees itself as an anchor in multinational military cooperation. This is based on enabling and integrating partners to work together. Ukrainian lessons on the question of how interoperability can be ensured are therefore of central importance for the Bundeswehr and also the German defense industry. Three points are important:
First, the Federal Government and the Bundeswehr should set up a structured exchange of experience with Ukrainian units. This could be based on the contacts that are now being made through the training of the Ukrainians on the Panzerhaubitze 2000 and the Gepard anti-aircraft tanks. This exchange should also involve the German armaments industry so that it understands how its systems behave in the Ukraine. Possible lessons for adjustments and further developments can be derived from this.
Secondly, Ukrainian units should practice together with the Bundeswehr after the end of the war at the latest. The aim must be to integrate Ukrainian experience in the role of the associations as “intelligent opponents” in the further development of the Bundeswehr. This requires not only politico-military coordination, but also the commissioning of industry to integrate training equipment on types of equipment now used by the Ukrainian armed forces.
Building on this, Germany should, thirdly, work in NATO to use Ukrainian experience. For this purpose, the I. German-Dutch Corps can be further developed into an umbrella unit for multinational military tests and experiments. This unit is already playing an important role in further developing and implementing military concepts across countries and in this way intensifying military cooperation. It could become the nucleus of a comprehensive land force network, allowing partner forces and industry to consistently learn from the Ukrainian experience.
Despite the great human suffering, Ukraine’s war experience is valuable strategic currency. Germany and the Allies, who supported Ukraine militarily, can participate in this currency. This participation is all the more important the more NATO gears itself towards waging future military conflicts against systemic competitors.
In recent years, Germany has focused on training partners. Now it’s time to “think backwards” about this training. In order to learn from Ukraine, Germany should institutionalize the exchange of military experience. The knowledge gained in this way can flow into the training. At the same time, the German armaments industry can benefit from this in order to further develop its own products. This proposal makes Germany a smart framework nation that uses the expertise of the partners, drives concept development in an innovative way, consolidates practical experience through exercises and thus supports industrial cooperation.