Military might

The French-German brigade that could be the basis of an EU army

Deutsches Militärtraining in Mali
Not-so covert ops in Mali. Source: DPA

At the headquarters of the Franco-German Brigade in southern Germany, the officers speak three different languages among themselves: German, French and English. But, according to commanding officer General Bertrand Boyard, there are zero communications problems.

The only such binational force in the world, the Brigade was established in 1989 on the back of a 1987 proposal by then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and former French president, François Mitterrand. At the time it was supposed to be both a political and military project, a symbol of ongoing Franco-German cooperation and diplomacy. Since then the military unit has evolved and now Mr. Boyard is optimistic that it could be part of the beginnings of a new European defense force.

“If the political will was there to undertake a mission together, all the prerequisites are there, on the military level,” Mr. Boyard told Handelsblatt. Asked whether his Brigade, with around 5,000 members stationed in seven different locations around France and Germany, could be the joint European task force that French President Emmanuel Macron described so enthusiastically late last year, he said: “We are ready. That is part of our daily training.”

Every mission has clear aims, and within that every nation gets to detail what they are, and are not, willing to do.

But how united are they? Critics have pointed out that the unity Mr. Boyard talks about doesn’t go very far in practical terms. Although the troops may wear the same berets, they still carry different arms, each set of weaponry having been supplied by their country of origin. After 30 years they don’t even share a set of radios.

Mr. Boyard’s response to this is philosophical: “There’s the political discourse,” he said, “and then there’s the political reality.” And adds that cooperation is getting closer all the time. Currently the information exchange between the two countries is “very, very good – between the military intelligence services too.”

Having the French and German soldiers work together not only saves money, it also grants any joint mission a greater legitimacy in the eyes of the world, the brigade leader says. In recent years the soldiers have been deployed in Lithuania (2016), the Balkans (2000), Afghanistan (2004) and they have been stationed in Mali since 2014.

The Franco-German Brigade could also be seen as experts in interoperability, Mr. Boyard said – that is, the skill with which military units operate in conjunction with one another.

This is why he prefers to focus on the long term.  Although the meshing of the two country’s troops is slow and beholden to politics and even national interests (that would prefer German troops to carry German-made guns, for example), it is happening, and will only improve in the future, Mr. Boyard argues.

Yes, the troops have different radio equipment, he concedes, and they’ll keep using it as long as it works. But the logistics support team is adept at getting spare parts in, whether they are made in Germany or France. And most of the officers have trained together at military academies in the other country and understand each other well. Their command – the job Mr. Boyard is doing – is taken up by French and German leaders in turn.

However the Franco-German Brigade have not discarded their own governments’ mandates, in order to act more like a pro-European force. Far from it. While the Brigade is working in Mali, troops from both countries will be doing different tasks. Around 1,000 French soldiers will strengthen Operation Barkhane, an anti-insurgent mission operating across several southern Saharan countries. Meanwhile the 800 or so German soldiers will be supporting MINUSMA, the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali, run by the United Nations and the EU’s European Training Mission in Mali.

Franco-German Brigade
Vive la revolution! Source: Picture Alliance

The whole brigade will “absolutely” be ready to fight, Mr. Boyard insisted. But the German soldiers still won’t be joining Operation Barkhane. Due to Germany’s wartime history, the German military’s ability to actually shoot at anyone has tended to be wrapped up in red tape and all kinds of legalities. In fact, in Afghanistan, German soldiers were so constrained that one British officer famously described them as a “an aggressive camping organization.” But, as Mr. Boyard explained, every mission has clear aims, and within that every nation gets to draw red lines around each operation, detailing what they are, and are not, willing to do.

Mr. Boyard believes that the fact that the soldiers train together and know each other well, within the framework of a permanently established brigade, means that if it came to it, they would also fight together. “When push comes to shove, you usually are not fighting for abstract ideas,” Mr. Boyard said. “You are fighting for your comrades.”

The Franco-German Brigade is completely prepared to fight side by side, the commander continues. And that is due to the way the military cooperates. Mr. Boyard sees this as a major advantage for the Franco-German Brigade. But whether they will ever do so is questionable due to politics. It is extremely unusual for two countries to want military intervention “at the same time, in the same place and with the same objectives.”  And that, Mr. Boyard concludes, remains one of the Brigade’s major disadvantages.


Thomas Hanke is Handelsblatt’s correspondent in Paris. This article was adapted in English for Handesblatt Global. To contact the author:

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