A Romanian soldier takes cover behind a tree on the U.S. Army's Hohenfels Training Area (inGermany) during exercise Combined Resolve III, Nov. 6, 2014.
U.S. Army

The soldiers and officers of the Netherlands’ 43rd Mechanized Brigade are getting used to serving under a new commander. In fact, they are getting used to being part of a different army altogether: the German one. This month, the 43rd Mechanized Brigade will permanently join Germany’s First Tank Division. In addition to soldiers, Germany and the Netherlands are sharing tanks, ships, and other military equipment. In doing so, they are pioneering a radical concept: a military sharing economy.

The story begins two years ago, when cuts to military spending in the Netherlands had stripped the country of its last operating tanks (a couple remain in storage). By then, according to data collected by SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the Netherlands’ defense expenditures had dropped from 2.5 percent of GDP in 1990 to 1.2 percent. That left very little funding to buy new—or even maintain existing—tanks and other major pieces of equipment, even though such machinery is a pillar of any country’s armed forces. As Anthony Leuvering, a colonel in the 43rd Mechanized recalled, “our chief of defense said, ‘We need tank capabilities in our toolbox but we don’t have tanks anymore.’” And so, Leuvering said,  “We talked to the Bundeswehr.”

Supported by the German government, which has long advocated European military integration, the Bundeswehr quickly agreed to share the tanks belonging to the Bundeswehr’s First Tank Division, which is stationed just under 40 miles from the Dutch border and is tasked with territorial defense of western German regions. It is also the army’s lead division for several foreign missions including the training of Iraqi armed forces.

Soldier at December joint exercise for joint Dutch-German division.
Soldier at December joint exercise for joint Dutch-German division.
Marco Dorow / Bundeswehr
In December 2015, the new joint division conducted a pilot exercise in Oberlausitz, a densely forested region near Germany’s border with Poland. The operation was a test complex combat mission, the aim of which was for the soldiers to get used to working together and for the Dutch soldiers to get used to operating tanks. On both occasions, soldiers and officers communicated in German using primarily Bundeswehr-owned equipment. In February, the two countries’ defense ministers, Ursula von der Leyen and Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, formally committed to the division on paper. After the official launch on March 17, the German and Dutch soldiers in the battalion will serve under Dutch commanders who will, in turn, serve under German commanders. Major General Johann Langenegger, the commander of the First Tank Division, will remain in charge of the integrated division.

For now, the plan is to add new capabilities to the unit until 2019, when it is expected to be fully operational. In addition to the German tanks, as of February, a Dutch supply ship with a 5,000-ton capacity has been made available to both countries’ navies. The Dutch have long experience fighting at sea, and in a related initiative, Germany’s Sea Batallion—800 elite divers and other soldiers charged with protecting Germany’s waterways and harbors—will be incorporated into the Dutch Marine Corps.

The two countries’ armed forces have also mapped out the linguistic integration: Within the German battalion and its Dutch squadron, the working language will be German; at the brigade and division level, soldiers and officers will speak English. Integrating the countries’ identities and cultures will, however, be harder, as Leuvering acknowledges. The Germans are a bit more formal, the Dutch a bit less so, he notes. A team of researchers from nearby University of Groningen will be studying the troops’ cultural initiatives and success rate.

COOPERATIVE DEFENSE

Military cooperation is, of course, nothing new. For one, since 1989, Germany and France have operated a joint 4,800-staff brigade based in both countries. A small portion of the brigade is currently deployed in Mali, where it is training and supporting local armed forces. And since 1995, Germany and the Netherlands have operated a joint headquarters for the German–Netherlands Corps, a fully integrated rapid response force with soldiers from 13 NATO member states operating under NATO auspices. These older arrangements primarily had a political purpose rather than a battlefield one, namely to enhance European unity and help prevent fighting among its countries. 

Over the past several years, co-fighting arrangements have proliferated across Europe. EU member states have created several so-called battle groups that consist of soldiers from several countries and are meant to be deployed as rapid reaction forces. And last year, Germany and Poland agreed to put one battalion each—some 500 soldiers—under the other’s command. In a similar arrangement, Poland has teamed up with Ukraine and Lithuania to form a joint brigade. “We see this brigade as a driving force that will improve our army,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak told the Polish news agency PAP in January. The brigade, headquartered in the Polish city of Lublin, will become operational next year. In addition to helping Ukraine improve its armed forces, it will participate in UN peacekeeping missions. These newer arrangements will help more recent EU and NATO member states to integrate with their Western allies, all the while helping the partners save money by sharing resources.

But it is exceptional for two countries to combine an entire division—which usually comprises some 15,000 soldiers—in which their troops intermingle. And the Russian nesting doll-like command structure of the First Tank Division is unique. The Dutch–German division is part of the regular Bundeswehr, not a separate international unit. Leuvering even has a Bundeswehr email address. What’s more, the division’s integration will be so complete that the Netherlands would not be able to deploy the 43rd Mechanized without the Bundestag’s approval.

As Carlo Masala, a professor of international relations at the University of the Bundeswehr in Munich told me, such initiatives are important because “they move the military integration of European armed forces forward.” Since nations have generally insisted on running their own armed forces, the Dutch–German military symbiosis is indeed an achievement. And it makes sense for friendly countries—especially those in an economic and political union—to pool military resources. For her part, von der Leyen is so keen on the Dutch–German initiative that she calls it a “prime example for a European defense union” and advocates expansion.

The creation of a military union has long been a dream of europhiles. The 1948 Treaty of Brussels, signed by France, the United Kingdom, and the Benelux countries, was an unsuccessful attempt at establishing collective European defense. Four years later, France, Germany, Italy, and the Benelux countries signed a treaty creating a pan-European defense force, but the treaty was vetoed by the French parliament. Politicians kept up the efforts, and potential defense cooperation was included in the Lisbon Treaty, the 2009 amendment to the Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union. So far, however, there has been little uniform movement toward that goal. As recently as four years ago, EU defense ministers discussed an arrangement in which member states would specialize in different tasks and would thus be able to pool resources and cut defense budgets. The deal failed.

Soldier at December joint exercise for joint Dutch-German division.
Soldier at December joint exercise for joint Dutch-German division.
Marco Dorow / Bundeswehr
Absent a supranational European army, given the expense involved with operating armed forces, individual countries can still team up in the same fashion as Germany and the Netherlands, adding to their capabilities without duplicating the funding. Leuvering certainly thinks so. “If we are successful, the arrangement can be replicated by other countries,” he says. He and his troops know they’re being closely watched by other countries for that very reason.

Further, a division that includes two major European countries such as France and Germany would be a mighty beast, since it would link two of Europe’s largest armed forces. But such a partnership would still be highly unlikely, because neither of the countries would want to be the junior partner, and, as Zandee points out, France’s French-made equipment would be hard to integrate with the Bundeswehr’s primarily German arsenal. The Netherlands has large amounts of German-made equipment as well as equipment made in countries such as Sweden and Australia. “The German–Dutch relationship works because it’s one major player and one smaller player,” notes Masala. “For the Dutch it makes sense for financial reasons.”

In fact, it is more likely that the Dutch–German military sharing economy would be replicated in other senior–junior pairings. Masala suggests that France could team up with, say, Belgium, although there are currently no such plans. But a mighty partner’s impressive equipment alone won’t bring a cash-strapped smaller country on board. “Without a huge amount of trust, the military would never agree to it,” notes Zandee. “Although we’re small compared to the Germans, they’re open to what we’re bringing in. Without that, the smaller partner would feel like a child.” And just as Germany does not exactly need the Netherlands for its protection, the Netherlands does bring valuable niche expertise in crucial areas such as harbor and waterway defense.

Back at the 43rd Mechanized, soldiers and officers are now perfecting their German—not too burdensome a task, given that German and Dutch are closely related. And on both sides of the borders, the division’s members are now undertaking a more difficult task: getting used to each countries’ respective cuisine.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now