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The Citizen in Uniform, Now and in the Future – a Personal Perspective

“The most curious thing about the future is that then our own time will be described as the good old times.” 

Ernest Hemingway

It is hard to say, today, whether future generations will look back romantically on the current situation our world is in, and call it the “good old times.” But one thing is certain: in the here and now, we have a duty to think about our future. This is not a question of gazing into a crystal ball, or reading tea leaves, or indeed making expectant visits to an oracle – even if military commanders of yore set great store by their predictions.

Modern, resilient armed forces depend on long-term, forward-thinking security planning.

But this is not to claim that strategic foresight in the German armed forces is able to predict what will happen 15 or 20 years from now. Rather, it is a case of systematically recording a wide variety of possible future scenarios, as well as pointing out the consequences with regard to our range of actions and capabilities.

The goal of strategic foresight, therefore, is to identify plausible developments and to consider them on equal terms, side by side. It is not to attempt to specify probabilities of occurrence, as ultimately this only opens the door to pointless speculation, devoid of all substance.

By “thinking for the future” in this way, we aim to anticipate better, recognize earlier, and interpret in more detail. We want to be sufficiently prepared, for both crises and unexpected events, which certainly may change the fundamental situation.

In this context, the term “black swans” is used – referring not only to the extraordinary and significant zoological beings, but by extension to extremely rare and at the same time rarely extreme events. These are events that people do not want to imagine happening, but which do occur nonetheless. Ultimately, distorted perceptions, selective attention, and suppression of undesired scenarios are not what we need when it comes to preparing the armed forces appropriately for different futures – and not just in terms of hardware.

Technological megatrends

Autonomization, digital transformation, and hybridization will continue to bring significant changes in the years ahead, not only for the German armed forces. As a result, these armed forces will themselves have to change significantly.

At this point, let us just mention some keywords: virtually limitless networking, big data, human enhancement, progressive optimization of the individual, #HomoDigitalis, grey areas between the virtual and the real world, the (apparent) perfection of information, cognition, and communication technology. These current trends are accompanied and consequently accelerated by demographic change that offers little scope for interpretation. A change in recruitment practice is therefore absolutely necessary.

In addition to the planning implications for the armed forces that this kaleidoscope presents, it is important not to lose sight of one crucial aspect: the future place of the citizen in uniform.

In future, the German armed forces will continue to offer policy-makers an appropriate range of options for military action: globally, in NATO, in the EU, under the umbrella of the United Nations, and in coalitions. They will do this with significant troop strength and a broad capability profile, while playing a part in the country’s overall security precautions, as well as in prevention, protection, deterrence, and international crisis management.

But rapid rates of change, the speed and complexity of operations, the mere existence of the “irrational,” and potential enemies who obey different rules are placing greater demands on people than ever before: on their ability to anticipate, on their conscience as a moral authority, on their personal persuasiveness, and on their ability to make sound judgments and decisions “in the fog of the unknown,” as well as based on their feel for the situation – which algorithms and formal logic lack even a rudimentary capacity to provide.

Leading by mission (Führen mit Auftrag)

We are faced with technological developments that not only open up opportunities, but also create temptations. For precisely this reason, it is vital to draw clear boundaries to protect the essential core of our proven concept of Innere Führung (leadership development and civic education).

One thing is certain: Innere Führung and Führen mit Auftrag are two sides of the same coin. 

Judging the effects of one’s own actions always requires thinking beyond one’s immediate area of responsibility.

The key elements of mission-type tactics (Auftragstaktik) are the freedom to act and to delegate as well as to accept that responsibility, a reasonable tolerance of errors, and the overwhelming importance of the commander’s intent for intellectual interaction between superiors and those they lead.

Our armed forces owe their existence to this leadership principle, despite – or perhaps because of – a sometimes difficult environment. It has proven particularly effective in overseas deployments and missions.

Command technology and information technology rightly play a prominent role in the armed forces. This role is set to increase even further. Command systems will be better and faster at handling the sometimes diffuse flow of information, and they will reduce the complexity of its presentation.

But we should be careful: command systems and digital situation maps show only a pseudo-reality. For the foreseeable future, total information and total control will remain purely in the realm of wishful thinking. They cannot relieve the military leader of her or his responsibility, since leading by mission means taking on precisely this responsibility. There are two basic ways that this can be done. One is to decide everything yourself. The second is to delegate, but without giving up overall responsibility. This is exactly what mission-related tactics require.

Whenever personal responsibility becomes diffuse, clear rules have to be put in place. Our proven understanding of leadership is based on the indivisible responsibility of the military leader, and on the recognition of his or her conscience as a moral authority. Despite all technological capabilities, this responsibility may never be given up. Difficulties always arise when decisions are taken across command levels on the basis of supposedly better situational overviews. Interfering with the freedom to act of those who are led destroys mutual trust. Therefore, command systems must never be an end in themselves, and “leapfrogging” orders across command levels should be the exception.

Only the soldiers on the ground have a feel for the situation and can choose a suitable method of implementation within a defined scope of action. For this reason, we have a continuing need for well-educated, creative, decisive, and ethically confident women and men. Anyone who thinks military decisions can be automated and made without risks is mistaken.

Mathematical algorithms and the systems based on them cannot reproduce ethics, morality, and a gut feeling which is not always merely rational. Yet extreme situations in ever more complex deployment scenarios demand that tactical decisions taken under time pressure and pressure to act stand up to moral and ethical scrutiny. This is extremely challenging – and it is something that only humans can do.

Drawing boundaries

Autonomous systems must therefore never be given complete freedom of action. Tensions arise here that need to be resolved. It is important not to close ourselves off from technological and social developments – but at the same time we should define our own clear rules.

In terms of their values, standards, cultures, and origins, future generations of soldiers are becoming more diverse. As a result, it will become ever harder to reach agreement in terms of concepts and actions. Yet this is an essential requirement for a uniform understanding of leadership. The necessary preconditions for this are similarly uniform values, clearly defined and internalized tolerances, and a clearly stated claim to leadership, education, and training. These will continue to be the fundamental pillars of the citizen in uniform in the future as well.

Not only do our soldiers have a right to ­expect this, but so do our society and parliament, in whose name and on whose behalf they act. Our self-determination based on our common values, must remain a constant in whatever futures we imagine.



Vice Admiral Joachim Rühle became Vice Chief of Defense of the German armed forces in 2017. Following assignments on various sea-going units, in 2005 he became commander of Task Group SEF (Stan­dard Einsatzausbildungsverband Flotte/Fleet Standard Operational Training Force), and in 2010 Director of the Knowledge Management Directorate at the Allied Joint Force Command in Naples. From 2012 to 2014, he was Director-General for Planning at the German Federal Ministry of Defense (Bundesministerium der Verteidigung, BMVg), during which time he also served as acting head of the ­Directorate-General for Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service ­Support. From 2014 to 2017, he held the post of Director-General for Personnel.