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The Young Generation and the German Navy

An interview with Thomas von Buttlar by Gertrud Maria Vaske

Herr von Buttlar, the navy is recruiting young people. What is the current personnel situation in the navy?

On the whole, the situation is not bad in the navy. However, we are extremely concerned in the technical fields. Especially electronics engineers, electricians, and IT specialists, where we currently don’t have enough applicants.

The number of applicants is falling. Why is this? What do you think?

The navy is somewhat special as far as recruiting young people is concerned. It is only deployed on the coast. We don’t have the barracks in southern Germany, where lots of young people live, who could then become interested in joining the navy. The navy isn’t something they even think about, and that makes it especially difficult for us to recruit young people.

Why is the navy worse affected than the air force or the army?

Well, the reason is the following: young people today naturally take a careful look at what’s on offer, but for the most part they want to work very close to home. It’s simply that the navy is not in southern Germany, but on the coast. And that makes things difficult. But we do find that if we are able to interest people in the navy and bring them to the coast and they spend a day with us, then more than half of these young people will actually write an application.

What specifically does the navy offer young people? What is particularly attractive?

The navy is a unique world. As you know, 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is water, and simply to experience this dimension in all its aspects is what really sets the navy apart. It’s not just the unique nature and weather phenomena. In particular, it is the camaraderie on board a ship that one experiences in the navy, this working and living together in close proximity, which is very challenging, but it is also something extraordinarily special.

Working in the navy is also very stressful at the moment. What strains could be minimized?

The people who come to us know that seafaring is very strenuous and that it is very demanding. It is not so much the duration of stress that is criticized as its unpredictability. In other words, plans are always changing at short notice. Going to sea is brought forward, or returning to the home port is delayed, because another mission comes along. This is what really bothers people, and we realize that we have some work to do here.

So you’re saying that planning and predictability could be improved. Is being in the navy really a dream job?

Well I have been in the navy for nearly 40 years, and I have not been bored for even a single day. Of course, it depends on what your idea of a dream job is. But it is a career that is immensely varied, highly challenging, and also very satisfying. So in this respect, I can answer “yes.”

What are the essential qualities an applicant should possess?

The desire to work in a team is extremely important. Nothing on board can be done alone. Everyone depends on everyone else. The captain is just as reliant on the youngest seaman as the other way around. Everyone has several functions on board. Team spirit, camaraderie, taking responsibility for others – these are the most important qualities that one should have on board. And of course you also need to be tenacious when things take longer than expected, in heavy seas, or when the task is difficult. And indeed there are certainly some deployments that are not so easy. A good helping of courage and endurance is always needed.

Which deployments aren’t so easy?

Let’s return to the dimension of the sea and the fact that it covers 70 percent of the Earth’s surface. The sea is really the lifeblood of the economy. 90 percent of the goods that we import into Germany arrive by sea, and for all the good that the sea brings, there is of course another, darker side. This includes piracy, which our soldiers experience around the Horn of Africa, but also refugees – most recently in the southern Mediterranean and in the Aegean. These are highly emotive scenarios, and they demand a lot from our sailors who have to deal with them.

In this job, is there any way to achieve a balance between family and work?

One should be entirely honest about this. Seafaring and family are not really compatible. They are mutually exclusive. That is the case in the armed forces, and also in civilian seafaring. But what is important is precisely the balance between work and family. For instance, are there times when I could devote more attention to family life? Especially alternating between time at sea and time on land or in port – here it’s important to have a reasonable balance. And also alternating between an on board assignment and a land assignment. Once again, here too, predictability is extremely important. In other words, can I rely on getting home for the start of the school holidays? Will I be home for Christmas? Will I be at home for a particular occasion such as birthdays or special family days? That is highly important. And conversely, the family can make arrangements if they know in advance that you’re not home at a particular time. It’s not nice, but at least you can prepare for it. And you know that afterwards you’ll be back home as planned.

Improvements in the working time model – what is good about the multiple crew concept, and what is not so good?

We are in the process of implementing the multiple crew model. The new weapons systems that we are getting – the F125-class frigates, which just had their first test voyage – will be the first to fully implement this multiple crew concept. We will have eight crews for four ships. That means we can leave the ship in the theater of operations. The crews then fly in and complete the changeover there. This certainly improves predictability, as no matter what happens in the theater of operations and regardless of the deployment location, we can change the crew at a fixed time, and we can keep to this. And we hope that as a result we will also reduce the overall workload for the crew – i.e. days at sea. But that’s still some way into the future. What we are already doing at the moment is changing crews on the minesweepers, on the fast attack craft, and in submarines. And this is actually proving popular with crews as we save a lot of time, we don’t spend the transit time at sea, and predictability is greatly improved.

How do young sailors view Innere Führung?

For our young sailors, Innere Führung is really only as good as the example that their superiors set. Of course one can learn Innere Führung and its principles in the lecture theatre, but essentially it comes down to setting an example and putting it into practice. That is absolutely vital. So here the superiors play a particularly important role.

Innere Führung and current challenges – is it being put into practice now more than ever? That is, is it needed more than ever now?

I think so. It is being put into practice as much as ever, but it is also needed more and more. Because of the various tasks that we have – the whole range from combat missions to humanitarian missions – we basically need the full set of equipment that Innere Führung provides. And this needs to be used appropriately. It is not a matter of one part or other being especially important, but it is rather the overall concept that makes Innere Führung what it is, and it is this overall concept that needs to be applied.

The term “Innere Führung” sounds good. What aspect about it do you believe is particularly useful for the navy?

Innere Führung is really timeless in two respects. Timeless in the sense that it is independent of the form of military service, whether a conscript army or volunteer army or professional army, and also of the tasks that we have. So in this respect, the whole of Innere Führung in all its parts is important for the navy, too. There is not somehow one particular main focus – the entire spectrum is important and should be applied. But timeless also means that superiors should always have time for their subordinates. With the new regulation of working hours for soldiers, witch also applies to those in superior positions, we must be careful that the practice of Innere Führung does not become victim to a time clock.

Challenges such as refugee movements and observing rest periods – to what extent does Innere Führung particularly help sailors in the navy?

It is particularly helpful here. Innere Führung provides the ethical framework, the moral values. It helps members of the armed forces to decide, in any situation, what is particularly important to them in that situation. For a sailor, it is very clear that if someone is in distress at sea, there is no question that one should help them and rescue them. That is completely irrespective of one’s own regulated working hours or perhaps the feeling that one could do with some rest. Human life is the priority here, and therefore in such circumstances Innere Führung is an extremely important source of advice and, of course, of inner certainty as well.

Captain Thomas von Buttlar, thank you very much for this interview.

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Thomas von Buttlar has been personnel sub-division head in the Navy Command (Marinekommando, MarKdo) in Rostock since 2013. He joined the navy in July 1977. After officer training and studying aerospace technology at Universität der Bundeswehr München, he found his military home in the fast attack craft force, where he completed leadership assignments as captain of the “S50 Panther” fast attack craft, deputy commander of the 7th fast attack craft squadron (7. Schnellbootgeschwader) and commander of the 2nd fast attack craft squadron (2. Schnellbootgeschwader). Following naval staff training, he served in varying assignments in the field of human resources and in leadership/deployment. His last assignment was as head of the reorientation unit in the German Federal Ministry of Defense (Bundesministerium der Verteidigung, BMVg).

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