Controversies in Military Ethics & Security Policy
Covid and the Bundeswehr – From a tactical to a strategic point of view
Keeping your distance, wearing a face mask, protecting yourself and others from infection: This also poses a number of new problems for the army. In addition, at the time of publication of this issue, thousands of Bundeswehr soldiers were working in health offices and elsewhere as part of the official assistance to the civil sector. In his report, an officer of I. Armored Division looks back on the beginning of the pandemic and describes the numerous tasks that have to be taken into account in crisis management.
The pandemic has hit Germany as well as the rest of the world hard. High infection rates, unprecedented mortality rates and healthcare systems that are at the brink of exhaustion. Nearly our entire way of life as we know it has changed. Masks, social distancing and lockdowns dominate our news today. And yet the missions, tasks and especially the deployments of the army remain intact. Furthermore we support our healthcare system with additional forces wherever and whenever we can. Currently thousands of soldiers are employed throughout Germany.
I personally witnessed the pandemic in a twofold manner: At the beginning of 2020 I served within a reconnaissance company in Northern Germany. There I experienced the beginning of the crisis. We were in the middle of a two-week training exercise. Limited TV and mobile service led to an information gap between us and the rest of the world. Just before a live firing exercise we had to stop and return to our post immediately. We were shocked, confused and anxious about the events to come. The initial measures aimed to prevent the virus from spreading while there was still very limited knowledge about cause and effect. Within days we switched from the training exercise in Eastern Germany to a shift system at home. We were forced to send more than 70% of our soldier’s home to their families which also had to deal with the crisis. While we tried to do our best we encountered several issues. First of all, we could not send everyone home. Especially commanders and leaders needed to stay so that we were able to act. In addition, the civilian sector began to ask for help. So we needed to enable our forces to react within a short notice to move. There were a lot of questions about how we could solve all these issues. At the same time, the deployments to Mali, Afghanistan or Iraq were not stopped. Several of our soldiers still had to go through pre-deployment training. They were about to go into a hazardous environment and we needed to ensure that they get the best training possible. Over time we established the so-called A-H-A rules (derived from Abstand, Hygiene, Alltagsmaske; distance, hygiene and face mask) and enabled more soldiers to work from home. Laptops and systems didn’t didn’t fall from the sky but after a few weeks we were able to establish the “new normal”. Home office, shift systems and a distance of 1.50 metres were now to be accepted and ordered. Every aspect of our planned training for the rest of the year had to be evaluated and planned again. It was not our lack of equipment that became the limiting factor: it was the maximum number of personnel in the same area in order to minimize the risk of an infection.
During this time I was selected to serve as the Adjutant of the Commander of I. Armored Division. This position is similar to what an executive assistant would do. I switched from the company to the division level – from a unit with 200 soldiers in Schleswig-Holstein to one with 20.000 soldiers from the Netherlands to Mecklenburg – Vorpommern.
Thereby I gained a new perspective on the issues and challenges that we as military leaders had to solve. On a divisional level it became clear that Covid impacted every unit throughout Northern Germany. Beginning in June 2020 our civilian counterparts needed more and more help and I. Armored Division acted quickly. But ongoing deployments and planned training put a burden onto the thousands of soldiers. Today the division is deployed throughout the world while simultaneously supporting hundreds of civilian organizations. As long as infections rise, so will the civilian missions. With news about an effective vaccine in both Germany and the United States of America hope remains that this situation will ease throughout the next year. Nevertheless, I believe we will need to continue to support our health care system in the near future. Personally I experienced the restrictions this disease put onto the force firsthand. Together the commander and I visited several units both on pre-deployment training as well as Covid help. It was astounding to see how positively our soldiers were perceived. We helped where we could. It became clear to me that without the support of these soldiers, we could not sustain our high-performance healthcare system. The consequences would have been even worse than they are today. While the new normal was difficult at the beginning, today I believe that everyone has gotten used to it. Our soldiers quickly adapted to it. Today, keeping a distance of 1.50 metres and wearing a face mask has become customary for everyone. This will continue as long as the pandemic exists. But I am optimistic that we will prevail and that the virus will ultimately lose.
Until then we as soldiers will be ready and eager to help – whether it be in a deployment, a flood or in the public health office in Bad Oldesloe. Covid has given us a new understanding of the Bundeswehr’s slogan Wir.Dienen.Deutschland (We serve Germany).
Hauptmann Philipp Wolf
Hauptmann Philipp Wolf, Adjutant to the Commander of I. Armored Division