Controversies in Military Ethics & Security Policy
Be Able to Fight so You Won't Have to Fight – Does this Motto Still Hold True?
Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine marks a turning point, or Zeitenwende, affecting all spheres of our lives. The terrible suffering of Ukraine’s civilian population is forcing millions of people to leave their homes to seek refuge, primarily in European partner countries. The brutality of Russia’s warfare has severe consequences for the international order that for decades has ensured freedom, security and prosperity in Europe. Russian President Vladimir Putin no longer even shies away from threatening to use nuclear weapons. Disruptions in energy and food supplies as well as turbulences in economies and financial markets are evidence of how vulnerable our globalised world is.
Even though Germany, despite the comprehensive civilian and military support it provides to Ukraine, is not de jure a warring party, we are de facto directly affected by the consequences of this war.
After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the war in Ukraine marks the second globally relevant turning point in security policy for our 21st century society. In his policy statement of 27 February, Federal Chancellor Scholz used the term Zeitenwende to describe the gravity of Russia’s attack on Ukraine as well as its impact on the European peace order. In a similar vein, Federal President Steinmeier, in his speech on 28 October 2022, described 24 February of this year as an “epochal shift”.
In response to images of the violence and destruction in Ukraine, to the rising tide of refugees and the other consequences already addressed, as well as to the threat of nuclear escalation, he rightly concluded that this war had “plunged us (...) into a different time, into an uncertainty that we thought we had left behind us”. Addressing Ukraine’s defence against the Russian aggression, Catholic Bishop for the Bundeswehr Overbeck fittingly called this “defending the law against the law of the strongest”.
Federal President Steinmeier claimed that the peace dividend following the fall of the Iron Curtain had “run out” and that Germany should expect “harder years (...) in which we must brave the headwinds”. He said that Germany had to “become capable of handling conflict”, that it was not to develop a “war mentality”, but “resilience and a spirit of resistance”, and that this included, “first and foremost, a strong and well-equipped Bundeswehr”.
What the Zeitenwende means for the Bundeswehr
These requirements are at the heart of my own estimate of the situation as well. In military terminology, this is what we would call a “fundamental change in the situation”, which constitutes a need for action. In our open and democratic societies, we cannot rely on the rules-based international order to be generally accepted anymore. This is precisely the threat situation that the Bundeswehr must expect and be thoroughly prepared for. National and collective defence has once more become its principal task. In order to fulfil this core task, the Bundeswehr needs operational and fully equipped land, sea and air formations, reliable and continuous logistic and medical support as well as capabilities for deterrence and defence of the cyber and information domain. My goal, therefore, is the immediate return to full operational readiness of the Bundeswehr in all areas. In addition to military capabilities defined by target numbers of vehicles, weapons and major equipment, we are primarily aiming at an increase in combat effectiveness. Combat effectiveness is defined as the degree to which a unit or formation is capable of performing its assigned mission, explicitly including supposedly “soft” factors such as troop morale and training levels. In terms of military history, one might argue that we are experiencing a renaissance of what General Ulrich de Maizière, former Chief of Staff, Bundeswehr, aptly described with the motto “Be able to fight so you won’t have to fight”.
Following Russia’s 2014 unlawful annexation of Crimea, Germany responded to the security developments with the 2016 White Paper and the 2018 Bundeswehr Concept, gradually refocusing on national and collective defence as the core mission of the Bundeswehr. As a consequence, the Bundeswehr has since become a major troop contributor to the NATO Response Force as well as the framework nation for the enhanced Forward Presence in Lithuania.
Following Russia’s attack on Ukraine, the significance of the Bundeswehr for the protection of NATO’s eastern flank has increased further. By taking immediate action such as reinforcing our Battle Group in Lithuania, supporting the build-up of a new Battle Group in Slovakia, contributing to Air Policing and deploying naval units to the Baltic Sea, we have impressively demonstrated our operational readiness and our reliability as an Ally. In the coming years, our force contributions pledged to NATO will be expanded considerably across all domains.
The long-standing focus on operations abroad with mandated operational contingents on planned rotations is fading into the background. At the same time, we should not disregard the lessons learned as part of international crisis management. Because our servicemen and servicewomen have demonstrated their ability to prevail in combat in past and in ongoing operations. Focusing on our core mission of national and collective defence, however, also means for the Bundeswehr that there may no longer be a strict separation between home country and theatre of operations. We need to be ready, wherever we are and whatever the circumstances.
The Federal Government has set the right course in terms of equipment with the special fund for the Bundeswehr. It will, however, be years before the Bundeswehr is fully equipped, and it will require reliable funding in future defence budgets. Also, full equipment of the Bundeswehr is just one aspect of its operational readiness. Especially given the historical turning point we are experiencing, it is particularly important to me that we create functional structures and strengthen personnel readiness.
In addition to a robust and demographically sound body of personnel, “mental readiness” – in the sense of resilience, as suggested by the Federal President – is becoming increasingly important. The Bundeswehr, therefore, needs the right mindset in order to be able to accomplish its core mission of national and collective defence.
Looking back on Innere Führung and the Cold War scenario
In addition to lessons learned from deployments abroad in recent years, can we also draw conclusions for today's Bundeswehr from the Cold War and the time of the Iron Curtain in Europe? In assessing the ongoing war in Ukraine, I feel it would be reckless to fail to consider the times of the bloc confrontation with the former Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. It is, of course, always necessary to take into account the specific historical conditions in order to be able to draw conclusions for the presence.
When I joined the Bundeswehr in 1978, we trained for exercises rather than a war emergency. War in Europe was mostly a subject for tabletop exercises and not a brutal reality, as it is in Ukraine today. Germany was a potential frontline state wedged between the two military blocs of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. The nuclear component, and thus an apocalypse of complete annihilation, was a major factor in all defence planning. The Bundeswehr constituted the highly mechanised core of conventional collective defence in central Europe. Ultimately, however, it was not so much an army on operations as a force preparing for a potential state of tension or defence by continuously training conscripts and reservists to ensure its buildup capability. All thoughts and actions of the troops were guided by planning, training and exercising for a war emergency. “Be able to fight so you won't have to fight” became the guiding principle of deterrence and would shape the mindset of the Bundeswehr for decades.
Even then, the “inner compass” of the armed forces, i.e. the answer to the questions of the purpose of their service and what motivates them to serve, was an essential component of the credibility of deterrence. Because the resulting “troop morale”, or in more technical terms, its relevance for combat effectiveness in accomplishing the mission of national and collective defence, was an essential quality and central element of effective deterrence. The considerations of the “intellectual fathers” of the organisational and leadership philosophy underlying the Bundeswehr since its establishment in 1955 (Innere Führung, often translated as Leadership Development and Civic Education), were also based on this insight. Particularly the former Wehrmacht officers and subsequent Bundeswehr generals von Baudissin and von Kielmansegg concluded from the lessons learned from their own past that the Bundeswehr as an army in a democracy would only become a highly effective instrument if freedom and justice became a living part of it. Also, every soldier, no matter their rank, was to be bound by a legal and moral framework in their actions. Innere Führung – as a “moral armoury and instrument of modern leadership” – was needed to achieve this effectiveness.
During the Cold War, Innere Führung had thus provided a conceptual framework for integrating the Bundeswehr into society, ensuring its subordination to the free and democratic constitutional order and promoting the ideal of the “citizen in uniform”. All military personnel was to experience these principles during their service – both their civil rights and their civil duties – and become aware of the limits of their own actions just as the limits of obedience. Since the beginnings of the Bundeswehr, Innere Führung has thus provided not only a close interconnection between military striking power, i.e. combat effectiveness, and our free and democratic constitutional order, but also a moral compass for all soldiers that is in line with the constitution and the concept of humanity derived from it.
Despite this clear commitment to Innere Führung, the concept has frequently been the subject of sometimes harsh criticism from the very start, which was mostly the result of the way this organisational and leadership philosophy was translated into practice. Critics claimed that the concept was too theoretical and abstract. During the 1970s, the debate about Innere Führung became less polarised. The 1979 annual report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces therefore stated that the concept had been accepted by the forces. It would stay this way in the following years and did not change much even during the controversies in society about the NATO double-track decision.
After the end of the Cold War, German reunification and the resulting peace dividend, national and collective defence increasingly faded into the background as a mission for the Bundeswehr. The armed forces were gradually downsized and for more than two decades, their primary task would be to conduct operations abroad. Then Defence Minister Struck publicly stated that Germany’s security was also being defended in the Hindu Kush. This answer to the question of the relevance of military service after 1990 was by no means easy to digest, neither for the servicemen and servicewomen, nor for society. For the new task spectrum of operations abroad as part of international crisis management, where deployed troops, particularly in Afghanistan, were increasingly involved in combat, the motto was now “Be able to fight in order to survive”. But this definition of mission accomplishment and proving oneself in the face of mortal danger on operations had not become sufficiently established, even after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and the resulting return to the core task of national and collective defence. Then came 24 February 2022.
“Fighting morale” based on values
On this date, Russia’s unlawful war of aggression on Ukraine began. It inevitably raises questions of “operational morale” and responsibility, as well as of military leadership on the part of the Russian aggressor. Systemic deficiencies in the Russian armed forces, for example in their treatment of conscripts, were well-known even before the war in Ukraine. In the same vein, the brutality of Russian units and the complete lack of a moral compass guiding their actions was already evident in earlier wars such as the ones in Chechnya and, more recently, Syria. The fact that the Ukrainian forces are so successful in their defence and even offence against Russia’s invading forces is clearly attributable to the abovementioned factor of “fighting morale”. While the Russian troops do not seem to really know what they are fighting for in this casualty-intensive war, the Ukrainian soldiers are most motivated in their courageous fight by wanting to defend their country and their livelihoods. In addition, there seems to be mistrust at all levels on the Russian side. This war therefore shows us clearly how important morale is for the success or failure of armed forces in combat.
What is more, reports of war crimes committed by Russian troops in Ukraine – in complete opposition to our ideal of the citizen in uniform – show us where military action can lead if there is no values-based leadership and mistrust prevails instead.
Taking into account our own lessons learned during the Cold War and on our operations abroad, what this current war teaches the Bundeswehr has two important aspects in terms of organisation and personnel. First, Innere Führung as a concept and the moral compass aligned with our free and democratic constitutional order have lost none of their significance. Second, the war in Ukraine confirms that we are well advised to invest in “mentally equipping” our servicemen and servicewomen. This sets the parameters within which the Bundeswehr will have to systematically focus on a “national and collective defence mindset” in the coming years, with the explicit goal of strengthening operational readiness as a whole by substantially increasing the combat effectiveness of the forces.
To increase combat effectiveness, the Bundeswehr must for one thing better align itself with the current societal and security environment, based on its organisational and leadership philosophy that has endured from the Cold War until today. For another thing, this requires a return to the core objective of Innere Führung – a maximum military effectiveness of values-based armed forces. My ambition for the further evolution of Innere Führung is therefore to both preserve and at the same time readjust what has proven to be useful. This is the only way that the Bundeswehr and its personnel will develop a more resilient identity in the face of existing hybrid threats such as disinformation or other forms of power projection. It will also be the only way to enable the Bundeswehr to successfully counter military threats in the context of national and collective defence: with robustness and fully operational armed forces at a high state of readiness.
We should also remember our own military tradition. As a conscious confrontation with the past, this is an integral part of the values-based identity of the Bundeswehr. One key element of our tradition is that the Bundeswehr proved its worth as a deterrence force in the Cold War and contributed to the fall of the Iron Curtain as part of NATO. Participation in international crisis management missions now also forms part of the identity and tradition of the Bundeswehr – which includes combat experience and the commemoration of the dead.
The evolution of Innere Führung
Echoing the criticism of Innere Führung during the Cold War, the practicability of this concept remains a matter of debate even under current conditions. Instead of being abstract, Innere Führung must therefore be comprehensible and tangible in describing the purpose and characteristics of military service. In theory and practice, aspects such as mission command must not be counteracted by micromanagement, mistrust or a lack of tolerance for human error. The same applies to honesty and constructive criticism as a feature of being a responsible citizen in uniform.
Both aspects, the evolution of Innere Führung and the return to traditions, first and foremost require good leadership by military superiors who are convincing role models, know how to build trust, value accountability and possess a willingness to make decisions and take risks – in other words: agility.
While these are by no means new criteria for good leadership, they have regained relevance. Today, military superiors must once again prepare their subordinates for the realities of a large-scale military conflict with an adversary such as Russia. Given how our everyday lives provide us with a sense of security from existential threats, the willingness to face situations like those we see in the war in Ukraine is to deliberately accept personal hardship. The ability to fight in high-intensity combat and the willingness to endure hardship and make sacrifices are qualities increasingly expected from all military personnel. Military service comes at a high price.
All military superiors must therefore now address these specific demands of military service, ensuring discipline as well as mission accomplishment even in the face of hostilities like those in Ukraine. The education of soldiers is therefore at least as important as commanding and training them. While Innere Führung provides a guideline for the “mental equipment” of servicemen and servicewomen, to paraphrase Baudissin, it requires a concrete and, more importantly, consistent practical implementation. This is a standing mission for all military superiors.
Given the standards we have set for citizens in uniform and the national and collective defence mindset, we must increase all Bundeswehr members’ certainty about what is expected from them. This requires us to implement a personal development concept that entails a life-long process of learning and qualification in all training measures, thus promoting conscientious decision-making skills. This kind of comprehensive education, which far surpasses the current understanding of civic education in the Bundeswehr through its much greater ethical dimension, will not only help prevent gross and often inhumane misconduct as we have repeatedly observed, primarily from the Russian side, in the war in Ukraine. This exceedingly comprehensive approach to education can also help protect against mental overload in extreme situations. Personal development thus increases certainty in decision making.
In this context, medical care and care provided to deployed soldiers by military chaplains has also gained in significance. The same applies to care provided to children and other family members in this new operational and exercise reality. Increasingly short warning and deployment times across the board pose new challenges in terms of the compatibility of work and family life and the duty of care of the Bundeswehr as an employer. Existing care concepts governing, for example, childcare or caregiving for family members as well as the family support organisation mostly hail from the era of international crisis management and will have to become more flexible and scalable. Here, too, the national and collective defence mindset must become second nature to all those involved.
Finally, cohesion factors heavily in all these considerations – and this is not only true for Bundeswehr structures. It is not a new insight from the war in Ukraine that cohesion within small combat teams is essential for the combat effectiveness of armed forces. Solidarity and the successful handling of extreme situations require mutual trust. Effectively mastering stressful situations is therefore a decisive factor for cohesion within field units. But it is not only horizontal cohesion within a small combat team that is important. Vertical cohesion across all levels of hierarchy is just as relevant. Mission command can only be successful if there is mutual trust between superiors and subordinates. This equally applies to the level of units and formations, to the major organisational elements and to the Ministry of Defence.
Back in the Cold War, the objective of “training under near-combat conditions”, which was primarily based on lessons learned in World War II, was to prevail on the battlefield. Today, training and education in the Bundeswehr must realistically aspire to successfully tackle a scenario like the war in Ukraine in all its various facets. In the years to come, this will have to be reflected in training and exercises at both the national and multinational levels. This is not to say that we will completely turn our backs on the Bundeswehr operations abroad, which continue to this day.
“Willingness” as the key element of credible deterrence
Cohesion between society and the Bundeswehr is another important factor in combat effectiveness. In contrast to Cold War times, the armed forces are no longer tied to society through conscription today. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, however, approval rates for the Bundeswehr have risen sharply. The general willingness to show Alliance solidarity and invest in the operational readiness of the Bundeswehr has currently reached a new high.
This approval is no doubt important in that it inspires confidence in servicemen and servicewomen regarding their mission to defend justice and freedom in Germany, and to endure the hardships involved in military service. Therefore, I quite agree with Federal President Steinmeier, who said that “society needs a strong Bundeswehr – but the Bundeswehr also needs a society that supports it.” In my opinion, this new notion of military preparedness in our society will not necessarily result in a new spiral of militarisation, despite the deliberate violation of international law by Russia. Credible deterrence by an operational Bundeswehr in line with the motto “Be able and willing to fight so you won’t have to fight” is absolutely no contradiction here.
The answer to my initial question whether the motto of the Cold War still holds true is therefore: yes! It holds true if in addition to “being able to fight”, servicemen and servicewomen are willing to defend our values and our security and society is prepared for that. For this to succeed, we must also remain true to our principles, our moral commitment to our free and democratic constitutional order and to international law. Innere Führung is the right concept for this, both in the past and now. To put it into practice and fill it with life is and will remain the mission of all members of the Bundeswehr.
 Zorn, Eberhard (2021): Wofür braucht Deutschland Soldaten? Wofür töten, wofür sterben? In: Maurer, Jochen and Rink, Martin (eds.): Einsatz ohne Krieg? Die Bundeswehr nach 1990 zwischen politischem Auftrag und militärischer Wirklichkeit. Militärgeschichte, Sozialwissenschaften, Zeitzeugen. Göttingen, p. 406.
Eberhard Zorn is German Chief of Defence. He entered the Bundeswehr in 1978 at the Artillery School in Idar-Oberstein, and studied economics and organizational sciences at the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Hamburg. Prior to his appointment as Chief of Defence, his previous positions included Director-General for Personnel (2017-2018) and Director Forces Policy (2015-2017) at the German Federal Ministry of Defence, as well as Commander of the Rapid Response Forces Division (DSK) at Stadtallendorf (2014-2015).