"Freie Operationen" - a review

The German Army (Heer) experienced a reform during the mid- to late-90's when Helmut Willmann reformed as Inspector of the army. An important episode was the Generalstagung (general's conference) in 1998 when he pressed for a reform of the German operational art (usually associated with the title 'Freie Operationen').

The unclassified key document about this reform on that internal conference was "Gedanken zur Operationsführung im Deutschen Heer", which was published by the army to give its its officer corps a coherent and almost comprehensive doctrinal base. You can read mostly the same in English in "Operational Art of the German Army: Freie Operationen" by Oberst (Col.) Werner Kullack (1999).

I think the time is due for a review of that concept. Did it stand the test of time and does it withstand a military theory critique?

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The background of that reform was quite dire. Decades of sitting in wait for the red hordes under NATO command and quenched into NATO doctrine for Central Europe had atrophied many important operational and tactical skills. Even the armour brigade HQs were quite accustomed to think about ground war as a war with a continuous front, and about tank battalions as great defensive (anti-tank) forces that held their sector.

It hadn't always been like that - the Wehrmacht's mobile warfare skills had been recovered during the 50's.
The dominance of nuclear battlefield firepower and equipment that was mostly unsuitable for ideal tactics (such as very short-legged tanks) had apparently killed off most of the daring mobile warfare style sometime during the 60's in theory and 70's in practice.
During the 60's even some WW2 veteran officers behaved as if ground war was about provoking an enemy concentration just to break contact quickly and destroy that concentration with a nuclear strike.
Conventional war planning of the 70's and 80's wasn't about encirclement and other basic tactics and operational art; it was in great part about defensive lines and a grind of force vs. force, material vs. material - till nuke fire missions would eventually ruin conventional warfare anyway.

The attritionist/nuke attitude still prevailed till the mid-90's despite the vastly changed environment. The Western German Bundeswehr had absorbed the Eastern German NVA (well, parts of it) and begun to shrink to distribute the peace dividend. This kept the leadership quite busy for years.

That's roughly the setting into which the reform came to pass.

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Let me quickly summarize (most) key components of the 'Freie Operationen' reform; it's a quick keyword collection because it was really more a repair effort than an effort to innovate. Most components are well-known and easily summed up:

emphasis on large mechanised formations / initiative / rhythm of battle / counter-concentration / indirect approach / rapid change of combat type (defensive/offensive) / leadership art / information superiority / operations in depth / unity of command / deep fires / trilingual / joint / combined / force protection / less forces in larger space / stick to decisions / deconfliction / shorter leadership processes / digitization / air mechanization / armoured raid as last choice for deep operations / capable mission support and logistics / multinational corps / exploitation of space

The reform of operational art was mostly about conventional warfare, but other reforms of that time were in great part about the provision of available and ready forces for rapid reaction and peace-keeping missions. That fitted well into the security policy trend of the 90's in Europe.

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A real, full review of the reform would easily exceed even a year's blog volume. I'll therefore restrict my comments on points of disagreement (and disappointment) in regard to conventional warfare.
Most of the reform was quite good if not outright necessary. The state of the German army in the mid-90's was 'suboptimal'.

The principle of counter-concentration

This was a NATO-level principle. Whenever a crisis would arrive somewhere on the frontiers of NATO, the allies were supposed to send their readily available forces to counter-concentrate against a threat.

That's nice in principle, but I consider it as too optimistic to assume that this would be happen. A counter-concentration would be akin to the mobilizations that pre-dated the First World War. It's a risky (escalating) and large step - and a reversal would be very risky. A careful or peace-optimistic political leadership could easily miss the last possible date for a timely counter-concentration.

The operational art reform assumed a counter-concentration as given and didn't exactly care much about the scenario of a lacking counter-concentration. I think that was a shortcoming.

Deep fires

The deep fires part (this is no actual translation, but I think English readers would call the set of ideas like this) was very reminiscent of the 80's Air-Land Battle concept. The key idea was to partially wear down enemy forces before they enter battle. The damage taken in the process would mean a desirable unfair disadvantage for OPFOR.

That was nice in theory, but a problem in practice. The German army had no long-range munitions for this, and it didn't procure the necessary munitions (as for example ATACMS rockets).

The occupation of corps and division staffs with affairs very far ahead of them leads to an increase of demands on these staffs just as it happened with comparable U.S. staffs. The area of interest became much greater, and thus the amount of needed information and the effort to process and understand the information. Planning becomes more laborious if you add deep fires jobs to field units. In the end, the deep fires idea was working against other ideas in the reform, such as quicker decision-making and bold manoeuvring of heavy forces.

The deep fires job was probably ill-suited to the army in general - it should at that time exclusively have burdened the air force (Luftwaffe), which had been in the interdiction business for decades (at least bridge and depot busting, not as much the destruction of marching units). The army simple had no and still has no suitable equipment for fire effects at more than ~80 km (then ~35 km) depth. A depth of ~ 35 km was roughly equivalent to 2-4 hours time for the attrition of the OPFOR reserves during march and marshalling. It would be quite optimistic to expect much of such a short exposure time behind the battlefield.

Rhythm and Initiative

The concept emphasized this a lot, and native English speakers with military theory knowledge might think of 'OODA' at this point. The leader was expected to choose the right time and place for the ground combat and not to allow the enemy to make and execute his own choices to his advantage.

The fuzzy idea of "initiative" (cherished in some armies, but nevertheless questionable as principle because it's a symptom and because of its inferior importance in comparison with many other factors) was a poor description for this intent. "Rhythm", a term that suggests some regularity of action - was an outright dysfunctional choice of a word.

The real intent behind these keywords was quite simple and self-evident. Or it should have been so.

Stick to a decision if possible

The concept stressed that a commander was expected to stick to his plan even in face of a flank threat if possible. This was actually meant as an expression of the Schwerpunkt idea (don't get distracted by nuisances, keep most of your force concentrated for a decisive blow), but I would be hard-pressed to find a worse wording (than used in the German original) for it.
The decision between sticking with a plan and adapting your action to a new situation is a classical and tricky challenge. A simple standard answer ignores the complexity of the battlefield; it cannot be right in general.

Fix the enemy

This was omitted. It's not always necessary to completely fix an enemy, holding efforts are nevertheless very helpful. Shaping ops can occupy enemy reserves and holding forces can fix OPFOR forward elements or at least force them to keep up a delaying effort.

The difference between the own main effort forces' tempo (executing flank attack, for example) and the enemy's tempo is critical in mobile battles. Shaping ops and holding forces are important tools to influence that ratio (as well as the general disposition of forces) favourably.. The operational art concept of "Freie Operationen" neglected this aspect in favour of simplistic fixing the enemy.

To be fair; the reform was about changes and additions. Maybe the neglect of established brigade to corps tactics was intentional.

Indirect approach / Basil Liddell Hart

Liddell Hart was in my opinion not "der große strategische Denker" (the great strategic thinker) that Willmann seems to have seen in him. I found the references to Liddell Hart rather odd; Liddell Hart and Clausewitz were (if I remember correctly) the only art of war theorists who were pushed as examples in the reform's published papers.

That may have been an odd symptom of political correctness. It's not smart to supply ammo to your opponents if you push for reform, after all (a green-social democrat government was coming and nobody knew what the supposedly pacifist greens would have done with a general who used Wehrmacht, Reichswehr or imperial period generals as reference).


Deconfliction is just another job for staffs that slows down and restricts the actions of indirect fire and aerial assets. A strong requirement for deconfliction is in conflict with the intent to have very high tempo staffs. I wrote about deconfliction before.

Information superiority

Counter-reconnaissance was mentioned indirectly, but the strong emphasis was on sensors. This was typical for the late 90's and early 00's and is still going strong in procurement and lobbying. Corporations can sell thermal and radar sensors, but they won't make profit on the tactical training of ground forces for counter-reconnaissance.

Information superiority is difficult to achieve if you allow OPFOR to do its own recce job. The German army's ability to interdict enemy armoured reconnaissance vehicles is much too limited in my opinion. The new reconnaissance vehicles have a rather limited ability to defeat enemy reconnaissance vehicles, for example.


The budget and costs problem was not ranking highly during the development of that reform, that's for sure. The costs for sensors and digitization of communication and control was recognized, but the cost efficiency of assets such as army helicopters was badly neglected as a factor.

Air mechanization

The costs problem leads to the concept of air mechanization. The most ambitious part of this was a tactic to use combat and transport helicopters (the latter were meant to be mostly carrying a reconnaissance module, a SEAD module or troops) far ahead of own ground forces. They were meant to really operate over hostile or contested territory.

The high cost of the high-tech helicopters NH90TTH and UHU Tiger should have made obvious that this tactic was only feasible on a very small, and thereby not very influential scale. The tactic was even more risky in light of the need for these helicopters in more classic missions.

U.S. combat experiences over Afghanistan and Iraq in 2001-2003 clearly demonstrated their vulnerability to relatively crude air defences when flying over anything else but friendly terrain. Partially-armoured helicopters are simply not well-suited for that kind of mission in conventional warfare.

The aggressive facets of air mechanization were dropped by at the latest 2005, but we stuck to the expensive helicopter procurement. We are either wasting money on a too large helicopter force (the size is likely OK) or the procurement plans were completely inadequate for the 90's air mechanization ideas. The latter is quite obvious and also points out the utter lack of affordability of ambitious air mechanization concepts to date.

This doesn't mean that the concept is finished for good; air mechanization concepts have been popping up in the German army since the 60's and both the Russians and Americans showed have put much effort in the exploitation of the helicopter's theoretical mobility (which is almost regardless of terrain) on the battlefield (and behind).

Information for quicker ops

Willmann promoted the strange idea that better information would accelerate operations on the ground - especially their planning.
That's odd because it should have been anticipated that they weren't so much about to get better information as they were about to get more information. More information slows down staffs and decision-making.

This is one of several conflicts for which the reformers did not settle on a trade off (compromise) and preferred to strive for the best of all worlds at once instead.


The reform emphasized mobile warfare and mostly ignored the contribution of closed ('tank-unfriendly') terrain and infantry. It's as if the world had turned into prairie land, not much unlike the Lüneberger Heide training area.


There was extremely little attention paid to exploiting success. It sounded as if they assumed that an OPFOR division would disappear once beaten.

Sorry, but that's not how things usually look like. An OPFOR division may have lost only 40% of its combat power, maybe 20% of its troops at the moment of its defeat. That's a typical point at which it's likely to become disorderly and to attempt a retreat.

That in turn is the moment for exploitation; get rid of the remaining 2/3 at vastly improved combat value odds. How should this be done with few troops in a large area, with a dense road network, a reluctance to commit ground forces on deep offensive movements (pursuit) and with the expectation that your involved troops should be ready for the next action ASAP?

The operational art of "Freie Operationen" did not seem to give any answer to this question. It is/was about wearing down and defeating the enemy, not about finishing the job tactically.

Lack of economy of force units for low force density areas

That's probably my pet topic. Counter-reconnaissance, exploitation, low force density, economy of force; Freie Operationen simply did not cover it adequately. The focus was clearly on large formations (Brigades, Divisions), fires, sensors, command and a bit classic armoured recce.

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The Willmann/'Freie Operationen' reform of the operational art of the Heer was a large and mostly necessary repair job which provided a useful screen to other revival and repair efforts. It fell short of really meeting the state of the art of military theory, though. Its own innovations were rather mixed, some (the most ambitious part of air mechanization) were preventable foolishness.

The Heer got busy since the mid 90's with ever more peacekeeping and nation-building missions, the adaption for these missions and the actual time spent on these missions have improved related small war and non-combat skills.

The need for improvements of conventional warfare skills on the operational and tactical levels of war is never-ending, though. The Willmann reform should be considered as a mere starting point for improvements. We're not in immediate danger of getting entangled in a major conventional war; a great situation for ambitious experiments to further advance the tactical and operational arts. Just stay clear of excessively expensive concepts such as air mechanisation.

Sven Ortmann

Feel free to add insights on the topic in the comments if you had an inside look at what was going on. I received hints that there was more going on than my research indicated. I did obviously neglect the practical and personal side of the topic.
To all others: This review is superficial, but at least it exists. I am not aware of any other published after-action review about this topic.
I didn't comment on the HVK/KRK issue because I think that one is a separate topic.

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