On multinational formations


I'd like to hear your thoughts on the prospects for the Eurozone joint strike force, especially given the current financial problems.

There are multiple joint European (or at least multinational) paper tigers, such as Eurocorps and a EU Battlegroup. I already planned to write about this in general. The short version is that I like multinational corps as peacetime formations, but dislike multinational divisions and brigades. My rationale is about the inner workings of an army and about budgets, it's not about foreign policy.

I postponed this topic in a faint hope that my opinion would evolve into something better, but it seems as if I am simply done forming my opinion on this topic.
Thus let's elaborate a bit:

There's generally much to learn if you haven't been at a real war for generations. Multinational formations are great opportunities (easily wasted) for exposing your forces to better practices of foreign forces.
Multinational formations are furthermore extreme challenges for interoperability. A country which expects to be brothers-in-arms with another country in a future conflict can expect benefits from multinational exercises. Multinational formations aren't truly necessary for this, but they kind of serve the same purpose.

Multinational army corps make a lot of sense for economies of scale, as well. Small alliance members may not have corps-sized ground forces in peacetime and may thus be unable to prepare their officer corps properly for corps command and higher. Multinational corps are a good approach here, for they add foreign forces and thus enable the formation of a peacetime army corps.
This is only purposeful for actual army corps, of course. Paper tiger corps which have no or few direct and permanent subordinate formations make no sense whatsoever. They're just dead weight, jobs for staff personnel - waste of taxpayer money.

Now that's the good side of the coin. The advantages are all about preparing for defence.

- - - - -

Now about the problems, and I think I need to elaborate on the background a bit:
#1 Cohesion
#2 Cohesion
#3 Cohesion

A formation without good cohesion is prone to fall apart in a battlefield crisis. The German army of the First World War had great cohesion because - as a heritage of the multi-state past - its divisions were Bavarian, Hessian, Prussian and so on. The personnel was very homogeneous at least in regard to geographical origin.
The German army of the Second World War remembered the cohesion advantage of those older units and built most infantry divisions with a high degree of homogeneity of regional origin. Divisions had their area of origin, so you could tell whether a division was Bavarian, Hessian and so on - often times the regions of origin were even much more focused.

This has been identified as being one of the hidden sources of strength of the German army in WW2.

Cohesion can be built at much smaller levels - down to company level, for example. Your odds of getting a good cohesion with a multinational personnel pool are rather sub-average no matter how much attention you pay to unit and small unit cohesion, though. Ask the Russians.

This is my core argument against multinational units and formations.

They look great on paper (to civilian politicians), they are interesting in several regards, they are possibly even a good idea in peacetime - but they are horribly poor ideas in wartime. Actually, advocating multinational units or formations for wartime purposes is in my opinion a tell-tale sign for incompetence in ground forces affairs (it's all very different in air and naval forces).

Multinational small units, units and formations are prone to fail in wartime moments of crisis due to the ceteris paribus reduction of their cohesion by multi-nationality.

This tells pretty much everything about my opinion on European military integration:
Air force; maybe. Navy; maybe. Army; keep formations national!


P.S.: I skipped the problem of friction (language, regulation, culture and hardware compatibility) because it's so utterly obvious.


  1. reading rupert smith's; the utility or force, and he makes a very telling point on his experience in the balkans.

    notably, that he wasn't the commander of a combined-arms brigade capable of manoeuvre as a brigade level formation, rather he was commander of multiple battalion level units that had to be treated separately.

    he attributes this in part to the lack of collective training, but mostly to the lack of an institutional knowledge that permits the units from acting a a concerted whole.

    he cites the prussian staff college, as well as the army HQ, as examples of how it came to be understood that theatre level war should be conducted.

  2. I agree with you on most points. It is more about politics than the usefulness of the units that are made. To many of our military policies are about politics rather than usefulness in the field.

  3. After having worked in a multinational (Danish/Polish) unit on a section level, I concur completely. It is particularly ridiculous when you dont even have a common language. Heck, after six months I still did not know what the Polish radio operator looked like.

  4. Thanks for posting about this interesting topic! Certainly geographic homogenity was an important factor to increase cohesion on division-level in the past. I rather doubt that regional identiy is of comparable relavance today. It might even get less important in the future considering the decreasing manpower of the Bundeswehr and the east-german origin of many of its recruits stationed in units all over Germany. So with this factor gone is multinationality really a problem at all and are there other methods of building up teamspirit in army units?

  5. "So with this factor gone is multinationality really a problem at all and are there other methods of building up teamspirit in army units?"

    Sure there are other means - look at the légion étrangère. Ceteris paribus multinationality is still a major disadvantage.

    Having been in contact with Frenchmen who didn't even want to learn English, much less any other language, I don't think that the difference between nationalities has become unimportant enough to make multinational teams cohesive enough.

  6. I think you make a lot of good points.

    I would like to add another dimension. German, British or – in my case – Danish soldiers are under the command of the Danish government and the Danish parliament. It is not very realistic to expect this to change. In other words if Denmark decides to participate in a war against – oh, let’s say Iraq or Libya – we can’t expect the Germans to follow us. We can’t blame the Germans, because it is their decision if they want to participate or not.

    Napoleon Bonaparte had a very “positive” view on allies – especially when they were his enemies. It was always much more easy to fight against them, because they could be so easily divided. That hasn’t change in the last 200 years. As a rule in every single crisis since the end of the Cold War, members of NATO and EU have reacted by running in several different directions.

    I have spoken with several different Danish officers and I was sometimes amazed what they told me. I have heard stories about high-ranking Danish officers that were assaulted by British special forces in Bosnia in 1995 or about Danish soldiers who almost came into firefights with American soldiers in Bosnia. One former Danish chief of staff told me that Denmark should always fight along with the Americans, but never become integrated. We have also suffered from lesser problems – like cooperating with Poles or Estonians with a poor English language. Or the French army, that wouldn’t share intelligence with the Danish army (Kosovo 1999).

    Perhaps the most sensible solution is a minimalistic solution. Denmark has an aging air force and it is becoming increasingly clear that we hardly can afford to replace our old air force consisting of F16 with a similar numbers of planes. At least not within the current budget. Perhaps the Germans would be able to afford to handle the air defense of Denmark instead? After all – it is also in German interest that the air space over Denmark is secure, since any air threat would also mean a potential air threat against Northern Germany.

    Of course, should the German air force really come under pressure from a possible enemy, they would most likely react by concentrating their planes to defend Germany. I hope our politicians are aware of that.

  7. It's different for navies and air forces.

    Pilots need to know English language anyway. The Danes could probably team up with the German navy for a joint naval-themed multi-role fighter wing. Our navy lost its combat aircraft component to the air force and would probably like the idea.

    Cohesion is no big topic on an air base, and the handful of pilots can speak English with each other.

    In case of war, the Danish part of the wing could deploy just as national wings form detachments for exercise deployments (Red Flag, Deci etc) - that's no problem.

    "Air force; maybe. Navy; maybe. Army; keep formations national!"

  8. What about pooling army training; wouldn't multinational training centers and schools give one the advantages of increased interoperability and a larger "knowledge base" without the disadvantage of less cohesion?

  9. What about LANDJUT? That was the only NATO Corps originally envisioned as being a multinational formation before 1990. As far as I know, that formation seemed to work OK. But of course, there wasn´t really that much "integration" either (A danish division+its part of the Corps troops and a german division+its part of the Corps troops). So I guess the only part of it that was really integrated and multi-national was the Corps Staff (part danish-part german, with some americans and brits as well). The only Corps troops supposed to "service" bth divisions was a german LANCE missile unit afaik.

  10. Franks; I would rather stage freeplay exercise battles with mixed forces (2 national vs 2 national, later 2 mixed vs 2 mixed) and let them learn the hard way (= a motivation to learn included) than to do the bureaucracy thing of adding 'centres' or 'schools'.

  11. I was thinking more about pooling training resources. AFAIK the Dutch already train their artillery and tank personnel in Germany.

  12. It's probably not doable any time in the near future — but it should be possible in a decade. Whether the resources will happen is another question.

    IMHO, the REMF aspect of planning and co-ordination is eternal, made worse with multiple languages and maybe agendas. More important is multi-national cohesion in and around the battlefield when the shooting actually starts. IVIS-like battlefield IT system compatibility is key for all the allied forces. Next is training for cohesion: giant server farms for the multi-player shooter game of your choice involving thousands of players, blasting away from the barracks.

  13. I'm sorry Norman, but I couldn't help but laugh at your suggestion that the advent of multi-culturalism equals the obsolescence of a units need for social cohesion.

    A study conducted by notable historian Archer Jones reviewed over 4500 years of military history and concluded that there are fundamentally four basic troop types, the nature of which and the relations between which pervade over time: Archers, light cavalry, heavy infantry, and heavy cavalry. The most interesting part of his model is that heavy infantry can resist the attacks of heavy cavalry, despite the heavy armor the cavalry could afford thanks to animal or mechanical assistance. Why? The answer lies in the cohesion that heavy infantry can display. Cohesion that has two main components: The physical (I.E, training and combat drills), and the social. Svens post discusses the latter.

    Social cohesion can be generated by grouping together soldiers hailing from closely knit communities, given a sense of identity and unity from their geostrategic position. Unless your arguing that such socio-political homogeneity has been spread over continent sized regions (a questionable suggestion, to say the least), your argument holds no water.