“There were sounds like giant footsteps above. Those were sticks of high-explosive bombs. The giants walked and walked…There was a fire-storm out there. Dresden was one big flame.”
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
Alphen, Netherlands. 17 February. Seventy-five years ago, on the night of 13-14th February, 1945, seven hundred and sixty-nine Royal Air Force (RAF) Lancaster bombers of 5 Group, Bomber Command attacked the ancient German city of Dresden, escorted by some three hundred and fifty P-51 Mustang fighters. Codenamed ‘Plate Rack’ the main bomber force was led into the attack by nine Mosquito ‘Pathfinder’ aircraft who ‘painted’ the historic centre of the city with marker flares. The next day, five hundred and twenty-seven B-17 bombers of the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) continued the attack, escorted by some four hundred P-51s. Dresden was devastated with estimates of those killed ranging from between 22,700 to 25,000, the massive majority of whom were civilians. The RAF lost six Lancaster bombers, whilst one US B-17 was destroyed. Dresden was the culmination of the Allied strategic bombing campaign and was controversial even in 1945. The origins of ‘Dresden’ were manifold, not least the need to send a message to the Soviets about the firepower of Allied air power as war’s end approached. However, Dresden was also the culmination of a descent into calamity that began with the rise to power of Hitler in the early 1930s, and the irresolute response of Allied democracies to the threat Nazism posed to European peace.
As the commemoration of this truly epic European tragedy were being solemnly enacted I was also in Germany at a side-event of the Munich Security Conference. The Loisach Group is a high-level US-German team, co-organised by the George C. Marshall Center and the Munich Security Conference. The aim of the Group is to promote something in which I believe deeply; a close, twenty-first century US-German strategic partnership itself deeply embedded in an adapted and modernised NATO. An Alliance which remains the central, credible pillar of legitimate Allied defence and deterrence.
To be honest, I thought twice about attending the meeting as I am in the last throes of completing a book, which consumes most of my energy and attention. There were other reasons. First, I am tired of attending meetings at which Europeans brilliantly and eloquently describe the challenges of European security, then do very little about them. Britons and Germans have become particularly effective at this particular skein of defence pretence. For example, news that the Royal Navy’s new class of frigates will be delayed simply compounds the farce that Britain remains a Tier One military power. Just look at what the Americans and Chinese are building. Second, it is hard for me to see any real progress in the US-German strategic relationship until the political relationship improves. With the US facing presidential elections in November, and Berlin engaged in a seemingly endless bout of political navel-gazing, the best that can be said is that the relationship is on hold. Third, I am also tired of listening to pious speeches about shared transatlantic values and Europe’s strategic ambitions from people who have little or no willingness to defend the former and do even less to realise the latter. Finally, I see little evidence that elite Germany is making any effort to understand the American strategic challenge or its implications for the future security and defence of Europe.
Indeed, Germans seem unable or unwilling to recognise America’s changing and deteriorating strategic reality. It is as though President Trump has become an alibi for the refusal of Germans to face up to their strategic responsibilities as Europe’s leading democratic power. Even if they agree in private about the nature of emerging threats German leaders too often talk as though German power must remain a secret from the German people for fear the reality of the strategic responsibility such power would bring might prove too brutal an awakening. Worse, every opportunity is taken to criticise the US even though the evidence clearly shows a Washington still willing to commit huge resources to the defence of Europe. Take the European Deterrence Initiative. There was some mildly hysterical coverage in the German press last week that ‘EDI’ was being cut. As one very senior American pointed out at the meeting as each EDI project reaches fruition the investment naturally reduces.
Time is pressing. This week, IISS published their latest Military Balance report in which they noted global defence expenditure had risen by 4% in 2019. Much of that hike is driven by increases of almost 7% in both the US and Chinese defence budgets, with a particular focus on the development of new technologies for the twenty-first century battlespace. The US increased its defence budget by $53.4 billion, which is about the same amount as the entire British defence budget. Part of the US rationale is to offset China’s better military purchasing power by which Beijing gets more firepower per yuan invested than the US per dollar. It is also an attempt to solve America’s critical strategic dilemma: whilst China can focus its military effort the US has to cover threats the world over. It is a dilemma that is only going to become more acute. IISS described China’s military modernisation as, “…striking for its scale, speed and ambition”. Europe? Europeans did increase defence expenditure by 4.2% in 2019, but that only brought defence investment back to 2008 levels. That begs a further question. Is Europe burden-sharing, or is it just a plain burden on the Americans?
Europe Defender 20
Words and actions? As the Munich meeting got underway the Americans were bringing in an entire armoured division from the US as part of Exercise Europe Defender 20. Whilst not on the scale of REFORGER (Return of Forces to Germany) exercises of the Cold War, Defender 20 is the largest such exercise since its end. Designed to bolster high-end Allied defence and deterrence Defender 20 will see some twenty thousand US troops arrive via five ports in Northwest Europe, as well as thirteen thousand pieces of heavy equipment, to engage across eight separate locations alongside eighteen allies. As an aside, a British battlegroup was also disembarking in Antwerp in support of their allies.
The fact that the Americans are having to make such an effort is indicative of the malaise deep in the German heart of European defence. Impressive though the American force is in an emergency it could well be needed elsewhere, most likely in what Washington now calls the Indo-Pacific. If NATO Europe was truly capable such a force would not be American at all, but European, with a powerful German armoured division at its core. A German armoured division? One can almost hear history weeping at such a thought. And yet, that is precisely the kind of high-end, heavy, fast, twenty-first century first responder European/German force that NATO needs if DETERRENCE, the business the Alliance is really collectively in, is to be credibly maintained. And yet, modern, free, democratic Germany seems to be lost in denial about its responsibilities as leader. What could the Bundeswehr really deliver in the event of another European emergency? Minor additions to the German defence effort do little to solve the essential dysfunctionality of the Bundeswehr which will not be resolved until there is a profound change in Berlin’s strategic posture and mindset.
European weakness makes America weaker
Forcing over-stretched America to send forces to offset the choice European democracies have made to decouple their own defence efforts from threat and changing reality is not a sign of Allied strength. It is a mark of the dangerous complacency and tendency towards comforting self-delusion to which Germans are particularly prone. There seems to be a strange belief that if threats are talked about long enough by people high enough in the political pecking order that somehow such danger will evaporate. It is nonsense; a wilful European act of weakness that threatens to make America weaker where it matters.
Dresden was the tragic culmination of failed deterrence and the tragic cost of such failure. It was a product of irresolution and the consequent disproportionate proportionality caused by democracies preferring to see the world as they wanted it to be, not as it was. For the sake of all those who lost their lives in the Dresden firebombing, on all sides of the conflict, let’s not go there again.