German coalition government commits to NATO nuclear deterrent strategy

Germany’s incoming government has affirmed its commitment to NATO’s nuclear deterrent, including the role accorded to Berlin in the strategy, according to a coalition agreement unveiled on November 24th by Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), writes Sebastian Sprenger, associate editor for Europe at Defense News.

The much-anticipated pact offers a flavour of what the new government, to be led by the SPD’s Olaf Scholz, finance minister in the outgoing government, aims to do in the fields of defence and foreign policy.

Christian Mölling, a senior analyst at the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations, said the compromise of the coalition agreement includes a commitment to NATO’s nuclear-sharing arrangement, by which German pilots would deliver nuclear bombs stored on German soil in a hypothetical war, while declaring the objective of Berlin becoming an “observer” to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

The two poles encapsulate a conundrum the Greens, in particular, have had to square for themselves, with party defence spokesman Tobias Lindner previously advocating that a position combining both aspects is possible.

Whatever comes of Germany’s aspirations toward a global nuclear weapons-prohibition regime remains to be seen, however. Mölling describes the relevant passage as “scaleable,” meaning it relies to various degrees on decisions made by allies and conditions outside of Berlin’s control.

Mention of Berlin’s NATO nuclear-sharing commitment, on the other hand, is a more binding objective, Mölling said, noting the agreement makes the replacement of the country’s aging Tornado aircraft with an equally nuclear-capable type an explicit goal for the new government.

The new agreement, which each of the three parties will vote on in the coming weeks, also ushers in a new political stance for the Bundeswehr, Germany’s military, on armed drones.

Such weapons “can contribute to the protection of our soldiers” on global deployments, the document declares, using a formulation that has taken years to ripen in a society that is as military-skeptic as it is debate-friendly.

The passage is the “best outcome that the armed forces could have hoped for,” said Ulrike Franke, a London-based drone researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

German military leaders have argued for years that armed drones could make the difference in dicey battlefield situations when troops are facing a direct threat. Opponents have argued that a history of faulty military decision-making on drone strikes, most recently by U.S. commanders in Kabul, tells a different story.

According to Franke, some details still need to be worked out in Germany’s future use of the weapons.

“What exactly are the ‘binding rules or conditions’ mentioned in the agreement?” she asked. “The Bundeswehr does not, or should not, have a problem with transparency, but too restrictive rules could create difficulties during missions,” Franke said.

In the past, the idea of individual parliamentary approval for armed drone operations was on the table in the German drone debate, she noted. “The Bundeswehr is likely to want to have as much flexibility as possible.”

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