“Soldiers know that things can get serious”: In the Lüneburg Heath, NATO troops are preparing for a possible Putin invasion
NATO’s “Rapid Response Force” is a large multinational unit that can be deployed at any location within a very short time. In 2022, a German general will take over the leadership. Now the troops are rehearsing the emergency situation in the Lüneburg Heath that Russian President Vladimir Putin redefined in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea.
The security situation in Europe is escalating: Enemy troops have marched into Sweden and Finland. None of the countries are NATO members, their small armies are left to fend for themselves. In the east, Finland borders directly on Russia over a length of 1,340 kilometers. The enemy is preparing to attack NATO member Norway.
The German Brigadier General Alexander Krone is supposed to do it as commander for NATO. He is responsible for 11,500 men of NATO’s “Rapid Reaction Force”. 7500 have already been transferred to Norway to repel the attack.
On this unusually warm May day, three Panzerhaubitz 2000 suddenly burst out of the spruce thicket somewhere at the front into the wide field. 57 tons of steel including live ammunition with a crew of five on board and a speed of up to 60 km/h, the showpiece of the artillery whirls up high clouds of dust.
No sooner are the German tanks, seven of which are being delivered to the Ukraine to defend against Putin’s army, in the open, than they take up position. The towers, which weigh several tons and have an eight-meter barrel, turn towards the target. In a matter of seconds, they fire off a dozen sharp shots from the 155-millimeter projectiles, which then hit enemy territory with a dull rumble. Then they quickly retreat back to their cover. The danger of being discovered and eliminated by enemy reconnaissance was too great.
Bundeswehr takes over leadership of the “Spearhead of NATO” in 2022
The tanks, the live howitzer shells, the 7500 soldiers and the brigadier general are real. The situation: fortunately not. And of course Krones’ troops are not stationed somewhere in Norway’s taiga on the border with Sweden or Finland, but at the Munster military training area on the Lüneburg Heath. There, for the first time, nine participating NATO nations practice live ammunition emergencies under his leadership. The 51-year-old, recently promoted from colonel to one-star general, will head the Rapid Reaction Force of the NATO Response Forces (NRF) from 2022 to 2024.
The nickname “Spearhead of NATO” suggests that the “Very High Readyness Joint Force Task” (VJTF) is a special combat group. 11,500 soldiers including heavy artillery work together here. So well organized that they can be operational anywhere in the world within 72 hours.
While politicians in Germany are still dazedly trying to find out how the rebirth of Russian imperialism under Putin could have remained undiscovered in this country for so long, at least NATO has long since taken an important step further. The “Rapid Response Force” was founded by the heads of government of the NATO countries as part of the NRF in September 2014 – as a direct reaction to the “change in the security policy environment” caused by Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea.
Fine tuning of the new “Spearhead of NATO” in the Lüneburg Heath
The captain of a Belgian artillery battery, which under German command supports the tank howitzers in combat, explains how important it is to prepare a multinational combat force of almost 12,000 soldiers for smooth Blitz operations. “The language is not the problem. We all speak English to a certain level to be able to communicate. The catch is the technical terms for commands that are different. We have to coordinate that,” says the tall man in his mid-thirties, his hands smeared with black clasped on the buttstock of his rifle. Since the identification and acquisition of targets has long been computer-aided, the military software above all must be coordinated with one another.
For this reason, two months ago, the first training round at the Wildflecken military training area in Bavaria was simulated on computers at command level, initially without combat troops. At the beginning of April, around 1,300 soldiers with engineer units on the Elbe in Saxony-Anhalt trained how to cross a body of water for artillery units. The combat exercise at the military training area in Munster, which lasts until May 20, is the largest that the associations of the nine participating NATO nations have to pass in front of a NATO jury for certification.
Artillery commander: “You can tell that the soldiers are much more emotional – because they know that things can get serious”
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Timo Kaufmann followed the firing of the tank howitzers with eagle eyes, the volleys of fire and detonations from which could be heard loudly throughout the day in Munster, several kilometers away. Shortly after the series of shots, the lieutenant colonel was informed of the results by the “Joint Fire Support” unit, which followed the battlefield from an advanced observer post.
Kaufmann, commander of Artillery Training Battalion 345 in Idar-Oberstein, is also commander of the multinational artillery battalion of the VJTF. And the war in Ukraine is of course a big topic in the troops, which leaves clear marks in everyday life in the Bundeswehr, he admits frankly. “You can already tell during the preparations for the NATO mission that the soldiers are much more emotional than usual. Because they know that things can get serious.”
As early as February 24, when Putin’s troops began their attack on Ukraine, he informed his soldiers about the situation in Ukraine and its importance for the NATO mission in the Rapid Reaction Force. And now continues to do so regularly: “It is important to talk to the soldiers in order to allay their fears. In order to explain the security policy processes again and again, so that everyone can explain to the families at home how they see the situation.”
“Many are now wondering what role the Bundeswehr has in society”
The fact that the whole of Germany is suddenly talking about self-propelled howitzers doesn’t really surprise him. “We have always known the importance of artillery. And their importance is currently increasing again,” says Kaufmann. But apart from the sad occasion, he also sees something good in the public debate. “It now ensures that many people are now wondering what role the Bundeswehr has in society at all. Relatively little has happened there in recent years.”
Commander Krone: “Baltic states have long perceived the threat situation differently”
Alexander Krone, the future commander of the Rapid Response Unit, observed not only increased concern among the soldiers, but also greater concentration and greater closing of the shoulders. In Baltic countries like Lithuania, the threat situation was perceived very differently long before the Ukraine war – even within the NATO troops stationed there.
“Seriousness, professionalism and this tingling could now be something that is also demanded of us, for which we are needed, that is of course immediately there,” adds Brigadier General Krone, who is also commander of Panzergrenadierbrigade 37 “Freistaat Sachsen” in Falkenberg is. However, the “other side of the coin” is that the risk for the soldiers has now also increased.
Krone’s spokesman, Renzo di Leo, sees it the same way when he strolls back to his car at the end of the practice day. “It’s frightening,” says the captain, “how similar the military procedures that we only practice here in the heath are to the scenes from the Ukraine that we’re seeing on TV now.”
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