A German national flag flies at the stern of the naval sailor 'Gorch Fock.' Photo: AFP / DPA / Mohssen Assanimoghaddam

The German Air Force is dispatching jet fighters to drill in Australia, Japan and South Korea, part of a rising trend of expanding ties between US-allied Atlanticist and Pacifist militaries amid rising tensions with China.

In its “Rapid Pacific” deployment, Germany will dispatch six Eurofighters, 200 personnel, three A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transports and an A400M transport aircraft for exercises in Australia, Japan and South Korea, the Australian Ministry of Defense stated.

It is the first time the Australian and German air forces will operate together in the upcoming Australian “Pitch Black” drills, which involve forces from 17 nations.

“The Indo-Pacific is of great importance to Germany. We share the same values with many partners in this region,” Chief of the German Air Force Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz, who will reportedly be flying in the drills, said. “Defending those values in case of a war emergency and being able to support our partners is something that needs to be practiced.”

The three-week Australian drills will include 2,500 personnel and around 100 aircraft from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, the UAE, UK and the US. According to the Royal Australian Air Force, “Germany, Japan, and the Republic of Korea will be participating fully for the first time.”

The fighters follow Germany’s dispatch last year of a frigate on a rare tour of the Indo-Pacific.

Yet despite Gerhartz’s florid statements, there is immense policy fuzziness hanging over any European commitment to Asian defense. But while Indo-Pacific deployments by European powers remain relatively inconsequential in terms of their size and heft, they are part of a significant rising trend.

West goes East

Berlin’s eastward moves are part of a series of increasing East-West defense exchanges that are taking place against two backdrops. One is the Ukraine War –a conflict that has delivered a massive jolt to NATO militaries and governments.

The other is ongoing tensions around Taiwan following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island on August 2-3. Her visit infuriated Beijing, which responded with air and naval drills around the self-governing island. Pouring further fuel on the fire, another US Congressional delegation is currently in Taiwan.

But the broader background is the ever-rising import of East Asia’s economies and most particularly the inexorable rise of China in industrial, technological and military terms. The latter process is being viewed with consternation in democratic capitals east, west and south.

Indeed, the term “The West” is looking outdated, as US-allied democratic polities in Australia, Japan and South Korea increase their defense exchanges and ties with US-allied democratic polities in Europe.

NATO has increasingly been mentioning China in its policy briefs and fought an ill-starred campaign for two decades in Afghanistan, despite its avowed Atlanticist orientation. Leaders from Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea were – for the first time in the organization’s history – invited to the NATO Summit in Madrid, Spain this year.

And last year, to considerable global surprise, Pacific power Australia inked a deal with the UK and US to provide it with nuclear submarines under the “AUKUS” partnership. That development was widely assessed as being aimed at China, though it is doubtful that any boats will be delivered before 2030.

Still, AUKUS offered long-retired Pacific power the UK a new footprint in the region. That footprint may be expanded as London’s BAE and Tokyo’s Mitsubishi mull building their respective countries’ next-generation stealth fighters in partnership: The two announced they are engaged in a “joint concept analysis” at the Farnborough Air Show in July.

Those defense deals, and another multi-billion dollar arms deal being sealed between Seoul and Warsaw, show the benefits of weapons/equipment standardization for defense-industrial cooperation.

The broader question is what Western European middle powers like France, Germany and the UK can bring to the region. All three have well-reputed militaries but very modest ones compared to those in the region.

A PLA soldier drills amid ongoing Taiwan tensions. Credit: CTV

Size matters 

On the issue of scale, take, for example, an arms deal currently being negotiated between Seoul and Warsaw. The latter would see Seoul selling around 1,000 tanks to NATO front-line state Poland.

According to website Global Firepower, that single export order would exceed the operational tank fleets of Germany (266) France (406) and the UK (227) combined – 899. South Korea, meanwhile, maintains a tank force of 2,634 vehicles.

While France’s Charles de Gaulle carrier has visited the region, the biggest force Western Europeans have bought to Indo-Pacific in recent years was the 2021 Asia tour of the UK’s Queen Elizabeth carrier strike group. While politicians in London talked about a new, post-Brexit “Global Britain,” the carrier group looked very NATO: It included US F-35s on deck and American and Dutch frigates in the escort.

But even this impressive force is dwarfed by the tonnage and manpower America maintains in the region. The US Indo-Pacific Command fields 370,000 personnel and over 200 ships, including five carrier strike groups and some 2, 460 aircraft.

The UK carrier group also looked pretty puny compared to the assets the People’s Liberation Army Navy deploy in-region: A fleet of 350 vessels including three heavy aircraft carriers, two of which are already operational, not to mention its land-based air and missile forces.

But the question is not only potential combat survivability but also peacetime sustainability. With the Royal Navy fielding just two carriers – one of which is usually resting and refitting – a major east-of-Suez presence is not feasible.

“It will be imperative not to follow this…naval feast with famine,” think tank IISS warned in a report following the Queen Elizabeth’s deployment.

But reality set it. After the carrier departed for home, the UK deployed two offshore patrol vessels to the region. Armed with just 20mm cannon, neither is likely to overawe the PLA Navy or the Russian Far Eastern Fleet, nor provide much backup to the US Pacific Fleet. 

The same holds true for Germany’s deployment of six fighters. But even if Germany – or other European or NATO states – would unlikely become embroiled in any kinetic crisis in East Asia, they could play a role.

The UK’s HMS Queen Elizabeth made a high-profile tour of the Indo-Pacific in 2021. Photo: AFP / Adrian Dennis

Defense diplomacy

“Yes, the US wants the A-Team but there is always the question of what the B- and C-team bring you,” Lance Gatling, Tokyo-based head of aerospace and defense consultancy Nexial Research, told Asia Times.

“Would they show up in the front line? I don’t think so,” Gatling said of German military forces. “But they may show up in UAE or India supporting the rear area.”

For the Germans, the exercises in Australia – and indeed, the long flight route to the exercises – will provide multiple learnings.

The easiest joint drills to run are special forces units – light infantry, who typically deploy only with handheld arms, Gatling said. But even that requires a huge amount of pre-planning including visa, weapons and ammunition and medicine clearances.

“These exercises require a lot of forethought – they force people to walk through all the nuts and bolts,” he said.

While naval exercises – “you are out at sea, you don’t touch” – are relatively easier to coordinate, aerial drills like Pitch Black are hugely complex: Procedures need to be worked out for refueling, ammunition clearances, classified equipment clearances – “a million things,” Gatling added.

Similarly, while the minimalist Royal Navy presence in Asia waters is hardly a potential war winner it offers other benefits.

“They won’t count for much in the strategic balance,” IISS conceded. “But as tools for defense diplomacy and regional immersion they are likely to prove their worth.”

The deployments, a serving NATO officer in East Asia told Asia Times, offer the chance to practice interoperability – synchronizing drills and tactics, as well as communications, electronic and weapons systems with friendly regional fleets.

But sunset cocktail parties for visiting VIPs on the after-deck during port visits also send a message that is about more than force size.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is looking to the Pacific while supporting Ukraine against Russia. Image: Screengrab

“The Americans really have the robust military presence in the region, the Europeans are more at the symbolic level,” said Richard Heydarian, a lecturer in international relations at the University of the Philippines and Asia Times columnist.

“But smaller countries see this is not just the US versus China – they see that China being checked by the international community over changing the status quo and that makes it harder for China to state that this is a superpower-superpower issue,” Heydarian said.

Looking ahead, a visiting German presence in the region may pay off in other ways.

“The Germans may not have size but have some capabilities they can share, like some advanced tactical weapons,” Heydarian said. “The Germans want to be involved in infrastructure capability building, technology capability building, 6G telecoms and so on, but if you zero in only on military capabilities, it is about making Europe more inter-operable with like-minded powers in Asia.”

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