The German military sends its best to serve as an American general’s chief of staff, to everyone’s benefit.
On VE Day this year, U.S. Army Europe installed a new chief of staff: Brig. Gen. Jared Sembritzki — a German, and a Bundeswehr officer to boot. Though the transatlantic relationship may be sailing through choppy waters, the U.S. and German armies are demonstrating collaboration that’s vital for both sides.
Sembritzki is a hugely talented officer. I know this, although I’ve never having met him, because the Bundeswehr always selects one of its best officers for the U.S. Army Europe Chief of Staff post.
Then-Brig. Gen. Markus Laubenthal was the first German to hold the job. He served from July 2014 until December 2016, after which he was promoted to major general and given command of Germany’s 1st Panzer Division. He was subsequently assigned to a senior post at the German Ministry of Defense, and last month was appointed Deputy Chief of Defense. His successor, now-Maj. General Kai Rohrschneider, served from January 2017 to September 2018, when he was promoted to Chief of Staff at NATO’s new Joint Support and Enabling Command in Ulm and subsequently to Laubenthal’s job in the German Ministry of Defense. U.S. Army Europe’s third German chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Hartmut Renk, immediately followed Rohschneider, serving until last month, when he was promoted to Deputy Commander and Chief of Staff at JSEC.
It was Laubenthal who broke the mold. While the U.S. armed forces have similar arrangements involving a very small number of Five Eyes officers – the 82nd Airborne’s commander, for example, has a deputy from the British Army – Laubenthal’s appointment was the first in recent history involving a non-Five Eyes officer.
Yet his appointment came about not as a clever strategic move but to temporarily solve an American staffing dilemma. “It started with my predecessor, [retired] Lt. Gen. Don Campbell,” explained Ben Hodges, a retired 3-star who commanded U.S. Army Europe from 2014 until 2017. “U.S. Army Europe was shrinking fast and was a seen as a billpayer for the Army because the threat in Europe didn’t appear so significant. As a result, the Army wouldn’t provide a brigadier general to fill the chief of staff position. Don was having to rely on a hard-working colonel. He then came up with the idea of asking for a German brigadier general. The Chief of the German Army supported it, as did the U.S. Army Chief, General Odierno, and they made it happen.”
Several months after Laubenthal’s appointment, Hodges succeeded Campbell. He had no say in the appointment of a German as his chief of staff – but on arriving in Wiesbaden found it to be a highly beneficial arrangement. (Watch Laubenthal going about his work in this 2016 German public television documentary.) “Mark himself was key to the success,” Hodges told me. “For the first few months, he constantly encountered noforn [security classification] situations or ‘you can’t go in there’, and even though I tried, a few of those classifications remained. But he wasn’t flustered. He knew he was part of something so big that he had to make it work.” And Laubenthal earned the Americans’ trust. On promotion boards, for example, nobody contested the German’s recommendations. Hodges and his team, in turn, established a significant amount of information was overclassified. They changed some of the classifications, which made U.S. Army Europe cooperation with allies more effective.
Since then, not so much out of grand strategy as out of habit, the appointments of German chiefs of staff at U.S. Army Europe have continued. For the Americans, there was value not just in getting a talented officer: the presence of a senior officer enjoying enormous trust from his own country helped U.S. Army Europe strengthen its ties with Germany. “I didn’t want us to be an American ghetto in Hesse,” Hodges said. “I wanted us to work more closely with our hosts and allies.” Indeed, Hodges liked the chief of staff arrangement so much that he initiated other allied appointments within U.S. Army Europe: a Canadian major, a British major, and a German captain, who, like the chief of staff, worked within the U.S. Army just as if they’d been Americans. This is very different from assignments to multinational headquarters.
Sembritzki arrived in Wiesbaden by way of a posting as commander of the Bundeswehr’s 23rd Mountain Infantry Brigade. The decorated infantry officer has served two tours in Afghanistan, has also served in Kosovo, and has a master’s degree from the National Defense University in Washington.
When he leaves U.S. Army Europe in about two years’ time, Sembritzki too is likely to keep rising through the Bundeswehr ranks. But the biggest beneficiary is the U.S.-German relationship, which has for the past several years been suffering at the political level. Indeed, pundits have taken turns to declare it moribund or even dead. At the military level – the foundation of the transatlantic alliance – the U.S.-German relationship is far from over. On the contrary, with Sebritzki’s appointment the U.S. and German ministries have just given it another boost.
And the success with foreign chiefs of staff in Wiesbaden raises the question: why not have more allied officers serve in high positions at U.S. military headquarters?