The diversity of the German Army is reflected in its different branches. Each of these branches has its very own set of distinct skills and capabilities, yet they are at their strongest and most successful only when they work together. Specialised equipment is used to overcome a wide variety of challenges. Learn more about the Army’s infantry.
The infantry is a branch of the Army and belongs to the combat arms. Its soldiers are referred to as infantrymen and women. The infantry includes airborne, mountain and light infantry.
With their training and equipment, light infantry troops are capable of fighting in urban or heavily forested terrain.
The mountain infantry is trained and equipped to fight in difficult terrain, in the mountains, at high altitudes and under extreme climate and weather conditions. Their state-of-the-art materiel and equipment includes anything from personal cold weather protection gear, climbing and skiing gear to Hägglunds oversnow vehicles. Only a combination of technical mountain and mountain combat training enables the soldiers to fight in mountainous terrain. Depending on the terrain, weather and enemy situation, motor vehicles, helicopters or even pack animals, particularly mules, are used for supply purposes.
The airborne infantry conduct airborne operations using transport fixed-wing or rotary-wing aircraft or by parachute. Paratroopers are thus equipped mostly with light weapons and light special-purpose vehicles. They are able to conduct infantry operations on their own over short periods of time without requiring the support of other forces.
With their special capabilities, airborne reconnaissance units and airborne engineers can provide mission support to the task forces. The airborne reconnaissance units collect information by engaging with human sources, while the airborne engineers provide various means of transportation and clear a path for the infantry.
The infantry uses vehicles, transport aircraft or inflatable boats to move into all known areas of operation. There, they primarily fight on foot. Wherever possible, they receive support from the on-board weaponry of their combat vehicles – the light infantry, for instance, employs the Boxer MRAV.
The Army’s infantry
This is how the infantry fights
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The infantry fights in urban or heavily forested terrain, in the mountains, at high altitudes, under extreme climatic and weather conditions. To do so, infantry soldiers need light, modular and robust equipment. Infantry weapons must be precise, modern and effective. Using different modular elements, they can be individually adapted to the respective requirements. They are used to engage targets at short, medium and long range. The weapons employed are continuously improved by drawing on the latest technology.
The Future Infantryman System
Infanterist der Zukunft (IdZ, or Future Infantryman) describes a state-of-the-art kit for the infantry. It gives soldiers the ability carry out their tasks on foot or in vehicles with substantially improved success prospects and decreased risk. This complex set of personal equipment is intended to enhance a soldier’s effectiveness on operations, command and control capability, personal mobility, survivability and sustainability.
The IdZ programme was implemented in two steps with the independent projects IdZ-BS (basic system) and IdZ-ES (enhanced system).
To meet the requirements of the force in the field as quickly as possible, the IdZ-BS system was procured as a first step by purchasing commercial off-the-shelf components. Some individual capabilities were deliberately not provided.
IdZ-ES – a highly modular system
In a second step, the IdZ-ES system was newly developed from the ground up, as only a closed and coordinated system can fulfill all the essential capability requirements that the infantry needs to do its job. All included components were optimised in terms of weight. The complete system includes the following subsystems:
The clothing, protective and load-carrying equipment or BST subsystem is adapted to ergonomic requirements and offers flame protection, insect protection, CBRN protection, and additional protection against projectiles and fragments. The multi-layered design of the clothing components is optimised in terms of climate control and breathability. That improves soldier performance.
Weapons, optics, optronics (WOO)
Among other things, a significantly lighter combat helmet with better protection, an integrated night-vision device mount, a helmet-mounted display and a digital electronic compass were introduced. The combat helmet is compatible with the in-ear radio headset/hearing protection and can also integrate over-ear hearing protection for heavy-weapons operators.
The WOO subsystem is tailored to the Bundeswehr marksmanship concept and, as it is ergonomically adapted to the BST subsystem, it ensures increased responsiveness, better protection and greater effectiveness. Increased lethality is provided by more effective weaponry, such as the improved G36 assault rifle, and supported by the improved night-combat and night-vision capabilities provided by high-resolution target optics with a larger field of vision along with night-vision attachments and adapters.
Command, control, computers, communications and information (C4I)
Command, control, computers, communications and information, C4I for short, is the IdZ system component that handles signals communications.
The equipment consists of an “electronic back” that attaches to the back of the level-4 ballistic vest. The electronic back contains a core computer, section radio, GPSGlobal Positioning System receiver and batteries. It is controlled using a control and display unit that also provides the soldier with situation updates and messages. Information can also be accessed using a display mounted to the helmet. Another component is the headset and microphone, which is connected to the section radio and also serves as hearing protection. Section leaders have additional portable command and control computers at their disposal.
What does the C4I equipment do?
By networking with each other and with higher levels of command, the capabilities of the soldiers receive an additional, significant boost. With the C4I system component, the soldiers become part of network-centric operations. The battlefield is connected to the distant operations centre. The required connections are made using the Army command and control information system, which is the digital command and control system of the land forces. That way, the soldiers in the operations centre are very quickly apprised of the current situation of the troops in combat. Decision-making is sped up and improved. Interfaces can be used to network all soldiers at section level in combat to allow them to employ C4I for tactical purposes.
Control of the C4I components is precisely in line with operational requirements. Improved ergonomics provide more ease of use and are less demanding in terms of hand-eye coordination. For instance, all of the essential tactical functions can be performed using control elements directly attached to the weapons. The IdZ-ES system is also designed to be integrated into the Puma armoured infantry fighting vehicle and the Boxer multi-role armoured vehicle, and is optimised for an employment with these vehicles.
An infantry soldier probably comes closest to what most people imagine when they hear the word soldier – a foot soldier with a rifle. But there are some differences between light infantry, mountain infantry and airborne infantry. Read on to find out how and why these differences emerged.
A tradition going back to the 17th century
The light infantry was established in the 17th century as a specialised force within the infantry (for example, in Hesse in 1631, in Bavaria in 1645, in Brandenburg-Prussia in 1674). Their distinguishing feature was that they carried long guns with rifled bores that, in contrast to the more-common smoothbore weapons, enabled firing at and hitting targets at longer distances and with greater precision. These soldiers were employed as scouts, couriers and sharpshooters. Foresters in particular were recruited and would return to their former occupations once their military service was over. In contrast to the regular infantry, then referred to as line infantry, their uniform was usually green. Their signal instrument, the hunting horn, is still present on many battalion and company crests to this day. In contrast to the line infantry, which was equipped with bayonets, the light infantry carried a type of hunting dagger, also called Hirschfänger (“deer catcher”), as a sidearm.
Reforms – a new century begins
During the Napoleonic Wars, the Prussian light infantry was modernised. Lessons learned from French tirailleur tactics – in which tirailleurs (French for riflemen or infantrymen) fight in dispersed order – and from the wars in the European colonies as well as the American Revolutionary War changed the way light infantry was trained. The mission of the light infantry was now to gather information on the enemy’s forces, situation and equipment along with the terrain, and to engage selected targets with precision fire. The light infantry were to operate largely independently, in loose formation and smaller units, and take better advantage of thick vegetation, broken terrain and cover.
Light infantry as a source of innovation
The tactics and fighting method of the light infantry differed from those of the conventional infantry and repeatedly sparked innovations in the infantry tactics of the land forces. Both the machine gun and the bicycle were tested and fielded by the light infantry. This was also due to the fact that the light infantry was always considered a particularly professional force within the infantry. During the 20th century as well, the light infantry, in line with the rapid pace of technological and tactical development in the German armed forces, led to more and more specialisation within the infantry. During the First World War, for instance, the mountain infantry emerged from the light infantry and in 1936, Germany followed the examples of Italy and the Soviet Union and established an airborne unit.
Light infantry in the Bundeswehr
Drawing on lessons learned during the Second World War, the Bundeswehr decided that the future lay in manoeuvre warfare using mechanised – i.e., armoured – units. The tasks of the tank-accompanying infantry were assumed by the armoured infantry as a mechanised infantry force. The armoured infantry was thus detached from the infantry branch. The light infantry, in contrast, was developed into a motorised infantry force. In the seventies during the Cold War, the light infantry with its major units (home defence commands) and their subordinate units (two light infantry regiments each with two light infantry battalions each) was the largest branch.
From 1992, the light infantry lost most of its 20 active battalions – once again, these were units who looked back on a long tradition. The light infantry was thus almost completely disbanded save a small few units. In the recent past, the light infantry has regained importance within the Bundeswehr. For a while, only two battalions remained (292 Light Infantry Battalion as the German element of the Franco-German Brigade and 1 Light Infantry Battalion as an element of 21 Armoured Brigade), but now the number of German light infantry battalions has once again increased to six.
The mountains become a theatre of war
Up until the beginning of the 19th century, warfare in the mountains was impossible to imagine. The jagged terrain, fickle weather, cold, rockslides and avalanches, but also barren soils and a lack of food prevented war from being waged in the mountains. When the First World War broke out, Imperial Germany did not have any mountain units. Lessons learned during the first winter of the war and especially the support provided by the Austro-Hungarian army in 1915 in the war against Italy revealed that further specialisation was required for planning and preparing infantry mountain operations. By November 1914, as it became evident that the war with France would continue on past the winter, Germany had already begun calling up a volunteer force of ski troops.
The Alpine Corps is established
The first two snowshoe battalions were established and, after a shortened period of military basic training, were deployed to the Vosges mountains in France and on the eastern front. However, off cleared and paved roads, they were outperformed by the more experienced French troops. As a response, the German Alpine Corps was established. It was set up in southern Bavaria in 1915 and included snowshoe battalions along with other units. Over the course of the war, the Alpine Corps would be deployed to all sectors of the front. The First World War was lost amid tremendous sacrifice. After the war, in accordance with the 1919 Treaty of Versailles and the resulting restrictions placed on the German military, at least one battalion of each of the seven infantry divisions was activated as a specialised light infantry battalion.
The Alpine Corps becomes the mountain infantry
From the mid-twenties, some mountain infantry units were equipped with alpine gear and trained in alpine terrain. From 1934, the initially secret transformation of the Reichswehr into the Wehrmacht was begun. Like in the First World War, the soldiers of the mountain divisions fought at all sections of the front during World War Two. In addition to the bitter fighting in the mountains and at focal points of campaigns such as in Narvik in Norway, however, the mountain units of the Wehrmacht also participated in Nazi crimes in the occupied areas. When the Bundeswehr was established, a reform of the mountain infantry and its traditions was necessary.
The modern mountain infantry is established
For decades, the new mountain infantry of the Bundeswehr would develop a particular and close relationship with the federal state of Bavaria and the alpine winter sports community. When the First Mountain Division of the Bundeswehr was assigned to II Corps in 1958, it consisted of two mountain infantry brigades and one mechanised brigade. For the first time, a German mountain division was thus equipped with armour and armoured infantry units. The result was a considerable increase in employment options.
This change also reflected the situation of Bavaria at the time, located as it was at the military boundary between NATO and the Warsaw Pact. With 23 Mountain Infantry Brigade, the division was capable of fighting in rough terrain and under extreme weather conditions. On NATO’s flanks in northern Norway and in Turkey, the soldiers of the mountain infantry forces faced a wide range of climate conditions that challenged personnel and materiel. Following German reunification and Bundeswehr restructuring, however, the mountain infantry was also reduced in strength.
Prevailing on operations
Mountain infantry units have participated in nearly all Bundeswehr operations abroad. Whether in 1993 in Somalia, from 1995 in the Balkans or since 2002 in Afghanistan – the Bundeswehr mountain infantry has always accomplished its mission.
On operations as well, it became evident that mountain infantry were required. The asymmetric threats in the mountainous regions of the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan that the soldiers of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were exposed to as well as the mountainous regions of Kosovo required troops that were familiar with the particularities of this terrain and able to use them for their own advantage.
A new branch emerges
The paratroopers are the newest addition to the infantry branch. They were first developed as a branch of the Luftwaffe, Nazi Germany’s air force, in the thirties and initially modelled themselves on and even received training support from comparable units in the Soviet Union. To show that they had successfully completed their jump training, the soldiers of the paratroop companies would from November 1936 be issued the parachute rifleman badge of the Luftwaffe. One year before the Second World War began, the build-up of the paratroopers was still making good progress. At first, the units were assigned to the aviation group. In 1943, the airborne infantry had an effective strength of around 35,000 and at the end of the war, their numbers had even gone up to around 100,000, yet only about 15,000 of them had undergone jump training.
The first airborne operations
During the Second World War, paratroopers were employed in all theatres, mainly in ground combat. The invasion of the island of Crete in 1941 is one of the most well-known operations of the German airborne infantry. For the first time in history, a large-scale operation was made successful solely through airlanding operations. However, poor planning along with command and control deficits, such as underestimating the actual number of forces on Crete, led to very heavy losses among the German paratroopers and mountain infantry involved. For the Germans, thus, Crete would effectively mark the end of airborne operations of this kind.
Special infantry for the Bundeswehr
As a consequence of the Second World War, airborne infantry was considered the infantry elite the world over. The Bundeswehr, thus, also did not want to forgo this special type of infantry, even if the military importance of pure airborne operations was assessed as rather low. Faced with the scenario of a war with the Soviet Union, however, the option of conducting highly mobile operations seemed akin to having a sort of military fire brigade ready to respond at potential flashpoints in central Europe and on NATO’s flanks. In 1956, accordingly, the first airborne units were activated at Ellwangen and Kempten as part of the infantry and thus the Army.
Since German reunification
Following German reunification and the downsizing of the Bundeswehr, it was announced in 1991 that the First Airborne Division would be disbanded in 1994. In the early nineties, the first steps were also taken to establish the commando companies, at the time designated as the B1 companies of the airborne. Their task was to conduct independent commando operations against targets of particularly high value. In 1994, the Ministry of Defence decided to assign the airborne brigades to the Airmobile Forces Command, or Kommando Luftbewegliche Kräfte (KLK). This was then considered the future home of the airborne. In 2001, the Airmobile Forces Command was re-designated as the Specialised Operations Division, or Division Spezielle Operationen (DSO). With DSO, a national crisis response unit was created that, due to its special training, equipment and presence, was able to maintain maximum levels of operational readiness and responsiveness. In 2014, the Specialised Operations Division was reorganised into the Rapid Response Forces Division, or Division Schnelle Kräfte (DSK). To this day, paratroopers form the core of the multinational Rapid Response Forces Division.