MULLHEIM, GERMANY — Gen. Hans Otto Budde believes he is commanding a totally new type of military formation - and one that will set the pattern for European armies in the 21st century.
"We have proved it is possible to put together soldiers from two entirely different European military traditions and make it all work," he says. "I see that as the way of the future."
Sitting behind his desk in a military encampment near Mullheim, in southern Germany, close to the border with France, General Budde ticks off the brigade's achievements since, in the mid-1980s, Germany's Chancellor Helmut Kohl and the late French President Francois Mitterrand decided to create a military unit including troops of both countries under a single command.
Budde explains that the Franco-German Brigade is already operational.
"We have 650 highly trained troops capable of being deployed in major trouble spots, including the former Yugoslavia," Budde says.
"When this unit was first started it was written off in advance as some kind of language laboratory, with very little military value. We have proved otherwise."
The general remembers with pride that last year on Bastille Day - July 14 - German and French soldiers from his brigade had marched up the Champs Elysees in the heart of Paris. "It's the first time in history anything like that has happened," he says.
At the gates of the Robert Schuman Barracks, the brigade's headquarters, the binational character of the unit was immediately apparent.
A German private in dark- green camouflage dress checks passports and waves visitors through toward a French lieutenant in khaki. The red, white, and blue French tricolor flutters beside the red, black, and gold of the German flag.
Budde explains that putting together an army formation of soldiers from two formerly antagonistic countries was not simple.
Some of the knottiest problems that had to be faced, he said, concerned comparatively minor things. Designing a cap badge and shoulder flashes which combined the French and German flags proved a challenge, and the jammed-together results are not entirely convincing. ("Surreal," was the comment of a French private soldier.)
Then there was the problem of parade ground drill.
"When they do an about-turn, French recruits are taught to swing around to the right. We go in the opposite direction," says a German soldier. "We still have problems with that one."
Food, too, is an issue. German recruits had no problem tucking into the plain meat-and-potato lunch. Their French colleagues appeared less enthusiastic.
Some problems required special solutions, Budde says - as is clear when the brigade's forward reconnaissance unit, equipped with submersible armored cars, goes on maneuvers.
The Panhard armored cars are lined up on the banks of the Rhine River, ready to be driven across and back again, from one country to another.
The unit is entirely French, just as other fighting elements in the brigade were wholly German.
"In battle it would be dangerous to take risks with language, in case of misunderstandings in a tight situation," an officer explains. "Our supply battalion and other nonfighting elements are entirely binational."
This compromise arrangement does little to diminish the achievement of forging the troops into a single unit.
Before Budde, a German, took over last year, the brigade had a French commander. His successor will be also be French. Officers are both French and German.
There are clear advantages in having officers and men from two different military traditions working side by side, Budde says. "Germany, because of its constitution, has had next to no experience of operational duty outside Europe, but is a member of Nato," he notes. "France has experience dealing with trouble spots around the world, but is not part of Nato's military structure. "We are learning different things from each other's experience," Budde says.
Budde says the multinational principle could be pushed much further in European armies. He points out that the Franco-German Brigade already fits into a larger multinational command structure set up last year - the Eurocorps which, apart from French and German units, includes Spanish and Belgian troops and numbers 50,000 men.
"It does not make sense to have a Europe which is uniting economically and politically and may soon have a single currency, but which retains separate national armies," he says.
His junior officers tend to accept the same argument.
"When this brigade was first thought of, critics said it was a mere political ploy, with no military significance," says a French lieutenant. "What Europeans need to do is forget certain aspects of their past, and learn to work together."