Interview with Captain Thorsten Mathesius, German Navy. Captain Mathesius currently serves as Chief of the German Armed Forces Staff in Potsdam.

Q. The German naval commandos’ Kampfschwimmer Company celebrated its fiftieth anniversary on 1 April. You have been an active Kampfschwimmer naval commando for twenty years. You have served in the Kampfschwimmer Company as a platoon/team leader and as company commander. You served as deputy commander of the Waffentauchergruppe (Armed Diver Group), which was established in 1991, and which incorporated the German Navy’s mine warfare assets as well as the Kampfschwimmer Company.

You were deputy commander and commander of the Specialized Operational Forces of the Navy (Spezialisierte Einsatzkräfte Marine – SEKM), which had operational control over the Kampfschwimmer Company from 2002 to 1 April 2014. You have also served in the German Ministry of Defense (MoD) and in the NATO Special Operations Coordination Center / NATO Special Operations Headquarters.

Throughout your career you have observed and experienced first hand the developments which had a direct impact on the Kampfschwimmer community. If you could sum up the developments of the past decades, what would you highlight as the most important factors defining the Kampfschwimmer self-image and their role within the German armed forces, or for that matter within NATO?

A. To discuss the current Kampfschwimmer self-image, one has to look back to the early days of the German naval commandos and compare their circumstances to those of today. But in order to understand these circumstances, one needs to bear in mind crucial NATO developments during and after the Balkan Crisis. Taken together, these aspects present a clear picture of the recently completed transition to a new role and a special significance of the Kampfschwimmer within our armed forces, and within NATO.

The Kampfschwimmer Company was formed during the early phase of our armed forces. The mission spectrum was narrowly defined in light of the requirements of that era. As a result, NATO plans for defense of Alliance territory to dictate the Kampfschwimmer mission and functions. They were a firm component of naval operational planning. This included special reconnaissance missions, especially of beach and surf zones, or of installations with special significance for military operations.

In addition, there were direct action missions against military targets, such as enemy ships or installations. The purpose of these direct action missions was to inflict so much damage on the enemy that windows of opportunity would be opened that allowed friendly forces unrestricted freedom of operation.

Even back then, the Kampfschwimmer were a triphibian force capable of reaching their area of operations from the air, over land, or from the sea (including from beneath the sea). If they could not ingress using their own resources, they were to have access to ships, boats, submarines and aircraft – “enablers,” in today’s parlance. But it is important to remember that, back then, the Kampschwimmer were always viewed as a purely national asset dedicated to supporting German naval operations. Germany was not alone in this. All the NATO partners viewed their specially qualified units as purely national assets.