The East German’s armed forces (Nationale Volksarmee / NVA) was created in 1956 and disbanded in 1990 after the “peaceful revolution” finally toppled the communist leadership of the DDR.
Like its Western counterpart (the Bundeswehr, formed by West Germany in 1955), the NVA relied heavily on ex-Wehrmacht officers during its early years. The Wehrmacht was the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany from 1935 to 1945 until it was disbanded in 1946. It consisted of the Heer (army), the Kriegsmarine (navy) and the Luftwaffe (air force). The designation “Wehrmacht” replaced the previously used term Reichswehr, and was the manifestation of the Nazi regime’s efforts to rearm Germany to a greater extent than the Treaty of Versailles permitted.
At its peak in 1987, the three NVA components (land, air and maritime) counted 175,300 troops under arms. This number was made up of 50% professional / career soldiers and 50% conscripts. NATO often considered the NVA the best army within the Warsaw Pact. The NVA did not see significant combat but participated in the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, deployed military advisors to communist governments in other countries, and manned the Berlin Wall where they were responsible for numerous deaths. The NVA was dissolved on 2 October 1990 with the GDR before German reunification.
In 1990, the army disbanded, following the dissolution of the East German leadership. It left behind 767 aircrafts, 208 ships, 2,761 tanks, 133,900 wheeled vehicles, 2,199 artillery pieces and a considerable stock of spare parts, ammo, small arms and fuel that the newly reunified Germany sold, re-used or scrapped. To the delight of NATO member states, the ex-NVA armoury contained 20 MiG-29As which were subsequently studied and tested.
When the Berlin wall fell, a newly reunified Germany ended up with East German MiG-29. It was a fantastic opportunity for NATO pilots to test their former Cold War enemy’s most hyped up jet fighter: The Fulcrum. American pilots were trained to fly the MiG-29 by their German counterparts then went up against various NATO pilots in mock aerial combats.
At first, the NATO pilots were not impressed. The MiG-29 was crude and had a short range. The cockpit’s ergonomics were all wrong and the radar was powerful but useless as it gave very little informations (A Soviet design feature as Soviet doctrine dictated pilots be guided and commanded by ground based air controllers). The Fulcrum lacked fly-by-wire controls and therefore could be tiresome to fly and it felt unstable in level flight. In mock long range engagements, the MiG-29 were decimated against their NATO counterparts.
Then, they moved on to Dogfighting… And suddenly, many Western pilots’ egos were bruised. In the hands of a good pilot, the MiG-29 was a master dogfighter. Its crude analogue flight controls enabled the aircraft to achieve incredible angles of attack, it was nimble, powerful and its R-73 missiles coupled with Helmet Mounted Sights and its off-boresight capabilities enabled it to score kills at crazy angles. The Western pilots also ended up recognising how reliable and easy to maintain those MiGs were.
A lot of lessons were learned by both sides. NATO put in place drills and tactics to engage and defeat the MiGs at long ranges. Meanwhile, the Russians worked long and hard to bring their cockpits’ ergonomics and radars on par with their Western counterparts.