The Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, along with Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria, are watching with great disquiet Vladimir Putin’s military build-up in Eastern Europe. Each of these nations was controlled by Russia during its previous incarnation as the Soviet Union, and none of them wish to return to that subjugation.
That’s why they originally sought membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and increased their own defense spending to meet and, in some cases, exceed the 2% of GDP target set by the alliance in 2014. NATO brings the security guarantee that the US has provided to Europe for 70 years, and with an aggressive Russia closing in on the East, security is a major concern.
There are, however, several problems with this calculation. First, the fiasco of the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and the abandonment of US citizens and loyal allies dealt a significant blow to US credibility. Second, the US Army, the pillar of security in Europe, largely returned to the US a few years ago.
Finally, due to Russia’s investments in area-denial (also called anti-access) weapons in its Kaliningrad enclave, the US Navy can no longer take Army units to Europe at time to prevent a possible Russian attack.
Russia has amassed a force of more than 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, including heavy artillery formations, armored troop carriers and main battle tanks. The country has also launched cyberattacks against key infrastructure in Ukraine. If Russian forces suddenly pass over Ukraine and position themselves to threaten the Baltic nations Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, NATO will find it difficult to respond quickly.
As part of the European Defense Initiative, the US built stores of pre-positioned ordnance, including enough equipment for an armored brigade, in Poland. The men needed to make use of this equipment and operate the tanks and armored vehicles would be flown in from the United States at the first sign of trouble.
In addition, NATO has established a response force brigade (5,000 people) and forward presence battalions (400 people), but it must be admitted that this would only serve to delay Russia a little, should it start and then race across Ukraine, a nation that is just under 1,300 kilometers wide and has modern road and rail systems. If they encounter minimal resistance, Russian armored forces, with adequate logistical support, can cross Ukraine and be at NATO’s doorstep in ten days or less. They would face a NATO ill-prepared for the threat they posed.
Over the past 20 years, NATO nations have scaled back their investments in mobile armor and artillery, by far the most expensive of land forces, and the United States has not only followed that path but also withdrawn its last permanent armored unit from Europe. The US Army, which once had numerous armored divisions of up to 12,000 to 16,000 men each, now retains only one, although there are smaller brigade armored combat teams (BCTs) incorporated into the six permanent infantry divisions and one division. of mountain that remain in the active force.
The simple truth few want to rely on is that, in addition to airpower resources – the F-35 would certainly have its baptism of fire against Russian fighter jets and their advanced S-400 missiles – under the best of circumstances, only one or two US armored vehicles would be available during the first 72 hours. Thus, only 10,000 men, some airlifted to join pre-positioned equipment and others previously assigned to the region as part of a rotating force, would be available to assist our European allies and stop an ongoing Russian attack.
This understanding comes from the recognition that armored units cannot be carried on flights to Europe. The men, their equipment and their vehicles are very heavy and must travel by sea. It would take a minimum of three days to load tanks and other armored vehicles in the United States, whether in Texas or any of the available ports on the east coast. The ships that would carry them, roll-on/roll-off cargo ships designed for the purpose, would take four to five days to cross an Atlantic Ocean that is no longer controlled by the United States and its NATO allies.
Russia spent ten years designing and building the new Severodvinsk-class attack submarine. A spin-off of Russia’s highly effective Akula- and Alpha-class fast-attack designs, Severodvinsk allowed Putin to challenge Allied supremacy over and under the Atlantic, while NATO shed its own submarines and fighter frigates. submarines.
If the transports survived the Atlantic crossing, they would not be able to cross the Baltic Sea to their preferred ports of discharge in Poland or one of the Baltic nations; the Kaliningrad-based S-400 surface-to-air missile (250-mile range) and the Iskander surface-to-ground missile (175-mile range) give Russia the ability to control the surface of the Baltic Sea east of Denmark. (Importantly, the Baltic is too shallow and dangerous for large missile-laden US nuclear submarines to safely operate within its waters without being quickly detected.)
Because of these facts, ships carrying US Army units would need to unload their cargo in Belgium or France and then load their vehicles onto wagons for transport to Eastern Europe. This process would take another seven to ten days and would be complicated by the fact that the rail networks of Eastern and Western countries, as a consequence of the Cold War, do not have uniform gauges.
The result is that it would take nearly three weeks for American armored forces to travel from the US to the front lines of a conflict that would almost certainly be over.
NATO and the United States need to understand that, at the moment, a massive return of forces to Europe will not be the answer to the Russian threat, simply because there are not a large number of suitable armored forces available for transport. Europe must take steps not only to increase its defense spending, but also to increase its forces, supplementing them with the kinds of platforms needed to face the Russian threat on its doorstep. Furthermore, the US Army must return its strategic focus to Europe rather than aimlessly looking for a role in the Pacific. The country must rebuild its armored elements and advocate a return to a forward base model, perhaps establishing new bases in Eastern European nations rather than returning to its previous garrisons in Germany.
While this may run counter to agreements made during the 1990s between Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton, the simple fact is that Russia’s annexation of Crimea, occupation of parts of Georgia and the Donbass, and persistent threats against Ukraine made these agreements debatable.
Meanwhile, the US Navy and its NATO allies must face the threat from Russia’s naval units in the Atlantic and, in particular, its new generation of submarines. They need more attack submarines, surveillance ships equipped with towed sonar and frigates, and they need that equipment soon. Because without them, Europe could soon become a continent that the United States cannot reach or help.
*Jerry Hendriz is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute and a retired US Navy captain.
©2022 National Review. Published with permission. Original in English.
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