A Russian military vehicle arrives for joint Russian-Belarusian military exercises to be held in February amid escalating tensions on the Russian-Ukrainian border, January 18 | Photo: EFE/EPA/PRESS OFFICE OF THE BELARUS MINISTRY OF DEFENSE
The Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as well as Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria are watching Vladimir Putin’s military build-up in Eastern Europe with great unease. Each of these nations was controlled by Russia in its previous incarnation as the Soviet Union, and none of them wish to return to that dominion.
This is why they originally sought to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and increased their own defense spending to meet and in some cases exceed the 2% target. The GDP set by the Alliance in 2014. NATO offers the security guarantee that the United States has offered Europe for 70 years, and with an aggressive Russia closing in on the east, security is a prime concern.
However, there are some problems with this calculation. First, the fiasco of withdrawing US forces from Afghanistan, leaving US citizens and loyal allies behind, has dealt a serious blow to US credibility. Second, the US military, the mainstay of security in Europe, largely returned to the United States a few years ago.
Finally, because of Russia’s investment in territory-denial weapons (aka anti-access weapons) in its Kaliningrad enclave, the US Navy can no longer get army units to Europe in time to thwart a possible Russian attack.
Russia has amassed a force of more than 100,000 troops along its border with Ukraine, including formations of heavy artillery, armored personnel carriers and main battle tanks. The country has also launched cyber attacks on key infrastructure in Ukraine. If Russian forces suddenly cross Ukraine and position themselves to threaten the Baltic countries of Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, NATO will find it difficult to react quickly.
As part of the European Defense Initiative, the United States built pre-positioned ammunition dumps in Poland, including enough equipment for an armored brigade. The men needed to operate 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 deployed a Response Force Brigade (5,000 people) and Advancing Presence Battalions (400 people), but it must be admitted that this would only serve to delay Russia a little if it took off and then transited Ukraine, a country that is almost 1,300 kilometers wide and has modern road and rail systems. If met with 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 pose.
Over the past 20 years, NATO countries have reduced their investments in mobile armor and artillery, by far the most expensive ground forces, and the United States has not only gone down this route, but also withdrawn its last permanent armored unit from Europe. The US Army, which once had numerous armored divisions of up to 12,000–16,000 men each, now retains only one, although there are smaller Brigade Armored Combat Teams (BCTs) integrated with the remaining six permanent infantry divisions and one mountain division. in active strength.
The simple truth, on which few are willing to rely, is that alongside the air forces — the F-35 would certainly have passed its baptism of fire against Russian fighter jets and their advanced S-400 missiles — at best, only an American armored vehicle or two would do for them first 72 hours available. Thus, only 10,000 men would be available, some flown to join pre-positioned equipment and others previously assigned to the region as part of a rotating force to assist our European allies and stop an ongoing Russian attack.
This understanding stems from the realization that armored units cannot be transported on flights to Europe. The men, their equipment and their vehicles are very heavy and have to travel by sea. It would take at least three days to load tanks and other armored vehicles in the United States, either in Texas or at one of the available East Coast ports. The ships they carry, purpose-built ro-ro cargo ships, would take four to five days to cross an Atlantic Ocean no longer controlled by the United States and its NATO allies.
Russia has spent ten years designing and building the new Severodvinsk-class attack submarine. Severodvinsk, an offshoot of Russia’s highly effective Akula- and Alpha-class fast-attack designs, allowed Putin to challenge Allied supremacy above and below the Atlantic while NATO disposed of its own submarines. sailors and fighter frigates.
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 any of the Baltic countries; The Kaliningrad-based S-400 surface-to-air missile (250-mile range) and Iskander surface-to-surface missile (175-mile range) give Russia the ability to control the surface of the Baltic Sea east of Denmark. (It is important to note that the Baltic Sea is too shallow and dangerous for large, missile-laden US nuclear submarines to safely operate in its waters without being quickly detected.)
Because of these facts, ships carrying US Army units had to unload their cargo in Belgium or France and then load their vehicles onto railroad cars 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 the eastern and western countries do not have uniform gauges due to the Cold War.
The result was that it would be almost three weeks before American armored forces could get from the United States to the front lines of a conflict that was almost certain to be over.
NATO and the United States must understand that a massive return of forces to Europe will not be an answer to the Russian threat at this time, simply because large numbers of armored vehicles are not available for transport. Europe must take steps not only to increase its defense spending, but also to strengthen its armed forces and supplement them with the kind of platforms needed to deal with the Russian threat on its doorstep. In addition, the US military must re-focus its strategic focus on Europe rather than aimlessly seeking a role in the Pacific. The country must rebuild its armored elements and advocate a return to a forward-looking baseline model, perhaps by establishing new bases in Eastern European countries rather than returning to its old garrisons in Germany.
While this may conflict with agreements reached between Presidents Yeltsin and Clinton in the 1990s, the simple fact is that Russia’s annexation of Crimea, occupation of parts of Georgia and the Donbass, and ongoing threats against the Ukraine have made these agreements questionable.
Meanwhile, the US Navy and its NATO allies must contend with the threat posed by Russian naval units in the Atlantic, and in particular their new generation of submarines. They need more attack submarines, towed sonar surveillance ships, and frigates, and they need that equipment soon. Because without them, Europe could soon become a continent that the United States can neither reach nor help.
*Jerry Hendriz is a Senior Fellow at the Sagamore Institute and a retired US Navy Captain.
©2022 National Review. Released with permission. Original in English.