If Russia Started a War in the Baltics, NATO Would Lose — Quickly
War games show NATO’s eastern flank is vulnerable. To deter Moscow, the United States will need to deploy heavy armor on a large scale, a new study says.
Russian tanks and troops rolled into the Baltics tomorrow, outgunned and outnumbered NATO forces would be overrun in under three days. That’s the sobering conclusion of war games carried out by a think tank with American military officers and civilian officials.
“The games’ findings are unambiguous: As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members,” said a reportby the Rand Corp., which led the war gaming research.
In numerous tabletop war games played over several months between 2014-2015, Russian forces were knocking on the doors of the Estonian capital of Tallinn or the Latvian capital of Riga within 36 to 60 hours. U.S. and Baltic troops — and American airpower — proved unable to halt the advance of mechanized Russian units and suffered heavy casualties, the report said.
The study argues that NATO has been caught napping by a resurgent and unpredictable Russia, which has begun to boost defense spending after having seized the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine and intervened in support of pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine. In the event of a potential Russian incursion in the Baltics, the United States and its allies lack sufficient troop numbers, or tanks and armored vehicles, to slow the advance of Russian armor, said the report by Rand’s David Shlapak and Michael Johnson.
“Such a rapid defeat would leave NATO with a limited number of options, all bad,” it said.
The United States and its NATO allies could try to mount a bloody counter-attack that could trigger a dramatic escalation by Russia, as Moscow would possibly see the allied action as a direct strategic threat to its homeland. A second option would be to take a page out of the old Cold War playbook, and threaten massive retaliation, including the use of nuclear weapons. A third option would be to concede at least a temporary defeat, rendering NATO toothless, and embark on a new Cold War with Moscow, the report said.
However, the war games also illustrated there are preemptive steps the United States and its European allies could take to avoid a catastrophic defeat and shore up NATO’s eastern defenses, while making clear to Moscow that there would no easy victory.
A force of about seven brigades in the area, including three heavy armored brigades, and backed up by airpower and artillery, would be enough “to prevent the rapid overrun of the Baltic states,” it said. The additional forces would cost an estimated $2.7 billion a year to maintain.
The report was released Tuesday, the same day Defense Secretary Ash Carter unveiled plans to add more heavy weapons and armored vehicles to prepositioned stocks in Eastern Europe to give the Pentagon two brigade sets worth of heavy equipment on NATO’s eastern frontier. As it stands now, there are two U.S. Army infantry brigades stationed in Europe — one in Italy and the other in Germany — but they have been stretched thin by the constant demands of training rotations with allies across the continent. The new $3.4 billion plan outlined by Carter and the White House would add another brigade to the mix, but it would be made up of soldiers from the United States, rotating in for months at a time.
Late last month, Gen. Philip Breedlove, commander of U.S. European Command, released a new strategy anticipating — and pushing back against— the call for more rotational forces. Flying troops in and out of the region “complements” the units who call Europe home, he wrote, but they’re no “substitute for an enduring forward deployed presence that is tangible and real. Virtual presence means actual absence.”
David Ochmanek from the Rand Corp., a former senior Pentagon official who has studied the challenge posed by Russia’s military, called the administration’s budget proposal for European forces an important step and an “encouraging sign.”
“Heavy armored equipment, pre-positioned forward, is the sine qua non of a viable deterrent and defense posture on the alliance’s eastern flank,” Ochmanek told Foreign Policy. But he said much more needed to be done to strengthen NATO’s defenses.
The findings from the war games will be warmly welcomed by senior officers in the U.S. Army, who have struggled to justify the cost of maintaining a large ground force amid budget pressures in recent years and a preference for lighter footprints. And the report will reinforce warnings from top military leaders, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. JosephDunford, that Russia may represent the number one threat to U.S. interests.
In early 2012, the Obama administration announced the withdrawal of two heavy brigades and their equipment from
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