Happy New Year!
Christmas and the holiday season are now officially behind us. A new year has arrived, and with it will come challenges, crises, and conflict. Some will be extensions of previous conflicts and crises like the war against ISIS, Syria and the fighting in the Ukraine. Others will be entirely new and unfamiliar in their textures and complexities. In any event, 2015 promises to be no less violent than the previous year.
I will begin 2015 with the final East Is Forward post. This post will focus on the NATO military response to events in the Ukraine and Baltics. As Europe struggles to maintain a united front against Russia with regards to what is happening in the Ukraine, NATO is moving ahead with plans to strengthen its military capabilities in Eastern Europe and widen its response options should a new crisis with Russia appear out of the simmering tensions. The Alliance’s response to heightened Russian air and naval activity has been resolute, however, nowhere near as decisive as its reaction to facing a potential conflict with Russia on the ground.
Baltic Air Policing
The 37th rotation of NATO forces assigned to the Baltic Air Policing mission officially stood up today ( 2 January, 2015) with the Italian Air Force taking the lead. Since last May, the force had been heightened in response to the annexation of Crimea and events in the Ukraine. For the current rotation, four Italian Eurofighter Typhoons will be fly from Siauliai Airbase, Lithuania. Four Polish MiG-29 Fulcrums will support them, flying out of the same base. Four Spanish Typhoons are being based at Amari Airbase in Estonia, along with four Belgian F-16s at Malbork Airbase, Poland.
From September 2014 through the end of the year, Russian air activity in the region was very high. NATO aircraft flew 250+ sorties, intercepting Russian aircraft that were flying close to member nation airspace, flying without flight plans or transponders and not communicating with civilian air traffic controllers. Until the situation in the Ukraine reaches a conclusion, the level of activity will probably not be diminishing. Therefore, the expanded NATO mission should be expected to continue through 2015.
One advantage of the expanded air mission has been in the number of airbases available to NATO in the Baltics. Until 2014, NATO fighters flew almost exclusively from Lithuania. Now, Amari Airbase in Estonia has been utilized for use by the alliance and the Polish airbase at Malbork has seen an increase in activity since last year. In the event of hostilities, the familiarity with these airfields will be an advantage for NATO pilots and ground crews, allowing them to operate with a greater degree of ease.
Boots And Treads On The Ground
A lot of attention has been given to plans for a strengthened NATO rapid-reaction force and for good reason, given what has been happening lately. Whether or not this force will come into being in time to be of use is another question entirely. With constricting defense budgets and a lack of alliance resolve, there is no guarantee that the 5,000 man force can even be created. Fortunately, SACEUR has not been idle on the matter of contingency plans for reinforcements in Eastern Europe if a crisis calls for it.
In October, 600 troops and accompanying armored vehicles from the 1st Brigade/1st Cavalry Division deployed to Poland and the Baltic states for a series of exercises over three months. The move was made to reassure nervous allies as tensions with Russia increased. Now, the US presence is going to be permanent, it would seem. Plans to preposition equipment and supplies for a US armored brigade in Europe are moving forward. The bulk of the equipment will probably be placed in Poland in storage sites similar to the POMCUS facilities in West Germany during the Cold War. US troops would fly from bases in the US to Eastern Europe and mate up with their equipment. Smaller numbers of tanks and other armored vehicles will be placed at US training sites, namely Grafenwoehr in southern Germany. The presence of heavy US forces would serve as a deterrent in a time of crisis and as an effective instrument of war if fighting broke out.
Think of Eastern Europe and the Baltics as a chessboard, with military units acting as the playing pieces for both sides. The board is becoming increasingly crowded. The buildup is nothing comparable to the number of NATO and Warsaw Pact forces that faced off against each other for over 40 years in central Europe. Nor is the level of tension as great as it was during the Cold War.
All of that can change in an instant. And if war should ever come between NATO and Russia, the first shots will be fired in the Baltics or Eastern Europe.