Friday 1 September, 2017 Update: As Zapad ’17 Approaches, US Fighters Arrive in the Baltics

64546778976968756

With Zapad 17, the major Russian military exercise that has the Baltic states. and Eastern Europe on edge, set to begin in two weeks, US airpower is making an appearance in the region. NATO’s Baltic Air Police mission has just gone through a rotation of forces. Spanish F-18s and Polish F-16s, which have guarded the airspace of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia over the summer of ’17 have been replaced by a contingent of 4 Belgian F-16s and 4 USAF F-15C Eagles. The Belgian -16s will be based at Amari Air Base in Estonia while the US fighters bed down at Šiauliai Air Base in Lithuania. The US will assume overall mission command for this BAP rotation, which will run from 30 August until late December, 2017 or early January, 2018. The US F-15s belong to the 493rd Fighter Squadron based at RAF Lakenheath. The squadron, like its parent unit the 48th Fighter Wing, is no stranger to deployments. Its aircraft have taken part in air policing rotations in the Baltic and Iceland in recent years.

With Zapad 17 coming closer, Russian air activity over the Baltic Sea has been increasing. The number of interceptions carried out by NATO over the summer was larger than it had been at the same time last year. Since the Russian annexation of Crimea, and the start of fighting in Ukraine, the Russian air force has kept NATO Baltic Air Police pilots on their toes. As tension goes, so does the number of interceptions. If the numbers lately are any indication, relations between NATO and Russia are anything but harmonious at the moment.

 

The Belgian Attacks: Europe’s Moment of Reckoning Draws Nearer

belgiansoldierreuters2303_620_413_100

So far, Europe has been sleepwalking through the second decade of the 21st Century. At the beginning of the new century the European Union was infused with unbridled optimism and hope. The Cold War was over, US influence in European matters was diminishing and the continent looked to be rallying around a common currency and EU leadership. The feeling that European unity was close at hand permeated European political and economic attitudes and deeds.

Now in 2016, the goal of European unity is nothing more than a pipe dream; elusive and unattainable in the face of the challenges besieging the EU. A sovereign debt crisis, a refugee crisis, the resurgence of Russia, and terrorism have combined to produce a nightmare scenario. The EU has failed to contend with any of these challenges effectively and as a result, the picture facing the continent is a bleak one.

The Brussels attacks have made it clear that the consequences of irresoluteness are here.  Six years of EU paralysis and indecisiveness have brought about a perfect storm of sorts. ISIS has Europe in its crosshairs at a time when hundreds of thousands of Syrian and North African refugees are flooding the continent. Opposition to the immigration has been steadily rising, especially in Germany where voters made their feelings known about Merkel’s refugee policies in the most recent elections. Now, with another terrorist attack on European soil, the plight of the Syrian refugees will become even less significant to European politicians. Europe cannot be secure while opening its borders to hundreds of thousands of Syrians and North Africans.

With regards to terrorism, Europe has to use its economic and military resources to defeat ISIS. Before it can do this, however, EU members need to develop the political will for what promises to be a sustained campaign. Up to the present day, European military efforts against ISIS in Syria and Iraq have been uncoordinated and minimal. France and England have mirrored the ‘light footprint’ approach of the United States. While the strikes against ISIS targets in the Middle East have netted results, there are already ISIS cells active in Europe and those cells are spreading death and destruction. These cells, as well as the circumstances that brought them to European soil, must be dealt with by a united, determined Europe Union instead of by individual member-states.

Belgium is at the forefront of European efforts against terrorism both at home and abroad. It has long been a hotbed of Jihadist activity. The country is strategically located between Germany and France. In two hours one can cross Belgium by car and its outside borders are open. The value of its location was made clear by the Paris attacks in November. It has a small security apparatus to defend against terror attacks despite the fact that Brussels is home to the EU headquarters, NATO headquarters and hundreds of international agencies and companies. Belgium is also home to a large Muslim population, making it easy for terror cells to remain anonymous as they prepare to strike.

This week’s attacks in Brussels are at least partly retribution for Belgium’s involvement in apprehending Salah Abdeslam. ISIS is perhaps hoping for an aftermath similar to the 2004 Madrid train bombings. The attacks occurred during an election cycle and popular opinion in Spain was that the bombings were in response to Spain’s involvement in Operation Iraqi Freedom. The incumbent party was removed from power and replaced by the Socialist Party which removed Spanish troops from Iraq shortly thereafter. A similar outcome is unlikely in Belgium, though. The government in Brussels has admitted it could have done more to prevent suicide bombings. Changes in the security apparatus are coming. French and Belgian police are conducting raids in Paris and Brussels.

Will it be enough to prevent any terrorist attacks planned for the near future? Or is this a matter of too little, too late?

Thoughts & Prayers Are With Belgium

pray-for-brussels-facebook

No talk about politics, international relations or military issues this evening. Tomorrow, that will begin again. For now, I ask readers to pause for a moment and say a prayer for the Belgian people in their hour of need. May God bless the Belgian people and guide them through this tumultuous time.

 

 

European Awakening?

150115141513-06-belgium-operation-461576378-jpg-super-169

Europe is realizing something that many people have known for a long time: The continent is rife with radical Islamists and terror cells. Europe has always had a large population of Muslim immigrants. In recent times, however, radical Islamists have made their presence felt. They have been responsible for a number of gruesome attacks against private citizens and companies across Europe. The latest attack in France has struck a nerve and might possibly be the wakeup call that the continent has needed. In the days since the Charlie Hebdo and Hebrew grocery store attacks, France appears to be steeling herself for a protracted conflict against the enemy within as well as the enemy abroad.

Appearances, however, can be deceiving. France isnot unfamiliar to terrorist attacks. Neither is the rest of Europe for that matter. The 1980s especially, were a dangerous time in France and other Western European nations but most citizens remained indifferent to the threat, unless personally affected. In the past, there have been terrorist actions in Paris that did nothing to galvanize the French. This time, it is different. At least for the short term. On the heels of events in France, Belgium wasted little time in taking down a terrorist cell that was preparing to attack police stations.

Fighting terrorism and radical Islamists is a time consuming and concerted effort. This is no new revelation for French security and military officials. The question is: Can Europe remain strong and united in its efforts?

*Apology for a short post today. Work responsibilities are piling up my free time has been limited. *

Europe’s Voluntary Disarmament

 

tumblr_meno0r7t351rl372to1_500

I miss the Cold War. Really, I do. It is far enough in the past now that one can look back wistfully at period from 1947 to 1991 and appreciate the simplicity of that conflict. The United States and her allies versus the Soviet Union and its (mostly captive) allies. Capitalism or Communism. Co-existence or conflict. Honestly, compared to the complexities of today’s geopolitical world, the Cold War seems like a pretty damn good time. Know who else probably misses the Cold War? Western European generals and defense ministers.

Gone are the heady days of plump (by European standards) defense budgets, capable forces and clarified missions. In its place is an era of austerity, ill-defined missions and threats, as well as indifference. The defense cuts have not been entirely unexpected given the current economic situation on the continent. That being said, the position that many European politicians and voters are taking towards their military forces is borderline reckless. Europe is voluntarily disarming itself.

The most striking example of European disarmament has been the drawdown of Britain’s Royal Navy. In spite of Great Britain’s historic position a major maritime power, over the years the Royal Navy has regularly fallen victim to budget slashing. The “Senior Service” has seen a broadening of its missions in recent years even as the surface fleet has been cut to one-third of its Cold War strength. The Royal Army and RAF are in similar shape.  Britain’s strategic reach has been shortened and it’s questionable whether or not the UK will be able to support the US militarily, as it has for decades, in the future.

Other major European powers like France and Germany are in similar positions. Budget cuts are currently having, or will have, a profound effect on readiness and force structure in the future. Smaller countries on the continent are not immune to the budget crunch either. Belgium and the Netherlands have stricken off their inventories of main battle tanks and replaced them with wheeled AFVs in the case of Belgium and Infantry Fighting Vehicles for the Netherlands.

The United States has shouldered the bulk of NATO military spending since the creation of the alliance. That should come as no great surprise to anybody. What is a surprise, and something of a concern, though, is the fact that in 2001 the US financed 63 percent of NATO military expenditures. Today, the number is closer to 75 percent. The financial crisis has stymied Europe’s defense expenditures and reduced its military capabilities. The situation is reaching a critical point. There will be a point in the not too distant future when America’s European allies can no longer be counted on to be practical military partners.

NATO’s intervention in Libya, although successful, did reveal weaknesses in Europe’s military capabilities. The US provided a great amount of support and without it, Gaddafi might still be around. Tomahawk missiles fired by US Navy ships decimated Libyan air defense sites, command and control facilities and airfields. Ammunition, airborne tankers, drones, fighter aircraft and intelligence was also contributed to the initial phase of the Libyan expedition. Without that help, it is doubtful if the European forces involved could have gone it alone. The same is true in Mali where USAF assistance has been crucial to the French mission in Mali

As the United States pivots towards Asia, European nations to ponder potential threats and missions and structure its militaries to meet the needs of the future. The US is encouraging Europe to tend more to its defense needs, and rightfully so. The European sphere of influence does not end at the Bosphorus, or the Straits of Gibraltar. It is essential that Europe stand ready to defend her interests abroad. The US might not be very willing or able to help when the next crisis begins. And it will eventually.