Competing Exercises Increase Black Sea Tensions

160731-N-FP878-013

The Black Sea has become a beehive of naval activity in recent days as NATO’s annual Sea Shield exercise is underway off the coast of Romania, and Russia’s Southern Military District is running a series of high-profile exercises as well. The Russian exercises have been billed as a counter to Sea Shield. The competing exercises come at a time when military tensions in the Black Sea region are rising. Russia has become more aggressive, especially in the waters around the Crimean Peninsula. Over the past year, NATO has been focusing more attention on the area. In 2018, NATO warships spent 120 days in the Black Sea, an increase of 40 days from the year before.

The clash between Ukrainian and Russian ships near the Kerch Straits in November, 2018 has served as the catalyst for the most recent round of tensions. The US Navy has made it a point to have at least one ship in the Black Sea most of the time. The amphibious assault ship USS Fort McHenry entered the sea in January. Her visit was followed by the destroyer USS Donald Cook, which has been to the Black Sea twice this year so far. The latest US warship to pass through the Bosphorus was the USS Ross, another Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, which came through on Sunday night.

Russia is monitoring the movement of the destroyer and government officials have publicly stated on state news outlets that the appearance of Ross in the Black Sea is viewed as a provocative action. Moscow has long regarded the Black Sea as a Russian lake. Seizing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine in 2014 has allowed Russia to expand its maritime power in the region and more effectively enforce its proprietary attitude on its Black Sea neighbors, and to a similar extent, on NATO.

The US-Russia Military Balance in Europe Part II

Saber Strike 18

Beyond Ukraine and Crimea, the most probable flashpoint for future Russian military action in Europe is the Baltic states. The eastern expansion of NATO and the European Union into areas formerly part of the Russian sphere of influence was not well-received by Russia. Most Russians view the encroachment, and presence of NATO military forces on their borders as intolerable. Vladimir Putin has used the situation as a rallying cry to whip up nationalism and help solidify his hold on power. Putin views the NATO presence there as a roadblock to his desire to increase Russia’s standing in the world, and influence events in territories once occupied by Russia. Given that Moscow has already used its military to destabilize Georgia, Crimea, and Ukraine to keep them in the Russian sphere, it’s not outside the realm of possibility to assume it could happen in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in the future.

The Baltics pose a different situation since all three states are full NATO members. If attacked, their NATO allies will come to their aid. After the annexation of Crimea, the United States and NATO have paid closer attention to the easternmost reaches of the Atlantic alliance. Large exercises are held, air policing missions continue, and frequent appearances by US and other allied forces offer a reassuring sight for the population. Yet if push came to shove, neither the US or NATO could move enough combat power to the Baltics to deter or defeat an overt military move by Russia. It’s  a matter of numbers and distances. Russia has its most capable land and air forces in the Western Military District (WMD) as mentioned earlier in this series. This district borders the Baltic States, and the number of available combat units exceeds what the US and NATO have in the immediate area, or what they can generate and move east at the onset of a crisis or conflict.

Despite holding a distinct military advantage over the US and NATO in Eastern Europe, don’t expect Russia to send waves of tanks, and MiGs into the Baltics one day. If the moment arrives when Moscow decides to move, it will be a subtle maneuver, similar to what took place in Crimea. Hybrid war is tailor-made for the circumstances in the Baltic states where the slightest misstep could bring about a major war. The Western Military District has numerous special operations units under its command, and inserting them into the Baltics in the leadup to a ‘crisis’ wouldn’t be terribly difficult. The sudden appearance of ‘little green men’ at key locations, coupled with a series of major cyber-attacks, and riots touched off by ethnic Russians could be enough to destabilize a small nation like Lithuania, or Estonia overnight.

Given the availability of surface-to-air missile batteries, and fighter aircraft in the WMD, Russia can also impose a no-fly zone over the Baltics on short notice. Such a move would hinder the initial US military move in a crisis or conflict, which would revolve around airpower. The US has a respectable number of combat aircraft still based in Europe. This fact has led Russia to base a number of the highly capable SA-21 Growler (S-400) SAM system within range of the Baltics to deny US and NATO warplanes access to the airspace over an area where Russian forces are operating.

With just two  combat brigades permanently based in Europe, as well as a rotating armored brigade, the US would not be able to introduce a large ground force into the Baltics at short notice. NATO is in a similar fix. Revisions, and enhancements need to be made to the US military presence in central and eastern Europe to  redress the present disadvantage. The effort currently underway is not the determined, unified effort that s needed. In the next segment, we will look at US efforts to balance the military scales in Europe and what direction they are moving in.

The US-Russia Military Balance in Europe: Part I

442432

The performance of the Russian military in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War revealed a number of woeful deficiencies in the training, doctrine, and equipment of Russian forces. The conflict concluded in a decisive victory, but the performance of Russia’s armed forces indicated the reforms and modernizations begun in the aftermath of the Second Chechen War had yet to fully take root. The military was moving in the right direction, however, more work would be required before it could be seen as a legitimate first-rate professional military on par with its Western peers.

Since 2008 Russia has undertaken a series of ambitious, and determined reforms, and modernizations. The final verdict on just how successful these attempts have been cannot be determined short of a major war. The involvement of Russia’s military in Syria and Ukraine fail to qualify as proper test beds. Neither conflict offers a realistic opportunity for Russia to conduct large scale combined arms operations. What they have offered, however, is the opportunity for many Russian soldiers and officers to gain invaluable combat experience.

The Western Military District (WMD) is the command responsible for confronting NATO. The organization and deployment of Russian land, air, and naval units in the WMD region presents insight to the General Staff’s thoughts on potential future conflicts in Europe. Although the WMD is the smallest Russian military district in terms of geographic size, it has the largest number of combat units assigned to it. These forces are generally the best trained, and equipped units in the Russian armed forces.

Readiness and preparation have been major points for the WMD. Since the annexation of Crimea, and the resumption of tense relations with the West, Russia has held major exercises in the WMD multiples times a year. The largest of these, such as the Zapad series, are conducted for the purpose of preparing the forces in the WMD, and neighboring districts, for high-intensity conventional operations. In spite of the heavy publicity that hybrid warfare has received since the Crimean annexation, Russia’s ground forces in the western district are made up primarily of combined-arms units. Combined-arms operations have been the center of Russia’s land war doctrine since World War II, emphasizing maneuver and firepower. Hybrid warfare still has a place in future conflicts in Europe involving Russia, especially in the Baltic States. However, when it comes to planning for operations farther west, such as in Poland, combined-arms forces would be the mainstay.

 

Since the end of the Cold War, US ground forces have become lighter. Iraq, Afghanistan, and other fronts in the Global War on Terror emphasized infantry, special operations, and airborne troops more than they did armor and mechanized infantry. Heavy forces did find a niche in these warzones and proved remarkably effective. However, this was not enough to prevent US Army doctrine from shifting heavily to the employment of light forces on the battlefield. Ukraine, and the annexation of Crimea began to change the US mindset, as did events in other regions of the world. A high-intensity fight against a near-peer opponent equipped with large numbers of tanks, and armored vehicles became more likely. US ground forces have been adapting to meet the emerging threats since then, as have US air and naval forces. With that in mind, it needs to be stressed that Europe has not become the primary focus of US military planning, as it has for Russia. Atlantic Resolve, and the rotating presence of a heavy maneuver brigade in Eastern Europe is helping to change this, but much work remains to be done.

Responsibility for defending Europe against Russian aggression does not fall entirely on US shoulders. That obligation belongs to NATO though the US provides the bulk of the military forces and combat power NATO would bring to bear in a future war against Russia. The alliance has become more united in recent years owing to the growing Russian military threat. And thanks to President Trump’s tough talk, NATO members are beginning to contribute more money towards defense spending. Unfortunately, it will be some time before the results of this effort become visible. Even when that happens, NATO’s European member-states will be unable to defeat a Russian move into the Baltics, or elsewhere in Eastern Europe on their own. US military power is the key to defending Europe.

 

Upcoming Today’s DIRT Project for January 2019: The US-Russia Military Balance in Europe

53534534

Over the last three weeks the US force level in Europe has become a widely discussed topic in defense, and geopolitical circles. There is concern in Washington, and Brussels that the current level of US military forces stationed in Europe is not sufficient to deter Russia from undertaking military action. The focus is on Eastern Europe, specifically the Baltic states and Poland. Russia enjoys a tremendous advantage in the numbers of troops, armored vehicles, and combat aircraft it has stationed in close proximity to the eastern-most NATO states. The Pentagon is worried that in the event of a bolt-out-of-the-blue attack against the Baltics, or Poland, Russian forces will make significant gains before reinforcements from the continental United States can arrive and turn the tide of battle.

The fact that this subject is receiving more scrutiny is indicative of the Pentagon’s growing concern about Russian military strength in Europe. I personally feel the time has come to examine the current military balance in Europe, and look at options for how the US can increase its military strength in Europe enough for it to be a viable deterrent against potential Russian designs on Poland and the Baltics in the coming months and years.

Towards the middle of the month, around the Martin Luther King holiday here in the US, Today’s DIRT will examine the issue at length and present the findings in a series of articles to be posted here. Last year I did not manage to complete some of the projects I had planned on this topic, and others connected to Russia, and NATO in Eastern Europe. Now in 2019, that is going to change. This will be the first of at least six projects centered on defense matters, and geopolitical flashpoints that Today’s DIRT will present in 2019.

Between now and the middle of January, other areas of interest will be discussed, and presented. However, the military balance in Europe will take precedence in most articles from the middle of the month until early February.

INF Jitters Materialize

654546465

The uncertain future of the INF Treaty is causing concern, and alarm in media, political, and diplomatic circles across the globe. For months now, the Trump administration has been voicing its concerns about violations of the treaty by Russia with its deployment of the SS-CX-7/SS-CX-8 Screwdriver ground-launched cruise missile. Two days ago, the administration announced that if Russia does not fall back into compliance with the terms of the treaty within sixty days, the United States will begin withdrawing from the INF Treaty. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo made the formal announcement on Tuesday, and it appears that the ultimatum is being supported by NATO.

Critics of the Trump administration, the Russian government, and anti-nuclear organizations were quick to react to the news, as were other parties. The greatest fear at the moment seems to be that relegating the treaty to the dust bin of history will inevitably spark a new arms race. Leaving the treaty intact, according to many observers, will deter Russia to continue developing new intermediate range missiles. While this argument does have merit, it neglects the fact that Vladimir Putin has been developing new missiles, and updating some already in service for quite some time now.

On the other side of the coin is the argument that if Russia is intent on building these weapons, the United States should be building them too. Failing to keep up with Russian advances in the missile field only serves to harm US national security, and leaves the US military at a sharp disadvantage. It would be wise for all parties to remember that the INF Treaty came into being in the 80s because of the existence of a very modern, and capable US intermediate nuclear force. Moscow had great respect for the Pershing II, and Ground Launched Cruise Missile (GLCM) systems being fielded in Western Europe by the United States at the time. The Soviets took a look at the balance of power in Central Europe at the time and concluded that a treaty was in their best interests.

In short, Gorbachev and the Soviets were motivated by US military strength, and the political resolve behind it. This is what led to the INF Treaty being signed more than any other factor.

Maintaining the INF Treaty now, without penalizing Russia, allows them to continue developing systems like the Screwdriver without penalty. It also confines the US military from developing and fielding similar systems, thus giving Russia a clear advantage in a crucial area of weaponry.

60 days is a long enough period of time for a compromise to be reached by both sides, yet if Russia is unwilling to abide by the terms of the treaty, it is in the best interests of the United States to leave the treaty and begin developing new intermediate nuclear-capable cruise, and ballistic missiles.