NATO Strategic Considerations Part I

The current crisis in Ukraine has revealed glaring holes in NATO’s readiness and strategic planning, especially with regards to its Eastern Flank. If anything, the events of the last two months should serve as a catalyst for renewed efforts to prepare the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria to be the vanguard against future Russian designs on Eastern Europe. The growing importance of the Eastern Flank is not up for debate. The bone of contention is in the lack of commitment to build the infrastructure for a sizeable and permanent military presence on the Eastern Flank.

Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the alliance realized how exposed it truly was in the east. Plans for a permanent military presence in Poland, the Baltics and Romania were drawn up. The United States developed Atlantic Resolve, a series of military activities aimed at enhancing NATO military capabilities in Europe. NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence was also developed along similar lines and guaranteed a semi-permanent alliance military presence in Eastern Europe and the Baltics. Unfortunately, as time went on, the importance initially attached to the Eastern Flank missions waned. Ukraine cooled down to an extent and Russia’s Crimean Anschluss was tacitly accepted. Although Atlantic Resolve and Enhanced Forward Presence continued on through the years, NATO’s attention turned to other areas. 

I believe it is imperative for NATO to begin thinking about what it will take to establish a large and permanent military presence on its Eastern Flank for an extended period of time. During the Cold War, the Inner-German Border served as both the physical and psychological frontier between East and West. Central Europe became an armed camp with hundreds of thousands of troops stationed on either side of the border. When the Cold War ended, there was no need for NATO to sustain such a large force. The Soviet threat was gone and governments from Bonn to Washington were eager to reap the benefits of the peace dividends. Now, NATO finds itself needing to make up for lost time, so to speak. The Eastern Flank now requires the necessary military command structure and framework to sustain a multi-division force on the ground. A structure similar to what NATO had in West Germany through much of the Cold War. Specifically, an army group set up along the lines of NORTHAG and CENTAG back in the 1980s.

This morning, I began writing the first of what will be a series of posts on the strategic considerations NATO is now forced to look at carefully in light of what’s happening in eastern Ukraine. After the events earlier today, I planned to set it aside, but decided to post at least the first entry. Provided things quiet down a bit in Ukraine through the rest of the week, I’ll post the second one around Friday. Between now and then, the focus will be on Russia and Ukraine.

Thoughts On The Planned Reduction Of US Troops In Germany

There has been a considerable amount of speculation and debate concerning the recently announced plan to reduce the number of US troops stationed in Germany by half. On one side is the almost customary argument that such a move will weaken NATO, strengthen Russia’s military position, and generally have a negative effect on American national security. We have seen and heard this argument presented a multitude of times since the 90s. It has never really held water, at least not to the level that its proponents would be satisfied with. A second argument being made loudly these days, especially by President Trump’s detractors, is that the planned withdrawal is a politically motivated move. Well, it was partly, and the Trump administration has made no bones about it. The fact is that one of the main reasons for this troop reduction is Germany’s failure to meet NATO’s defense spending goals. In 2014 NATO set a standard for its member-states to halt defense budget cuts and begin moving back towards spending 2% of their GNP by 2024. President Trump has said himself that until Germany pays more for its own defense, US troop levels will be reduced. He has left open the possibility of reversing the reduction plan if Germany starts to devote more money towards its military. To add insult to injury at least half of the troops set to be removed from Germany will find new homes in other European nations from Belgium, and Italy to Poland.

The mention of Poland brings up a third argument, and one that I personally stand behind. The US move is the latest component in what has been a consistent trend towards Eastern Europe for the US military. Deterring Russia has become a top priority for the US, and NATO in recent years. As a result, more US units are being based in Eastern Europe, right now mainly on a rotational basis however there are also permanent bases being constructed, and opened in places such as Romania, and Poland. So it makes sense to move troops, units, and facilities from Germany to Eastern Europe where the combat units will be better able to conduct their mission of deterring Russia, and support elements will be nearer to those combat units.

I have wanted to discuss this topic since the Pentagon made the first announcements about a possible troop reduction in Germany back in June. Unfortunately, Asia has been receiving the lion’s share of geopolitical focus lately. But with July coming to a close, and the subject receiving some attention from the media in recent days, I felt this was an opportune time to get some of my thoughts on the matter written up and placed out there for consumption. 😊

Polish President Coming to Washington This Week

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Polish President Andrzej Duda is visiting the United States later this week. His first stop will be Washington DC for a working visit with President Trump at the White House. Discussions between the two leaders are expected to revolve around energy security, defense, and economic issues. It is no secret that Duda, as well as a majority of Poles, want a larger contingent of US troops to be permanently stationed in their home country. Along with this, Poland has its sights set on increasing American investment, and ultimately on acquiring American natural gas as a new energy source.

Energy security is a matter of national importance for Poland. Through its time under the bootheel of Soviet occupation, the nation relied on Russia for most of its natural gas and oil. When the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union dissolved this did not change. Poland continues to be reliant on Russian gas and oil to meet its energy needs. Duda is anxious to find an alternative source for energy, and the hope is that US natural gas will be it. Duda’s second stop on his US trip will be Houston, Texas, home to a number of major US oil and natural gas corporations.

Defense will also be a major topic. While in Washington, the Polish leader is expected to announce that his country will be purchasing thirty-five F-35 Lightning II fighters. Duda will also likely push for US troops to be relocated to Poland from bases in Germany. US and Polish defense officials have been working on a deal to bring a large military base, and permanent US troop presence to Poland. Earlier this year, Polish media reported that the US was considering basing a US Army division headquarters in Poznan, a special operations base near Krakow and making the US Air Force detachment in Lask permanent.

The plan for an increased US presence in Poland has to be weighed against the potential of it escalating tensions with Russia. A balance needs to be found given the brittle geopolitical foundation in Eastern Europe.

The US-Russia Military Balance in Europe Part II

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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.

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

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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.