The US-Russia Military Balance in Europe: Part I

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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.

 

The US-Russia Military Balance in Europe: Introduction

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When the Soviet Union dissolved in December, 1991, its successor the Russian Federation hastened the withdrawal of its military forces from Eastern Europe. The United States followed a similar path, decommissioning scores of units, and closing dozens of installations that had protected Western Europe from the threat of Soviet attack for decades. Neither country could further justify maintaining large military forces in Europe with the Cold War having come to an end.

Russia’s military withdrawal from Europe was complete. No troops, aircraft, tanks, or ships remained in Eastern Europe owing to political and financial considerations both in Eastern Europe and back home in Russia. The US military pulled out the lion’s share of its forces from Western Europe, however, a respectable number of units remained in theater. Even though the possibility of a major conflict erupting in Europe was non-existent at the time, the Pentagon deemed it essential to US national interests to maintain a presence there in the post-Cold War time period. An underlying reason for the move was the growing importance of the Middle East to US policy. With US bases in Europe closer to that region than bases in the continental United States, the ability to quickly move forces there from Europe was certainly a factor.

The state of the US-Russia military balance in Europe was not a priority for the Pentagon during much of the early 21st Century. The conflicts in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and the overall Global War on Terror consumed the lion’s share of attention, money, and material. After the pullout from Iraq began in 2009, a smaller drawdown of US forces in Europe also got underway. Budgets were being cut and the forces in Europe were targeted. More installations were closed, and units either decommissioned, or moved to new home bases in the continental US. In April 2013, the last US armored unit left Germany. Less than a year later, Russia annexed Crimea, fighting began in eastern Ukraine. Almost overnight Europe again became a central interest to the United States and the Pentagon began to seriously examine the military balance in Europe, and think about the future.