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.

Wednesday 16 May, 2018 Update: North Korea Threatens to Back Out of June Summit

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With less than thirty days remaining until the US-North Korea summit is scheduled to take place in Singapore, the first signs of trouble have appeared. North Korea’s statement expressing ‘disappointment’ with National Security Adviser John Bolton’s remarks over the weekend suggesting that North Korea’s potential denuclearization could follow the ‘Libya Model.’ Considering that Muammar Gaddafi’s gave up his nation’s nuclear program only to be killed by Western-backed rebels a few years later, it is easy to see why the North Koreans are a little disturbed by Bolton’s words. It is no secret that the North has long been wary of Bolton and his hawkish views. Vice-Foreign Minister Kim Kye-gwan. even admitted in the statement that his country finds Bolton ‘repugnant.’

Frustration with Bolton is not the only matter irritating North Korea. Max Thunder, a joint ROKAF-USAF military exercise currently underway have apparently displeased Pyongyang enough for it to cancel high-level talks with South Korea that had been scheduled for today. KCIA, North Korea’s state-run media outlet has stated the exercise could prevent the 12 June summit between President Trump and Kim Jong Un from taking place.

Washington is publicly projecting great confidence that the summit will take place. Behind the scenes, though, questions about North Korea’s candor regarding talks with the United States, and the eventual denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. Tuesday’s statements and actions suggest Pyongyang might be embracing tactics of the past to project its unwillingness to discuss at length the subject of denuclearization with Trump at the summit. Bolton’s remarks likely appear to be a suitable justification for North Korea to try and shift the focus of the summit away from its nuclear weapons and the future of the program.

Sunday 7 January, 2018 Update: Baltic Air Policing Starts New Rotation This Week

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This week will mark the end of NATO’s current Baltic Air Policing rotation which stood began in September, 2017. USAFE F-15C Eagles of the 493d Fighter Squadron spent the rotation operating from Šiauliai air base in Lithuania, and Belgian F-16A MLU Falcons flew from Amari air base in Estonia. Later this week Danish F-16AMs will replace the US fighters, and Italian Air Force Typhoons will assume BAP duties from the Belgians. The September-January time period was a busy time in the air over the Baltics. US fighters were scrambled 30 times to intercept Russian aircraft flying near the airspace of the Baltic nations. Most of the activity took place in September around the time of Zapad ’17. Overall, the numbers are similar to those of recent BAP rotations, but still significantly higher than what they were in the days before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and involvement in the Ukraine conflict.

The Baltic States are not the only area NATO conducts air policing missions. Iceland is another. The USAF ended the practice of rotating fighter squadrons to Keflavik in 2006. Shortly thereafter, Russian aircraft began to make incursions into Icelandic airspace. As a result, NATO stood up the Icelandic Air Policing mission in 2008 and has been rotating fighter detachments from member nations ever since.

The air policing rotations safeguard the sovereignty of air space for member nations that do not possess their own air arms, as well as provide valuable experience for pilots and ground personnel deployed. In a time of crisis, the numbers of NATO fighters operating from the Baltics and Iceland would increase. Therefore, it is heartening to know that there is a good amount of aircrews and support personnel who are familiar with operating from these locations.

The next Baltic Air Policing rotation will run from this coming week until May, 2018.

Monday 20 November, 2017 Update: US Troops in Okinawa Restricted to Quarters, Alcohol Banned

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US military personnel on the Japanese island of Okinawa have been banned from drinking, and restricted to their bases or off-base residences following an automobile crash involving a local man and a US Marine. The Okinawan was killed, and the 21-year old Marine was arrested on suspicion of drinking and driving. Incidents between US troops based on the island and local residents are nothing new, and the relationship between the two groups has always been strained to say the least.  With 25,000 US soldiers, and 1,000,000+ Okinawans occupying a relatively small island, tensions are expected. Criminal actions by US soldiers, unfortunately, have become a common occurrence and only serve to increase the amounts of tension and distrust. US commanders realize there is a problem and that it is not going away. “When our service members fail to live up to the high standards we set for them, it damages the bonds between bases and local communities and makes it harder for us to accomplish our mission,” U.S. Forces Japan said in a released statement Sunday night. “We are committed to being good neighbors with our host communities.”

Unfortunately for Okinawans, the US military presence on their island is not going to diminish anytime soon. The situation with North Korea in the short term, and the potential future ambitions of the People’s Republic of China will ensure Okinawa remains vital to American defense plans in the Pacific. In view of this reality, it is in the best interests of all parties to find a way to peacefully co-exist.

Operationally, the forces stationed on Okinawa represent a sizeable fraction of US power in the Western Pacific. 62% of US military facilities in Japan are located on the island. At Kadena Air Base is the US Air Force’s 18th Wing, comprising two F-15C Eagle squadrons, one squadron of KC-135 Stratotankers, a detachment of E-3C Sentry aircraft, and other attachments. The US Marines have the bulk of the 3rd Marine Division, and main elements of III MEF based on Okinawa. The US and Japan have agreed to relocate 5,000 US Marines from Okinawa to other locations in the Pacific to help ameliorate the tense relationship between US service personnel and local residents. The relocations are not expected to begin until 2020 at the earliest.

 

October 28, 2015, Midweek Update: Playing Hardball In The South China Sea, First Russian Death in Syria

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Well, perhaps not hardball yet, but tensions are rising. The sail-past of disputed islands by the destroyer USS.Lassen last night has ruffled feathers in Beijing. Lassen actually moved inside of the 12 mile territorial limit claimed by China around Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands. The United States does not recognize the formation of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea as sovereign territory. Beijing, predictably, did not respond well to the action, which it viewed as the US Navy trailing its coat along Chinese territory. The US ambassador to Beijing was summoned by the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister and told that the Lassen’s actions were ‘extremely irresponsible.’ This was the first time since 2012 that US naval units traveled within the 12 mile limit. By all accounts, the practice will become a regular occurrence in the future. A Chinese guided missile destroyer and patrol ship shadowed Lassen during its transit, keeping a safe distance and limiting its involvement to issuing warnings.

The South China Sea is an area where China has been concentrating a large amount of military activity in recent months, including the expansion of reefs to accommodate runways and support facilities for aircraft.

Russia’s military has suffered its first death…that we know of….since becoming involved in the Syrian conflict. The Ministry of Defense has announced that a soldier committed suicide at the Russian base in Latakia, Syria. The announcement was made after sources revealed the name of the soldier: Vadim Kostenko and indicated that the man’s relatives and colleagues began mourning his death last weekend. The family is disputing the reported cause of death. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported the death of a Russian serviceman due to ‘careless weapons handling.’

Russia has a history of being cryptic when it comes to discussing combat casualties. During the early stages of the conflict with Ukraine, Moscow had much difficulty holding back news about Russian combat deaths. In a conflict that Russia officially claimed its soldiers were not fighting, the number of fresh graves rose at a number of military cemeteries across Russia.

The US Air Force has awarded Northrop Grumman with the contract for the Long Range Strike Bomber. The LRS-B will be a heavy bomber capable of launching from the United States, reaching targets anywhere in the world and in the process, penetrating heavily defended airspace. The mission profile of this aircraft is no different from the profiles of the bombers currently in the US inventory. The difference will come in the defensive and offensive capabilities that the LRS-B will have to offer.

The Air Force and Navy are moving ahead with plans to modernize America’s strategic forces despite consistently shrinking budgets. Programs for new SSBNs and ICBMs are in development. Contracts will not be rewarded for some time, however, it is refreshing to see that the US is moving in the right direction. Today, more than ever since the end of the Cold War, the US nuclear deterrent needs to be seen as a credible force.