September 16, 2016
By Loren Thompson
U.S. Army planners believe they may have to fight a “near-peer” adversary within five years. Near-peer in this case means a rapidly modernizing Russian military seeking to regain lost ground along Russia’s border with Europe. There’s plenty of evidence that Russia’s military is on the move in the Baltic region, near Ukraine, and elsewhere. Some observers have wrongly inferred that America’s Army has “only” five years to prepare for such a conflict. In fact, it has five years or less. It is common for aggressors to challenge new U.S. presidents early in their tenure.
If such a war were to occur, it would be mainly an Army show. The fight would be over control of large expanses of land with few geographical impediments to rapid advance. The U.S. Army would likely do most of the ground combat for NATO, because America contributes over two-thirds of the alliance’s resources. Losing such a war would drastically reshape the geopolitical balance in Europe, and reduce U.S. influence there to its lowest ebb since before World War Two. And yet losing is what the U.S. Army is currently postured to do.
This bleak outlook arises mainly because of the aggressive nationalism being exhibited by Russian leader Vladimir Putin, but also because of strategic misjudgments by the last two U.S. presidents. George W. Bush removed two U.S. heavy (armored) brigades from Europe during the closing days of his presidency, and then Barack Obama proposed a strategic “pivot” to the Pacific that further reduced America’s military presence on the ground. Putin got the message Washington was focused elsewhere, and proceeded to annex parts of Ukraine in 2014.
U.S. policymakers today have a more somber view of the Russian leader’s intentions. But there is little evidence they are willing to take the steps necessary to deter Russian aggression in the region. The Army is starved for resources, getting only two days of federal funding each year — about $22 billion — for new equipment. In 2010, Russia embarked on a ten-year, $700 billion program to buy new weapons, with most of the money going to land-based ground and air forces. So America’s Army is poised for defeat in a European war. Here are the five biggest reasons why.
Geography favors the enemy. Fighting in Eastern Europe isn’t like waging war in the Ardennes Forest or the Fulda Gap GPS -0.85%. It is much farther from the main points of entry by which U.S. ground forces would reach Europe, and there would be weeks of logistical delays in getting heavy equipment to the front. As the map accompanying this article indicates, the region is bracketed by seas that can only be entered through narrow choke points, and Russia could easily exercise military dominance over both bodies of water from nearby bases. Because the biggest concentrations of Russian military power are close to the border and thus can move with minimal warning, Moscow might achieve its objectives before U.S. forces arrive.
The Army is woefully unprepared. The U.S. Army only has two permanently stationed brigades left in Europe, a light airborne unit and a second unit centered on the Stryker SYK +0.72% troop carrier. If the Strykers are not up-gunned and provided with better protection fast, Russian forces would roll right over them. The Obama administration has recently decided to add a third “rotational” brigade and along with other allies deploy “tripwire” defenses of about 1,000 soldiers each in the three Baltic states and Poland. However, after fighting enemies like the Taliban for the last 15 years, the Army is gravely deficient in air defenses, electronic warfare, precision firepower and adequately protected vehicles. It can’t match what Russia has.
Much of the joint force would be sidelined. The geography of the region would largely exclude U.S. sea services from the fighting. Russian bases in the Baltic enclave of Kaliningrad and the Black Sea port of Sevastopol would make it dangerous to introduce U.S. warships into either adjacent sea. Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force — the Army’s best friend in any fight — could be driven from local skies by Russian air defenses extending over all of the Baltic states, most of Poland and most of Ukraine. For instance, the mobile S-400 anti-aircraft missile system (over 150 launchers deployed) has a reach of 250 miles and countermeasures to prevent jamming of its radar. The F-35 fighter could survive in such conditions but the Obama administration has repeatedly slowed its fielding.
NATO allies aren’t committed. Comparisons of NATO and Russian military forces typically reflect huge numerical advantages for the alliance in personnel and equipment. However, it is far from clear that most allies would show up for a fight in the Baltic states or Ukraine (which isn’t a member of NATO). Aside from the logistical challenge of getting there, the willingness of Western European publics to defend their eastern neighbors looks weak in opinion surveys. Article 5, the treaty provision committing alliance members to collective defense, does not actually mandate a military response to aggression. With Britain recently voting to exit the European Union, it is hard to say whether a real war would look like recent training exercises.
Washington isn’t willing to escalate. One of the ways in which the alliance might falter, making the U.S. Army’s task tougher in a future European war, would be by refusing to attack military bases or forces on Russian territory. Some allies might argue that would escalate the conflict to a level where Moscow has long said it could contemplate the use of nuclear weapons. Russian military doctrine endorses first use of nuclear weapons in circumstances where the supreme interests of the state are at risk, even to de-escalate a non-nuclear fight that is getting out of control. But because no one in NATO capitals could know for sure when they were approaching Moscow’s nuclear threshold, restraints would be imposed on Army tactics that might lead to defeat.
The bottom line is that Russia could win a war fast in Eastern Europe if it faced an opponent no better postured than the U.S. Army is today. Many of the static indicators like GDP and troop numbers seeming to demonstrate Russian weakness might have little impact on the outcome of a conflict launched with minimal warning across Moscow’s western border. Despite Russia’s well-known weaknesses in logistics, there would be little to stop a quick westward advance in much of the region, and the U.S. Army’s own logistical challenges would be huge given the misguided decision to draw down permanently-stationed forces. This danger can only be reduced by moving Army units back to the region — along with making long-overdue improvements to their armored vehicles, air defenses, precision fires and other capabilities where investment has lagged.
Several suppliers of Army equipment contribute to my think tank and/or are consulting clients.