RAND war games in the Baltics showed that Russia can overpower NATO in two days

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April 23, 2015

Information Dissemination

Conventional Deterrence by Denial and the Baltics


RAND’s Terrence Kelly published an excellent opinion piece at U.S. News & World Report last month outlining analysis-derived requirements for a NATO conventional deterrent in the Baltics:

Unclassified RAND war games indicate that Russian forces could overrun local defenders and the light U.S. and NATO units currently able to respond within as few as two days. While the capitals and a small number of key points could be held for some time, Russian forces could seal the border between Lithuania and Poland, prevent reinforcement by sea, and confront NATO with a fait accompli.

Once secured, these territorial gains would be defended by heavy ground forces occupying the conquered states, along with very capable Russian anti-air and anti-ship defenses on Russian territory. Any serious attempt to liberate Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would entail attacks to suppress these systems.

If a Russian invasion of the Baltic states could not be deterred or defeated, the North Atlantic Council and the U.S. president would be faced with a very unpleasant choice: conduct a costly counteroffensive and risk nuclear escalation, or abandon the Baltics to renewed subservience to Moscow. Such a catastrophic failure to uphold the mutual defense responsibilities of NATO could cripple or even destroy the North Atlantic alliance, one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s primary goals. It is therefore of paramount importance to deter Russian aggression before it happens.

Unless one is sure that Putin’s Russia would not take these steps – a dangerous gamble, given Moscow’s recent track record – the United States and its NATO allies need to be able to deter, and if need be defeat, Russian aggression in the Baltics.

Kelly suggests that the standing peacetime deployment of one armored BCT in each of the Baltic states, supporting (but undefined) tactical air forces, and Division and Corps-level Headquarters to exercise unitary command and control over this combined arms forward defense would be sufficient to prevent Russia from achieving a limited but decisive territorial fait accompli. Based on this force’s size, it would do this presumably through delay and disruption. The U.S. Army arguably does not possess enough armored BCTs to carry the entire weight of this presence, though, while simultaneously meeting its other global contingency readiness commitments. As a result, the BCTs would likely have to be composed of forces contributed by multiple NATO countries. This underscores the importance of a unitary NATO approach to exercising command and control over this frontline deterrent.

Kelly does not comment on the degree to which existing NATO air forces deployed in Central and Eastern Europe might require permanent peacetime augmentation (presumably using U.S.-based squadrons). He does note that rolling back a Russian onslaught would require surge reinforcements, and given the state of European NATO members’ ground and air forces it’s hard to escape the conclusion those reinforcements would largely need to come from the U.S. This begs the question of how a modern analogue to REFORGER would be conducted. This would hardly be a small endeavor; even more so if debarkation air and sea ports or cross-continent supply lines came under fire from Russian long-range conventional strike weaponry.

He next details the tradeoffs between deterrent force positioning and posturing options. One path would be to warehouse heavy equipment in the Baltics, with crews flown in from the U.S. and other NATO allies to deploy this gear in the field in the event of a crisis. Such an approach might be rationalized as a signal of ‘flag-planting reassurance’ to the Baltic allies that is ‘less provocative’ to Russia than a standing manned heavy deterrent. Kelly correctly points out that the likelihood of dispatching crews to these stockpiles in time to mount an effective defense would depend almost entirely on detecting, correctly interpreting, and rapidly acting upon warnings of war—a sequence of events for which history and human psychology suggest there is little cause to be optimistic. He also correctly observes that these concentrated stockpiles would be highly vulnerable to Russian conventional first strikes, and by implication would be crisis-destabilizing.

Kelly follows by noting that standing ground forces based in (as well as equipment prepositioned in) Central Europe would be comparatively less exposed to the first strike threat, but would face the risk of not being able to deploy eastward fast enough to thwart afait accompli thrust. This would effectively foreclose NATO options to pursue a defensive strategy of delay/disruption, never mind assured defense. Hence, Kelly concludes that a standing heavy presence in the Baltics—or in Poland at minimum—makes for the only credible ground force positioning and posture for deterrence by denial.

There is no doubt in my mind that some heavy ground forces contributed by NATO’s principal members would need to be positioned in the Baltic states in order to latently back constabulary forces responding to ‘plausibly-deniable’ offensive operations by Russian special forces or ‘civilian’ proxies. In the event of a conventional Russian ground offensive, these forces would be central to arresting the thrust’s progress while simultaneously incurring the commitment tripwire effect. Beyond that, it is reasonable to investigate options for splitting a standing deterrent’s positions between the Baltics and Poland in ways that increase their maneuver space as well as survivability against a first strike.

There is a broader deterrent-designing challenge, however, in that Russia could hypothetically escalate horizontally via offensive operations against other European regions in order to prevent NATO from concentrating combat power in Poland and the Baltics. While any such ground offensives would likely be fairly limited in scope, they would nevertheless hardly be inconsequential from the victims’ standpoint.Recent research published by the Royal United Services Institute’s Igor Sutyagin suggests much of the combat-ready Russian Army is tied down supporting operations in Ukraine, though. If Sutyagin’s analysis is accurate, and assuming Russian forces are not disengaged from the Ukrainian conflict anytime soon, then it seems Russia would be hard-pressed over the near-term to field enough combat-ready ground forces for major protracted anti-NATO offensives. This amplifies the potential credibility of delay/disruption-centric forward deterrents in the Putin regime’s eyes, as it would heighten the likelihood of a protracted and risk-laden clash with NATO. These deterrent forces would certainly help backstop the ‘first responder’ constabulary forces needed to prevent ‘non-linear war ‘fait accomplis.

Russia might have comparatively greater horizontal escalation flexibility in the aerospace and maritime domains. For example, Russia might conduct air and missile strikes or sea denial operations against NATO’s Black Sea members. Or perhaps Russia might conduct air and missile strikes, localized sea denial operations, small-scale amphibious assaults, or small-scale overland incursions against Norway or non-NATO Scandinavia. Some localized use of submarines or missile-carrying aircraft against NATO’s trans-oceanic and intra-theater sea lanes might also be possible. Depending on the strategic circumstances, Russia might even escalate both horizontally and vertically via long-range conventional aerospace strikes against Western European or North American NATO members. And of course, the possibility of Russian brandishing or use of theater nuclear weapons must be considered.

A fuller picture of a European conventional deterrent therefore ought to outline what kinds of tactical air forces are necessary to support ground forces, where those air forces should be positioned, what kinds of specialized aircraft (examples: AEW, JSTARS, electronic warfare aircraft, long-range bombers, tankers, etc.) would be necessary to support tactical air operations, and what the in-theater basing approaches would be to increase tactical air force survivability (examples: hardening, distributed operations using austere satellite fields and flexible command and control, etc.). Bases and ground maneuver forces will also require mobile air and missile defenses as well as electronic warfare support systems in the field in order to degrade Russian attacks. Defense of strategic targets against cruise missile attacks needs to be addressed. A approach for protecting the flow of logistics to forward forces additionally needs to be defined. Lastly, the roles of navies and coastal defense forces need to be outlined. The potential roles of Baltic Sea-bordering NATO members’ navies would be quite different from NATO members who border the Atlantic.

Kelly provides an outstanding foundation for examining NATO conventional deterrence requirements for the Baltics. His thoughts will serve as a starting point for the examinations of the other questions that I hope to write later this year.

Posted by Jon Solomon

The views expressed herein are solely those of the author and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not reflect the official positions of Systems Planning and Analysis, and to the author’s knowledge do not reflect the policies or positions of the U.S. Department of Defense, any U.S. armed service, or any other U.S. Government agency.

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