February 25th, 2017
By Dr Rowan Allport – Senior Fellow
The arrival of a contingent of German troops in Lithuania this month marked the latest phase of a build-up of NATO forces that had originally been signed off during the July 2016 Warsaw Summit. Accompanied by smaller detachments from Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and Luxembourg, the force will eventually lead an around 1,200-strong unit tasked with supporting the defence of Lithuania and the further development of its armed forces. Parallel deployments in Estonia, Latvia and Poland mark the establishment of the first permanent stationing of a non-native NATO ground combat force east of the old Iron Curtain.
The decisions made at the Warsaw Summit were part of a realisation that the commitments made during a previous NATO summit in Newport in September 2014, were inadequate for the challenge Russia presented to Eastern Europe. At that meeting, the groundwork was laid for the establishment of a 5,000 strong brigade-sized Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), a unit whose spearhead elements were capable of moving into position within two to three days. This approach was designed to ensure that lead formations of a multi-national defensive force could be rapidly moved into an area under threat to demonstrate NATO’s resolve to protect its most vulnerable members – chiefly the Baltic states of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Although even at the time no one harboured illusions that such a modest force – which the UK leads in 2017 – would have the resilience to stand up to a determined assault, it was believed that it would at least provide options to put down the type of astroturfed armed rebellion that Moscow generated in the east of Ukraine – a scenario thought far more plausible than an outright invasion. Not stationing forces permanently in Eastern Europe would also have the advantage of depriving Russia of the propaganda boost of alliance troops near its borders. This effort was supported by the expansion of the wider NATO Reaction Force – of which the VJTF is a part – from 19,000 to 40,000 personnel, the setting up of eight Force Integration Units in Eastern Europe to better facilitate operations in the region, and the enhancement of NATO’s Multinational Corps Northeast Headquarters in Poland.
However, even before the proverbial paint was dry on the VJTF, clear flaws in the concept began to emerge. Firstly, it was recognised that a posture that required troops to be deployed to Eastern Europe in a crisis presented political and logistical problems. Politically, it could prove a major challenge to persuade all of NATO’s members to agree to a deployment. Some would inevitably argue that deploying the VJTF would only serve to escalate a crisis, with consensus for action only emerging when it was too late. Logistically, the deployment of all but the most basic elements of the force would take considerable time and resources. By air, one estimate gave a requirement for 450 C-17 sorties; over land, speed would be limited by the pace of a road convoy.
Secondly, the Russian intervention in Syria, which began in September 2015, dispelled the idea that Moscow was unwilling to take direct, high-intensity military action to further its interests. For many, what was more alarming than the military action itself was the illogical nature of many of its components. The liberal use of cruise missiles against targets that were neither time sensitive nor possessed any air defences, carpet bombing in place of precision strikes and bomber raids that took a ‘scenic route’ around the British Isles to reach Syria, all gave the impression of a firepower demonstration rather than a coherent anti-terrorist effort.
The above factors, therefore, led to a critical reappraisal of the VJTF prior to the 2016 Warsaw Summit. Whilst, as before, the VJTF was judged useful for managing a NATO Article 4 scenario – that is, an incident of concern that falls short of a direct attack – it would be of limited utility in a now seemingly more plausible Article 5 action. This belief was confirmed by a detailed wargaming of a Russian invasion of the Baltic States by the Rand Corporation. In every simulation, local forces and the elements of the VJTF that were airlifted into place in time were functionally defeated within 60 hours. Given the increasing build-up of anti-aircraft, anti-ship and precision-guided ballistic missiles in the Kaliningrad Oblast, which forms an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) ‘bubble’ over the Baltics and northern Poland and potentially blocks off NATO reinforcements, even this may be optimistic.
The RAND report’s recommendation for remedying the weak defensive force – the permanent deploying of seven NATO brigades, including two armoured brigades, to the region at an annual cost of $2.7bn – was unrealistic. Indeed, it is fair to say that with St Petersburg only around 100 miles from the Estonian border, Russia would have had legitimate grounds for complaint over a deployment of that scale. But it was also clear that a more robust posture was necessary. The compromise was the Enhanced Forward Presence concept. The three Baltic States and Poland will each acquire the presence of a multinational battlegroup of between 1,000 and 1,200 personnel. The UK will lead the force in Estonia, Canada in Latvia, Germany in Lithuania, and the US in Poland. This will be complemented by a ‘Tailored Forward Presence’ in south-east Europe.
At the granular level, these forces are not overly impressive in of themselves. For example, the 800-strong British contingent bound for Estonia is built around a Warrior IFV-born infantry battalion, but is only supported by a single troop of tanks – around four Challenger 2s in total. A plan to deploy a small number of GMLRS rocket launchers has apparently been put on hold for political reasons. But a permanent presence at least eliminates the prospect of Moscow scoring a ‘cheap win’ in Eastern Europe without drawing in NATO as a whole. Russia can isolate the Baltics, but there is nothing it can do to remove the forces already stationed that falls short of a major offensive. There are, admittedly, uncomfortable echoes of the Berlin Brigade(s) position in West Berlin during the Cold War, but the success of that mission can in large part be judged on violence never breaking out during what amounted to an over four decade standoff. An equivalent outcome now would be more than acceptable.
Perhaps more substantial than the NATO effort in north-east Europe has been the parallel US build-up. Whilst during the early post-Ukraine period Washington settled for small scale exercises under the umbrella of Operation Atlantic Resolve and the wider European Reassurance Initiative, the 2017 US defence budget saw the resources allocated to the latter programme rise from $789m to $3.4bn. This is now funding the permanent rotational presence of a US Army armoured brigade in Europe, the pre-positioning of sufficient equipment for a further armoured brigade in newly opened depots in the Netherlands and Germany, as well as ‘division level enablers’ to allow units to work together as a larger formation. This means that by the end of 2017, the US will have one airborne (the 173rd Airborne in Italy) and one Stryker (the 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Germany) brigade permanently in Europe, together with an armoured brigade deploying from the US and equipment pre-positioned for an additional such unit. This capability is not in of itself overwhelming, but would be challenging to overcome if fighting defensively.
The first rotational brigade deployment in the form of the 3rd Armoured Brigade Combat Team of the US Army’s 4th Infantry Division began in January of this year. Arriving in three ships at the German port of Bremerhaven, the force – including 87 Abrams tanks, 18 Paladin self-propelled artillery systems and 144 Bradley IFVs – was transported by rail and road to Poland, where the many of the brigade’s units will reside, with other elements continuing on to the Baltic states, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania. The 3rd Armoured’s arrival is complemented by the deployment of the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade to Germany, although this will not be the beginning of a long-term additional Army aviation presence. This entire exercise was proceeded by the arrival in Germany of a vast shipment of ammunition in November last year.
Naturally, Russian propaganda has sought to exploit these moves for all they are worth, with constant references to the build-up as being similar to the one that took place prior to the Nazi invasion of the USSR in 1941. What they reliably fail to mention is Moscow’s part in all this. The US withdrew the last of its tanks from Europe in April 2013, only 11 months before Russia’s operation against Ukraine. 2012 and 2013 saw the last two ‘heavy’ US Army units in Europe – the 170th Infantry Brigade and the 172nd Infantry Brigade – disbanded as part of a general US pull back from the continent. That Washington is redeploying now is out of no desire to exert domination, but as a reaction to events.
The backdrop to the current security situation in Europe is, of course, the recent election of Donald Trump. Much has been made of his statement in summer 2016 that claimed that NATO was “obsolete”, together with what many perceive as an unhealthy admiration for Vladimir Putin and alleged help his candidacy received from the Kremlin during the US election. Perhaps more worrying is the influence of his advisor, white nationalist Steve Bannon, who seems to believe that Russia represents a potential ally against Islamic fundamentalism because of the Christian nature of its society. The departure of Trump’s somewhat unhinged National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, a man who shares a similar world view to Bannon, has created a window for a return to a more rational stance. Flynn’s replacement, Lt General HR McMaster, appears to be more in tune with mainstream thinking and has led extensive US Army research into the challenge posed by Russian forces. Additionally, the Bannon-esque worldview is not shared across the president’s wider team: new Secretary of Defense, retired General James Mattis, highlighted Russia as the leading threat to the US during his Senate confirmation hearing. Trump himself has walked back on his criticism of NATO – first during a press conference with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and then more comprehensively in an address to US service personnel. A true early litmus test will be the administration’s attitude to supporting Montenegro joining the alliance over serious Russian objections, although signs are currently hopeful that they will support the move.
One thing that is hard to argue with Trump, is over his complaint about the lax European attitudes to defence spending. The impact of the president’s call for Europe to pay more towards its defence has been overhyped: spending levels have now been rising for several years, and were always likely to continue to do so. But this could still trigger a major flashpoint at an NATO summit in May, which Trump is due to attend. The trick will be to exert maximum pressure on European NATO members to meet reasonable spending expectations without resorting to what sounds like extortion: a level of nuance Trump has so far appeared unable to master. Perhaps realising that calm exchanges are more likely to produce results, the recent NATO ministerial meeting in Brussels saw Secretary Mattis reassure European alliance members, whilst also making clear that the US was very serious on the need for all states to increase defence spending to at least 2 per cent of their GDP. Vice-President Mike Pence also offered the US’s “unwavering support” to NATO at last week’s Munich Security Conference, whilst adding that European countries were currently “failing to pay their fair share”.
Returning to more immediate issues, the improvement in NATO’s position in Europe is not unabashed positive news, as there are still major shortfalls in military provisions. Notably, were it to become necessary to stage an operation to recapture territory in Eastern Europe, NATO would be highly dependent on forces transported by sea from North America. During the Cold War, the movement of reinforcements to Europe was frequently test run in the REFORGER (Return of Forces to Germany) exercise series. These were supported by the naval ‘Ocean Safari’ and ‘Northern Wedding’ exercises, which were designed to rehearse the protection of seaborne reinforcements from interference by Soviet air and naval forces. Although the Russian challenges to the Atlantic sea lines of communication is vastly smaller than that posed by the USSR, NATO’s anti-submarine warfare capability skills set has been badly eroded. There is, therefore, a need to begin to reverse this by returning to open-ocean exercises on at least a moderate scale. There are also other challenges. Cuts in US defence spending have reduced levels of Army, Navy and Air Force combat readiness. UK defence cuts have seen the British Army reduced in size to 82,000 personnel, and although there are ambitious plans to rebuild a division-level capability, this is not due to be delivered until 2025. Most European NATO powers also face a need to seriously rebuild their forces after years of neglect. Given that any operation to liberate the Baltics from Russian occupation would require a ground force of six division-equivalents at an absolute minimum, plus huge levels of air and naval support, there are still significant problems to be addressed.
Nevertheless, it was always to be expected that regenerating NATO’s capabilities in Europe would be a journey as opposed to a single step, and the progress that has been made so far has been notable given the other problems Europe and the US face. The Trump administration is a major threat to this progress, but there is also wide scope for actors in Washington to push back. Additionally, whilst many lament the short periods between US elections, unless the Democrats follow the UK Labour Party’s lead and react to their narrow defeat by putting forward a totally unelectable candidate, it is highly likely that the White House will have a new occupant in January 2021. Given Russia’s interference in the election and its role in the new administration, it is quite probable that the first post-Trump Democrat president will have a poor disposition towards Moscow. The election of Donald Trump did not mark the beginning of a new world order, but the temporary pause it is inflicting on the world as we know it is likely to be dangerous for all concerned.