Joint Air & Space Power Conference 2018
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Russia’s Conventional Forces Outgun NATO Near its Borders
Published in The Economist, 8 March 2018
The Atlantic Alliance is ill-prepared to Deter Russian Aggression
BOASTING about nuclear weapons is something Vladimir Putin clearly enjoys. In his annual state-of-the-nation speech on March 1st, he listed five new weapons. Russia’s president gave pride of place to the development of a nuclear-powered cruise missile with, in effect, unlimited range, which was guaranteed to thwart America’s missile defences (see article). He got the headlines he wanted, though there is nothing new about Russia being able to devastate America with nuclear weapons, nor anything likely to change on that front. What should concern Europe more than Mr Putin’s nuclear sabre-rattling are the formidable conventional forces that Russia is steadily building up, particularly in the Baltic region.
On most measures, NATO appears comfortably ahead of Russia. Between them, America and its European NATO allies spent $ 871bn on defence in 2015, compared with Russia’s $ 52bn. But as a recent report by the RAND Corporation, a think-tank, argues, the reality on the ground is rather different. It finds that Russia would now enjoy significant local superiority in any confrontation with NATO close to its own border. NATO’s latent strengths, once they were brought to bear, would be too much for Russia to cope with. But in the early stages of a conflict, for at least the first month and possibly for a good deal longer, the alliance would find itself outnumbered, outranged and outgunned.
Since Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014, NATO has bolstered its forces in the Baltic region with what it calls its ‘enhanced forward presence’. By last summer, the alliance had a total of 4,530 troops near the border with Russia in four battlegroups led by Germany (in Lithuania), Britain (in Estonia), Canada (in Latvia) and the United States (in Poland). But, in accord with the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act, an anachronistic agreement that reflected a more optimistic time, the soldiers are not permanently based, but constantly rotate.
NATO has also beefed up its ‘very high readiness joint task-force’ of about 5,000 more troops who can be deployed within a week. But it admits that neither force is more than a tripwire to convince Russia that any attack on them would be seen as an attack on the alliance as a whole.
Over the past decade, Western forces and their Russian counterparts have diverged in terms of capability. NATO members adjusted for counter-insurgency operations in places such as Afghanistan by restructuring with light expeditionary forces. Russia concentrated on rebuilding forces with the mobility and firepower to wage high-intensity warfare against a peer adversary. As part of a comprehensive effort at military reform following a disjointed performance in the war against Georgia in 2008, Russia has professionalised its forces (largely relegating conscripts to a second echelon), equipped them with modern heavy weapons, and honed them with frequent large-scale exercises and combat experience in Ukraine and Syria.
What worries NATO commanders, such as General Sir Nicholas Carter, chief of Britain’s general staff, and his American opposite number, General Mark Milley, is the sheer amount of combat power Russia can concentrate at very short notice in the Baltic region. RAND found that in main battle tanks, Russia would outnumber NATO by 5.9 to 1; in infantry fighting vehicles by 4.6 to 1; in rocket artillery by 270 to none. And while NATO would enjoy a substantial advantage in combat aircraft, their effectiveness would be greatly reduced when faced with the world’s most powerful integrated theatre air defences.
Russia’s edge over NATO, says Ben Barry of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, is increased by its ability to use its internal lines to reinforce at speed. By contrast, NATO has neglected to preserve its cold-war military-transport infrastructure. Bridges cannot take the weight of tanks, and rail systems are not designed for trucks carrying heavy armour.
There is plenty that NATO could do to enhance conventional deterrence. It could permanently station forces in the Baltic region with more hitting power; it could hold regular large-scale short-notice exercises; it could invest in strengthening its internal lines; individual member countries could do more to meet their spending obligations and use the money to restructure their ground forces for high-intensity conflict.
Whether NATO is capable of such focus is debatable. Its southern members worry more about refugee flows; France is fighting an insurgency in the Sahel; Germany’s new coalition agreement relegated the (wretched) state of its armed forces to page 156 of a 177-page document. Mr Putin’s priorities are very different.