A RAND study 5-6 years ago is getting fresh attention as the Biden administration’s focus on Asia and the Pacific blurs consciousness about the European threat,
Russia’s continuing aggression against Ukraine and build up along the Polish border has disrupted nearly a generation of relative peace and stability between Moscow and its Western neighbors and raised concerns about its larger intentions. From the perspective of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), the threat to the three Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — former Soviet republics, now member states that border Russian territory — may be the most problematic of these according to the RAND Study. In a series of war games conducted between the summer 2014 and spring 2015, RAND examined the shape and probable outcome of a near-term Russian invasion of the Baltic states. “The games’ findings are unambiguous: As presently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members.”
The study suggests that it will not require huge effort to avoid such a failure. Further gaming indicates that a force of about seven US brigades, including three heavy armored brigades — adequately supported by airpower, land-based fires, and other enablers on the ground and ready to fight at the onset of hostilities — could suffice to prevent the rapid overrun of the Baltic states.
Since this finding actual efforts as pre-positioning equipment for brigades to fall in on, creation of a standing Army Corps Headquarters in Europe and the Trump administration’s restationing of forces out of Germany and into other parts of Europe have helped. Also, we have reported on the 9 month rotation to Eastern Europe that the Dagger Brigade conducted.
What is new is the return to an old war fighting doctrine to engage a Russian full-scale attack—Air-land battle. Air-land battle was a concept developed by General Don Starry during the mid 70s as a way to deal with the expected attack by Soviet hordes in Central Europe, The Fulda gap was the focus of US forces in Europe.
During a tour in the Pentagon and then on the southern flank for the Fulda gap I came to understand Air-land battle fairly well. In the Pentagon the focus was on the Mutual Balanced Force Reductions (MBFR) and the rapid reinforcement of Europe. In the Fulda gap the focus was on “buying enough time” for reinforcements to deploy. This required the destruction of the first wave of Soviet attacks and get reset to deal with the delayed and reduced second wave of attacking forces. The second wave of follow-on forces were to be delayed and reduced by air and missile attacks against critical transportation and supply nodes in the rear of the attacking forces. As this doctrine matured it included attacks by ground forces against the Soviet rear echelons by highly mobile armored forces making a penetration and attacking deep into the Soviet rear as a way to upset their time tables and destroy key supporting forces.
If readers remember I wrote about the evolving doctrine of ‘multi-domain” operations (MDO) as the emerging doctrine for the US military. In essence it is a more sophisticated expansion of Air-land Battle as it does not focus exclusively on the deep battler against follow-on echelons.
The question must be asked whether air-land battle is appropriate for deterring and fighting a war in Eastern Europe? The biggest concern or fear is that such a conflict with deep strikes against Russian territory could escalate quickly to a nuclear exchange and a tactical nuclear conflict, (Though it would not be a “tactical” nuclear conflict to those in the middle of the battlefield.)
The Russians for the last several years have been modernizing their tactical nuclear forces. NATO is just beginning to talk about such efforts. Are we about to repeat the 1980s. but on a battlefield that has moved east-ward? We will watch this in coming weeks and months to try and answer this question.
As a follow-on article to this one we will look at the current doctrine of the limited use of nuclear weapons in the fight against the Russians,