How should the United States and NATO prioritize their resources to the Baltic States? That is the topic of this policy paper that Erik Marmei and Gabriel White have written for ICDS.
The policy paper outlines a series of weaknesses with the defense in the Baltic States. It is pointed out that despite the fact that all three Baltic States spend more that NATO’s 2 percent of GDP goal, there will not be enough local funding to create a credible defense against the threat from Russia. …Continue reading
This is a summary of the military scenario that could unfold in a war between Russia and the West. A basic understanding of this scenario is necessary to understand the strategic discussions.
I will explain the development of the war by dividing it into distinct phases with clear milestones between them. Obviously such a description is painted with broad strokes, and in a real conflict it will not be as clear cut.1
The assumption is that a war between Russia and the West will play out in the Baltic region. This is the most likely conflict scenario and perhaps the only one that has the potential of developing into a nuclear war. Armed encounters elsewhere are possible, but the spillover effects could easily move the conflict to the Baltic region. Conflicts in other regions can therefore quickly turn into the scenario that is described here.
The phases of the war
The war can be divided into five distinct phases:
Prelude to war
Insurgency — stay below Article 5
Quick grab and fortification
De-escalation through overwhelming use of force
Mutually assured destruction
There are a few things that are important to keep in mind. The first one is that Continue reading
General Sir Richard Shirreff’s book is important and educational, but it is mostly for those with an interest in military affairs.
I don’t read much fiction, and when a colleague recommended Sir Richard Shirreff’s book to me, I hesitated. A former Deputy SACEUR for NATO, a British four-star general, writing about military strategy in the guise of a novel sounded like a coping strategy for the transitional life crisis of retirement rather than a relevant contribution to a military strategic debate. But then I read Corporal Frisk’s review of the book and watched the enclosed YouTube video, and I thought I’d give the book a second chance.
The way to understand Shirreff’s book is that it is written by a man with a message, not by someone with a desire to be the next great thriller author. This sets the priorities in the book. In the preface, Shirreff clearly states his intention to “explain the very real danger we face to the general reader with no particular interest in defence and to make it accessible”. The idea is to reach another audience than those who would read a think tank paper or an article in a magazine about international security.
It would be fair to judge War With Russia against Shirreff’s stated aim with the book, which essentially is to lure people with no particular interest in defense into learning something about it. Unfortunately War With Russia is not a very good thriller. The storyline is predictable, the character gallery is full of stereotypes, and at times the dialogue is awkwardly artificial. The author’s desire to educate about military affairs shines through in a way that would disengage a reader who only reads the book for the suspense.
But judging War With Russia merely on its entertainment value misses the strengths, and I think Shirreff does his own book a disservice by stating so clearly that his intended audience is someone without particular interest in defense affairs. As a person who runs a defense blog, I am obviously not the defense agnostic reader that Shirreff had in mind when he wrote the book, yet I found that I was exactly the kind of reader who would benefit from it. In fact, I found it truly enjoyable and educational.
With insightful accuracy, Shirreff points at the most sore shortcomings of NATO: Wavering alliance cohesion, inability to make necessary decisions, unequal burden sharing, lack of crisis awareness among European governments, inadequate presence in the Baltic States, vulnerability to cyber attacks and hybrid warfare, inability to mobilize forces that only exist on paper, bureaucratic obstacles to force movements, and a military deterrence that is too dependent on nuclear weapons. Shirreff also successfully explains the technical quality of modern Russian weapons and the effectiveness of Russian military doctrine.
I think the book falls short when it comes to the description of Russian nationalism and the basic motivation that could lead Russia to initiate a war in the first place. A strength of the fictional genre is that it makes it possible to give the reader a personal relationship with a representative of the other side, but the Russians in the story are without exception unpleasant human beings, and their dreams and aspirations remain too simple to be plausible. War With Russia fails to give the reader the unsettling revelation that rational actions by scrupulous people on both sides could lead to war.
To some extent the book resembles an extended description of an exercise scenario, but that is actually a good thing. For a reader with some knowledge of defense affairs it adds a context that can deepen the understanding of connections between related issues. It does so with a fictional story that is good enough for the defense interested audience to remain entertained.
The book is pretty cheap at €6.50 in the electronic version. You can also hear the author explain many of his points in this YouTube video where especially the first half hour is interesting.
“What would this look like in practice? Exhaustively fortifying the Baltic States is likely a strategic nonstarter, as even a perfect defense would likely only invite Russian countermoves elsewhere. Instead, Western states might link Russian provocations with measured counter-escalations calibrated to wrest back the initiative and sow confusion in the Kremlin. These responses need not be military. One idea might be to create policy mechanisms that could shepherd embattled Western partners like Georgia and Ukraine into NATO; such a move would not guarantee accession, but would complicate Russia’s habits of cultivating separatist proxies to inoculate its neighbors against Euro-Atlantic integration. Or, Western attentions could be better organized in the Arctic to confound Russian plans to dominate that region’s increasingly viable sea lanes and mineral wealth.”
This is a terrible idea. The goal is not to sow confusion in the Kremlin but to deter from aggression. That requires a clear message and consistent communications.
The last thing NATO should do is to escalate the situation in Ukraine, Georgia or the Arctic. NATO has no credible deterrence in these places so it’s like an open invitation to a proxy war.
The message to Russia should be very simple: A violation of any NATO country will be met with massive military retaliation – everywhere else the goal is to restore a system of diplomacy and international law.
A solid fortification of the Baltic States and Poland is a good way to communicate this message. Will it anger some people in the Kremlin? Probably. But it is a consistent message that the Russian strategists will understand. Nobody in the Russian leadership seriously believes that NATO would attack Russia from the Baltic States, because they trust their own deterrence. They will make a lot of noise about it, but at the end of the day the result will be a more stable situation where the mutual deterrence is in place.
Finland is planning to hold an Aurora style exercise in 2020 with participation from Sweden, United States and others. Aurora was a Swedish exercise that was held in September and involved 19,000 troops.
Finnish defense minister Jussi Niinisto explained that the exercise will gather conscripts, reservists, and soldiers to practice. “If there’s a crisis, it will be good for us to practice receiving help,” said Niinisto according to Reuters.
The announcement of the exercise comes in the midst of an increased debate in Finland about the country’s relationship with NATO. The planned exercise in receiving foreign forces on Finnish soil shows that Finland sees NATO as an important strategic partner, but for the time being there is not much reason to believe that Finland will become an official member of the alliance.
Ideally, military units have redundant systems so they are able to continue operations despite the application of electronic warfare on the battlefield. This may not always get enough attention during exercises, but at least military units are aware that electronic countermeasures exist, and they have some kind of prepared response to it. Military ships, for example, should be able to navigate safely without GPS.
The civil society is much more vulnerable. For most people cellular phones are crucial in emergency situations, and effective GPS jamming could be dangerous for transportation systems, potentially leading to accidents.
Suspicions are that the Russian GPS jamming in Norway was applied in order to disrupt their own forces during training, whereas the phone jamming in Latvia and Sweden was perhaps a deliberate attempt at disturbing these countries. Regardless, it is dangerous to apply such measures, and it shouldn’t be done without prior notice. The Latvian emergency phone service was shut down for several hours, and although there are no reports of anybody not receiving necessary help during the attack, real people could have suffered as a result.
Europe desires a fundamentally disinterested protector, but the European countries better realize that America’s unwillingness to provide that security will continue to grow, writes Jeremy Shapiro in this insightful piece in [War On The Rocks] [WTHR link]:
But presidential incompetence and the public’s lack of interest is a weak foundation on which to build a durable foreign policy. The disinterested nature of America’s security relationship with Europe means that its commitment to the continent is usually first in line for the foreign policy chopping block. For a public that wants to put America first, it is particularly hard to explain why America should protect a relatively stable continent of rich democracies. Trump has made a lot of rhetorical hay out of Europe’s freeriding on America. Neither the American foreign policy establishment nor their European allies have found an effective political counter-argument.
All of this creates a deep challenge for Europe. Europe has an intense strategic and psychological dependence on the United States, yet Trump’s America, and arguably any future America, is both uninterested in, and unable to fulfill, its traditional role in Europe.
The states of Europe should be preparing for that day. But, as the mild reaction to the radical Trump presidency shows, internal divisions mean that by and large they are not. For all the upsetting changes in America and Russia, for all the crises that have rocked Europe in the last several years, and for all the destabilizing developments in Europe’s neighborhood, E.U. member states clearly prefer the old bargain that has served them so well. For the most part, they will cling to it until its demise becomes clearer than truth. In the meantime, no one will block Trump’s photo opportunity at the next NATO summit.
In my story about the Danish submarine debate I described how Danish rear admiral Wang and German commodore Reineke expressed fundamentally different expectations about the probable American support in case of a regional conflict in the Baltic Area:
Wang’s argument was that […] Denmark would […] find itself in a position where the navy must play the offensive role in a mission to escort troops to the Baltic states under the support of allied forces counting several carrier strike groups located in the North Sea. […]
[T]he German point of view was that the regional powers must be prepared to manage a conflict in the Baltic Sea without external support from allies.
Jeremy Shapiro’s argument supports the German position.
One area where the West has struggled though is in mounting the kind of capability display similar to Zapad 2017. That is, deploying large-scale combat power from across the continent and across the Atlantic for the purposes of conducting corps-level training, maneuvers, and live fire, all to achieve tactical, operational, and strategic objectives. Conducting such a large-scale training event periodically is necessary, not simply because the alliance has seen its ability to train and fight at the corps level atrophy, but also because of the unmistakable deterrent message to Moscow.
During NATO’s Wales Summit in 2014, the alliance agreed to periodically conduct a so-called high-visibility exercise starting in 2015. That training event — Trident Juncture 2015 — occurred in October and November 2015, and was hosted by Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Next year, the 2018 iteration will be hosted by Norway. This was a step in the right direction, but it’s insufficient for several reasons.
According to Deni, Trident Juncture is too small, infrequent, and doesn’t reflect the true challenges that a real event would. To be a deterrent the exercise needs to send a clear message that NATO is prepared. The whole piece is well worth reading.
It also requires a change in strategy and acquisition policy for individual NATO allies, particularly those bordering the North Atlantic. Unfortunately, many NATO allies have allowed their maritime capabilities in the region to wane over the last two decades. Earlier this year, five senior retired members of the British Royal Air Force warned that the UK’s lack of planes to hunt Russian subs in the North Atlantic has left their Trident nuclear deterrent vulnerable to Russian spying. NATO’s Atlantic facing members also possess far fewer capabilities than they did 20 years ago. In 1995, they had around 100 frigates, but today that number hovers at about 50. The United States, for example, has shifted most of it 52 attack submarines to the contested Asia Pacific region.
NATO’s current maritime strategy in the North Atlantic reflects the perceived threat from the Yeltsin era Russia. Now we need to consider what another two decades with Putin could bring.
The thing about maritime capabilities is that it takes so long to build them. You must project the navy that you expect to need 20 years from now. Russia just published a new naval doctrine but NATO’s acquisition strategy should match another generation or two down the line.
Thoughtful piece by Corporal Frisk about the possible tactical reflections behind the small number of British tanks stationed in Estonia:
Traditionally, it has been held that tanks better stay out of cities. Incidents such as the destruction of Russian motorised units and their armour support during the first battle of Grozny has added to this idea. A closer look at the history of armour in urban warfare gives a more nuanced picture, with the protection offered by heavy armour proving quite useful in urban operations. The most famous example is probably the ‘Thunder runs‘ of the 64th Armoured Regiment into downtown Baghdad, but also e.g. Israeli experiences in Gaza seem to trend towards the usage of heavy armour (both tanks and heavy APC’s) for combat operations in urban terrain. Operation Protective Edge saw no less than three armoured brigades deploy units to the strip.
Why is any of this relevant? Well, the British contribution to NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence include a single tank troop (currently from the Queen’s Royal Hussars) of three Challenger 2 MBT’s, a number so small that very relevant questions have been asked about if they really can make an impact. Then this happened.