On NATO’s Eastern Frontier, Let’s Not Lose a War Before It Starts

In this handout frame grab released on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018 by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, a Russian serviceman aims a machine-gun during the Russia's Baltic Fleet military exercises.

Russian Defense Ministry Press Service Photo via AP

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In this handout frame grab released on Thursday, Sept. 20, 2018 by Russian Defense Ministry Press Service, a Russian serviceman aims a machine-gun during the Russia's Baltic Fleet military exercises.

The alliance needs more forces in Poland — and the logistics and enabling capabilities that will allow them to operate effectively.

The reemergence of Russia as a geopolitical threat to the peace and stability of Europe poses a significant challenge to NATO. Russia seeks to regain its traditional sphere of influence, thereby expanding its strategic depth, and reestablishing itself as a great power. While Russia’s recent efforts to achieve its objectives have been sub-conventional “gray zone” actions, plausible paths to a major conflict with NATO exist, especially where NATO is now the most vulnerable: along its eastern frontier, including Poland and the Baltic states. 

In such a conflict, Russia could exploit its time-distance advantage and sophisticated A2/AD capabilities to seize territory in the Baltic region before the alliance could marshal an effective military response. Should a rapid Russian offensive in the Baltics initially succeed, NATO could be forced to choose between launching a difficult, uncertain, and potentially escalatory counteroffensive to liberate allied territory, or accepting defeat and a new status quo in Europe. 

To avoid such a scenario, the alliance should create a military posture that would reduce Russia’s geographic advantage and blunt Russian aggression as it unfolds. Poland, which has one of the most capable military forces in central Europe, could play a pivotal role in creating this posture. Combat forces postured in Poland—both Polish and U.S.—capable of responding on day one of a crisis with Russia could be the linchpin of a NATO posture capable of blunting a Russian offensive and buying time for the arrival of alliance reinforcements. 

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A multitude of recent studies have pointed out the need for a more robust U.S. and Allied military posture along NATO’s eastern frontier. What is often overlooked, however, is the role of logistics and enabling capabilities in ensuring these forces remain lethal and effective in the face of massive Russian air and missile, electronic warfare, and cyber attacks. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, or CSBA, studied potential scenarios in NATO’s eastern frontier and found that it doesn’t matter how many combat forces the United States and its NATO allies deploy forward if those forces lack sufficient air and missile defenses, electronic warfare capabilities, precision fires, and munitions, fuel, and other means to sustain high-tempo combat operations while under attack. Without these and other enabling capabilities backstopped by resilient logistic networks, a larger force posture in the region would not be a credible “blunt” force. 

So, for instance, Poland could seek 5th-generation combat jets, long-range ground-fires, air and missile defenses, and electronic warfare capabilities. And it should increase the intensity and realism of its military training. But it should also improve the capacity and resiliency of its basing and infrastructure, and lay in sufficient munitions and sustainment stores to defend itself against Russian attacks and support NATO’s initial operations against a Russian invasion in the Baltics region. Investments in these capabilities would also help reduce the time required for NATO to flow troops to the battlespace from western Europe. 

Meanwhile, the United States should also improve its European posture to increase the lethality and resilience of its forces sufficiently to degrade and delay Russian invasion forces and buy time for NATO to respond. U.S. posture changes should include permanently basing an Army corps headquarters in Germany; a division headquarters, long-range artillery, air and missile defenses, electronic warfare capabilities, and division enablers in Poland. These forces and capabilities would be complemented by an additional armored brigade combat team located in or near Poland, and fuel and munitions prepositioned at key locations to support U.S. combat and support aircraft that could be rapidly deployed into theater. Posturing forces in and around Poland would allow them to immediately begin degrading Russian A2/AD capabilities and maneuvering to defend threatened points along NATO’s eastern frontier. Permanent basing at least some of these forces provides greater opportunities than rotational basing alone to build deep and enduring relationships with their allied counterparts that are important to the interoperability and cohesion of allied operations. Moreover, permanent basing sends a strong signal that the United States is committed to defending NATO’s frontline states and that the security of NATO member states in the region is not negotiable—a key element of deterring Russia. 

Finally, the creation of a truly effective and credible force posture to deter Russian aggression will require other NATO members to act. NATO partners should ensure a portion of their own forces are able to respond immediately to a conflict along NATO’s eastern frontier. Combat credible European forces also play an important role in reinforcing deterrence and discouraging the perception of soft targets within the Alliance. Moreover, all NATO states should invest in their own dual-use civilian and military infrastructure to ensure that, should conflict break out, NATO forces can flow into the theater quickly and unimpeded, both to relieve and reinforce U.S. and local allied forces. Ideally, European allies can help transform limited and brittle lines of communication into more resilient intra-European webs of communication, with the redundancy to provide multiple pathways to overcome any disruptions, inflicted by the adversary or otherwise. Improving Europe’s dual-use infrastructure can help ensure that all NATO partners’ forces get to the fight as fast as possible—not just those already at the front. 

In summary, to avoid losing the war before it starts, NATO needs to demonstrate the ability and willingness to blunt Russian aggression from day one and sustain combat over an extended period of time. Investing in forward postured, ready, lethal forces as well as the logistics networks, supplies, and munitions to sustain them are essential to that effort. 

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