I’m kind of putting the cart in front of the horse with this article. I probably should have left it for inclusion towards the end of the month instead of making it the first installment of the Defending Poland series. However, the material is fresh in my mind right now so I am going forward with it. Through my research and preparation for this series, I’ve selected three factors that, in my opinion, have the power to significantly influence or even determine the outcome of a NATO-Russia conflict in Poland.
Two Soviet Army generals run into each other in Paris after World War III ends. “By the way,” one asks of the other “Who ended up winning the air war?”
The joke is from the Cold War era and obsolete politically. On the military side though, the meaning is clear and still holds true today: Wars are won on the ground, not in the air. Airpower has certainly contributed to victory in a number of campaigns but has never single handedly been responsible for winning a war.
That being said, whoever controls the skies over Poland in a future conflict will have a tremendous advantage. Airpower has become the cornerstone of NATO military power since the end of the Cold War. In an era of regularly shrinking European defense budgets, continental air forces have received a bulk of the available funds and an even higher percentage of national missions. Fighter planes are sexier and require less funds to maintain than ground forces. As a result, NATO air forces are fully integrated and highly capable instruments of war. If the shooting begins, it is essential for the NATO commander to get his air forces into the fight as quickly as possible and on his terms.
NATO has to be able to claim air superiority early on. Allied airfields, supply depots, command centers, and military positions in eastern Poland must protected from Russian air attacks. The Russian fighter threat also has to be whittled down enough to allow NATO airpower to be unleashed. The skies over the battlefield will also have to be owned by friendly fighters so NATO can provide close air support for its ground forces on the battle line.
Close air support is something that will look decidedly different from previous 21st Century conflicts. In Iraq and Afghanistan, US and NATO aircrews did not have to worry about dodging SAMs and triple-A when called down to provide CAS. The enemies in those conflicts possessed very limited battlefield air defense capabilities, namely small arms fire and hand-held SAMs. The Russian Army possesses many different types of mobile SAMs and self-propelled anti-aircraft systems. They will move these weapons right up to the forward edge of the battle area. NATO fighter bombers and attack helicopters are going to have to deal with this threat before they can begin dropping ordnance and letting missiles fly against enemy forces on the ground. If they can’t, it will mean heavy losses in airframes and pilots and a minimal influence on the battle. NATO can afford neither.
Air superiority is also essential to the survival of Polish airbases, especially ones north and east of Warsaw. If bases such as Minsk-Mazowiecki and Malbork are knocked out of action early, NATO fighters will have to stage from bases further west. This cuts down their effectiveness.
The first forty eight hours of a war will be crucial. Assuming a degree of strategic surprise is achieved by Russia, the Polish Air Force will not be able to hold out on its own. The best it can hope for is to bring about a situation where both sides are fighting under a neutral sky. After two days, more NATO airpower should arrive to influence the battle.
Polish Land Forces Doctrine
The Land Forces of Poland are in the midst of a necessary modernization. The threat to the east is growing more imminent and less potential by the week. Poland’s civilian leaders and general officers have responded accordingly in a number of ways. Weapon upgrades and new systems are being introduced into the inventory. Interoperability with other alliance members is improving remarkably.
The unknown factor is in the Land Forces doctrine. A war on Polish soil will not be similar to what is taking place in Ukraine. It will be high intensity warfare with a capable enemy. Airborne, Dessant and foot infantry will play roles, however, heavy maneuver forces will be the centerpieces of a Russian offensive. Poland and NATO need to come around to the idea that a future war in Poland could be something of a throwback and resemble a miniaturized version of what a NATO-Warsaw Pact conflict in Central Europe may have looked like in the 1980s.
For Poland’s army, this means it has to be able to hold the line until sizeable ground forces start to arrive from outside of the country. Light forces do not have the combat strength to hold the line effectively and a Russian breakthrough early in the conflict could have disastrous consequences. Revisions to the way the Land Forces fight have to be made.
The Bug River
The battle for Poland could be won or lost at the Bug River. A tributary of the Narew River, the Bug is a major river which runs through eastern Poland and even forms part of the border between Poland and Belarus for 111 miles. It provides an excellent natural defensive barrier for the Poles and with it opportunities. On the other side of the coin, the Bug also has the potential to be the death knell for Polish and NATO forces in the east if the Russians can move fast and decisive enough to envelop the Poles and NATO.
In the south, up against the border with Belarus, the river will be invaluable in the first twenty four hours of fighting because of the bridges that span the river. They are needed by the Russians to move large numbers of forces across and into Poland and to maintain supply lines as the fighting moves west. If the Russians are able to secure the bridges, it bodes well for their timetable and assault.
For this reason, destroying as many of the bridges as possible the moment hostilities appear imminent has to be a top priority for Poland. The most obvious way to do this is to rig the bridges with explosives and set troops on the left bank of the river to defend and ensure they remain in place. An attempt would likely be made by Russian Spetznaz to secure the bridges before they can be demolished, so the Poles need to be prepared for that. Airstrikes and artillery could also be used to destroy the bridges, but artillery is not entirely reliable and in the opening hours of the conflict the Polish air force will be stretched too thin to take on the mission.
The portion of the river to the northwest is where the danger exists. Assuming a two pronged Russian invasion from Belarus, from the Brest area in the south and Grodno in the north, there’s a chance that the Poles and any NATO forces in accompaniment can be enveloped. Provided the Russian assault is swift enough and overcomes resistance rather quickly, they could potentially envelop the Poles on the east bank of the Bug and cut them off. The main force in the east would therefore be cut off and the door to Warsaw and beyond left wide open.
Farther on in the Defending Poland series, I will delve deeper into the Bug River envelopment scenario. The next series post will come on Wednesday, 17 June. I hope everyone has an enjoyable weekend.