The US-Russia Military Balance in Europe: Part I

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The performance of the Russian military in the 2008 Russo-Georgian War revealed a number of woeful deficiencies in the training, doctrine, and equipment of Russian forces. The conflict concluded in a decisive victory, but the performance of Russia’s armed forces indicated the reforms and modernizations begun in the aftermath of the Second Chechen War had yet to fully take root. The military was moving in the right direction, however, more work would be required before it could be seen as a legitimate first-rate professional military on par with its Western peers.

Since 2008 Russia has undertaken a series of ambitious, and determined reforms, and modernizations. The final verdict on just how successful these attempts have been cannot be determined short of a major war. The involvement of Russia’s military in Syria and Ukraine fail to qualify as proper test beds. Neither conflict offers a realistic opportunity for Russia to conduct large scale combined arms operations. What they have offered, however, is the opportunity for many Russian soldiers and officers to gain invaluable combat experience.

The Western Military District (WMD) is the command responsible for confronting NATO. The organization and deployment of Russian land, air, and naval units in the WMD region presents insight to the General Staff’s thoughts on potential future conflicts in Europe. Although the WMD is the smallest Russian military district in terms of geographic size, it has the largest number of combat units assigned to it. These forces are generally the best trained, and equipped units in the Russian armed forces.

Readiness and preparation have been major points for the WMD. Since the annexation of Crimea, and the resumption of tense relations with the West, Russia has held major exercises in the WMD multiples times a year. The largest of these, such as the Zapad series, are conducted for the purpose of preparing the forces in the WMD, and neighboring districts, for high-intensity conventional operations. In spite of the heavy publicity that hybrid warfare has received since the Crimean annexation, Russia’s ground forces in the western district are made up primarily of combined-arms units. Combined-arms operations have been the center of Russia’s land war doctrine since World War II, emphasizing maneuver and firepower. Hybrid warfare still has a place in future conflicts in Europe involving Russia, especially in the Baltic States. However, when it comes to planning for operations farther west, such as in Poland, combined-arms forces would be the mainstay.

 

Since the end of the Cold War, US ground forces have become lighter. Iraq, Afghanistan, and other fronts in the Global War on Terror emphasized infantry, special operations, and airborne troops more than they did armor and mechanized infantry. Heavy forces did find a niche in these warzones and proved remarkably effective. However, this was not enough to prevent US Army doctrine from shifting heavily to the employment of light forces on the battlefield. Ukraine, and the annexation of Crimea began to change the US mindset, as did events in other regions of the world. A high-intensity fight against a near-peer opponent equipped with large numbers of tanks, and armored vehicles became more likely. US ground forces have been adapting to meet the emerging threats since then, as have US air and naval forces. With that in mind, it needs to be stressed that Europe has not become the primary focus of US military planning, as it has for Russia. Atlantic Resolve, and the rotating presence of a heavy maneuver brigade in Eastern Europe is helping to change this, but much work remains to be done.

Responsibility for defending Europe against Russian aggression does not fall entirely on US shoulders. That obligation belongs to NATO though the US provides the bulk of the military forces and combat power NATO would bring to bear in a future war against Russia. The alliance has become more united in recent years owing to the growing Russian military threat. And thanks to President Trump’s tough talk, NATO members are beginning to contribute more money towards defense spending. Unfortunately, it will be some time before the results of this effort become visible. Even when that happens, NATO’s European member-states will be unable to defeat a Russian move into the Baltics, or elsewhere in Eastern Europe on their own. US military power is the key to defending Europe.

 

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