Over the last three weeks the US force level in Europe has become a widely discussed topic in defense, and geopolitical circles. There is concern in Washington, and Brussels that the current level of US military forces stationed in Europe is not sufficient to deter Russia from undertaking military action. The focus is on Eastern Europe, specifically the Baltic states and Poland. Russia enjoys a tremendous advantage in the numbers of troops, armored vehicles, and combat aircraft it has stationed in close proximity to the eastern-most NATO states. The Pentagon is worried that in the event of a bolt-out-of-the-blue attack against the Baltics, or Poland, Russian forces will make significant gains before reinforcements from the continental United States can arrive and turn the tide of battle.
The fact that this subject is receiving more scrutiny is indicative of the Pentagon’s growing concern about Russian military strength in Europe. I personally feel the time has come to examine the current military balance in Europe, and look at options for how the US can increase its military strength in Europe enough for it to be a viable deterrent against potential Russian designs on Poland and the Baltics in the coming months and years.
Towards the middle of the month, around the Martin Luther King holiday here in the US, Today’s DIRT will examine the issue at length and present the findings in a series of articles to be posted here. Last year I did not manage to complete some of the projects I had planned on this topic, and others connected to Russia, and NATO in Eastern Europe. Now in 2019, that is going to change. This will be the first of at least six projects centered on defense matters, and geopolitical flashpoints that Today’s DIRT will present in 2019.
Between now and the middle of January, other areas of interest will be discussed, and presented. However, the military balance in Europe will take precedence in most articles from the middle of the month until early February.
It has taken years to bring to fruition but the largest arms procurement deal in Polish history has become reality. Yesterday, Poland reached an agreement with the United States to purchase the Patriot air defense system for the amount of $4.75 billion. The deal comes as the latest step in Poland’s effort to modernize its armed forces in the face of a growing Russian threat. Following the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Poland stepped up modernization of its aging military equipment and structure. This deal calls for the purchase of 2 batteries of the PAC-3+ variant of the Patriot system, which is the same advanced model fielded by US Army air defense units. They will take the place of the Soviet era SAMs currently in the Polish inventory such as the SA-2 and SA-6.
The deal has come just days after the United States and many Western nations expelled Russian diplomats in response to the use of a nerve agent on a former Russian intelligence officer in Great Britain. Warsaw is already in negotiations with the US to purchase more Patriots, advanced radar systems, and a separate interceptor missile as part of the next phase of its military modernization. The batteries purchased today will be delivered in 2022.
This deal could also potentially lead to the US offering stronger air defenses to the Baltic states. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have all been requesting just that in recent years. The Baltic region has become a military focal point since 2014. Russia has deployed SS-26 ballistic missiles to Kaliningrad, increased air activity around the Baltics, and held a number of major military exercises. NATO’s response has included strengthening the Baltic Air Police contingent for an extended period of time, rotating troops into the Baltic states on a regular basis, and the pre-positioning of US armor in Eastern Europe.
This week will mark the end of NATO’s current Baltic Air Policing rotation which stood began in September, 2017. USAFE F-15C Eagles of the 493d Fighter Squadron spent the rotation operating from Šiauliai air base in Lithuania, and Belgian F-16A MLU Falcons flew from Amari air base in Estonia. Later this week Danish F-16AMs will replace the US fighters, and Italian Air Force Typhoons will assume BAP duties from the Belgians. The September-January time period was a busy time in the air over the Baltics. US fighters were scrambled 30 times to intercept Russian aircraft flying near the airspace of the Baltic nations. Most of the activity took place in September around the time of Zapad ’17. Overall, the numbers are similar to those of recent BAP rotations, but still significantly higher than what they were in the days before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and involvement in the Ukraine conflict.
The Baltic States are not the only area NATO conducts air policing missions. Iceland is another. The USAF ended the practice of rotating fighter squadrons to Keflavik in 2006. Shortly thereafter, Russian aircraft began to make incursions into Icelandic airspace. As a result, NATO stood up the Icelandic Air Policing mission in 2008 and has been rotating fighter detachments from member nations ever since.
The air policing rotations safeguard the sovereignty of air space for member nations that do not possess their own air arms, as well as provide valuable experience for pilots and ground personnel deployed. In a time of crisis, the numbers of NATO fighters operating from the Baltics and Iceland would increase. Therefore, it is heartening to know that there is a good amount of aircrews and support personnel who are familiar with operating from these locations.
The next Baltic Air Policing rotation will run from this coming week until May, 2018.
Less than two days after the US government penalized a pair of Russian companies for violations of the INF (Intermediate Nuclear Forces) treaty, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the United States of breaking the treaty themselves, and further, of laying the groundwork for a formal withdrawal from the INF treaty. Speaking on Friday, Putin lashed out at the US on a vast array of defense and geopolitical-related subjects. His points of contention give some insight to the issues that are irking the Russian leader beneath the surface, as well as providing an glimpse at where Cold War 2.0 might potentially take is in 2018.
Russia has still not come to terms with the US deployment of Aegis Ashore to Europe as part of a US-NATO missile shield being constructed to contend with the threat of Iranian ballistic missiles. From the earliest days of the program, Russia has opposed it, with Moscow claiming that the system’s true intent is to neutralize Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal.
Putin also took aim at President Trump’s national security strategy, labeling it as offensive and aggressive. The new US doctrine has labeled Russia as one of the nation’s strategic competitor, though experts and insiders agree the term means the US considers Russia to be a major threat to US interests, and policies. In spite of Putin and Trump making an effort to play nice in public, there’s suspicion and animosity growing on both sides. The US investigation into Russia’s possible tampering with the 2016 election is certainly not helping US-Russian relations. However, growing US economic sanctions are a larger bone in Putin’s throat for the moment.
The growing number of NATO troops present in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States was also brought up. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO encroachment has become a major domestic issue in Russia. Putin has used the average Russian citizen’s suspicions about NATO intentions as the rallying cry for a more aggressive foreign policy. The fact that the increase in NATO forces was made because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, and continuing involvement in the War in Donbass is conveniently left out of the discussion.
After months of anxious speculation by Western politicians, general officers, and media outlets, the waiting is over. Zapad 17 is underway. Russia’s quadrennial strategic military exercise has attracted an overwhelming amount of scrutiny and attention. In light of past behavior on the part of Russia, some observers and analysts believe this exercise could be cover for a large scale Russian military action against NATO, or even against their erstwhile Belarussian allies. The 2008 Georgian invasion, and 2014 Crimean takeover were preceded by large scale military exercises. This fact is pointed to as cause to suspect Zapad 17 might be more than it appears. Other observers, politicians, and military officials suspect that Russia will use the exercise to permanently station large numbers of troops in Belarus, tilting the military balance in eastern and northern Europe in its favor.
Practically speaking, Zapad 17 is a preparation for war. After all, that is the point of a strategic exercise like this. In the absence of a hidden political agenda, the results of the exercise will be an indicator of the nation’s military capabilities and of vital importance to Moscow.
Zapad 17 will run from 14-20 September and involve units from every Russian service branch and military district. Moscow claims there are only 12,000 or so troops participating, however this number is deliberately false. In reality there are upwards of 100,000 personnel involved. Not admitting the true number is a deliberate attempt by Moscow to prevent Western observers from being allowed to monitor the exercise up close. Russia and NATO have previously agreed that exercises containing upwards of 30,000+ troops trigger an automatic attendance by observers from the other side. By cooking the numbers in this case, Russia is taking advantage of a loophole to keep as many prying eyes out of Belarus as possible.
As the week goes on and Zapad 17 unfolds, we’ll keep an eye on what is happening in and around Belarus and the Baltics.