Panel: NATO Unprepared to Defend Baltics from Russian Attack

March 2, 2017 11:26 AM
Estonian army scouts from 1st Battalion practicing their defensive maneuvers during Exercise SIIL/Steadfast Javelin in 2015. NATO Photo

While NATO remains unprepared to defend its most exposed states, positioning three American armored brigades in or near the Baltics would be a good first step in providing more effective deterrence against possible Russian moves, three experts in international security told the House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land subcommittee Wednesday.

David Shlapak, senior international research analyst at RAND Arroyo Center, said its war games show a collapse of NATO defenses in 36 to 60 hours of a Russian invasion of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania without new steps being taken to deter Moscow.

The war games projected a seven- to 10-day warning of possible attack.

“Deterrence would be enhanced” if the three armored brigades and four other brigades of lighter forces from a number of NATO countries coupled with necessary artillery and logistics support were equipped and positioned to respond.

Rotational forces and prepositioned equipment are not a credible deterrent against a re-energized Russian threat. Later, in answer to a question, he said, “We’re still forward postured to defend the Fulda Gap” in Germany not the Baltic nations.

The logistics supply link is now 1,000 miles longer than it was when the Soviet Union existed and before NATO’s expansion eastward.

“That respite, ladies and gentlemen, is over,” Shlapak said.

His colleague at RAND’s Arroyo Center, Timothy Bonds said even with prepositioned equipment movement of forces “takes time and requires air, sea” support to a continent engaged in fighting and across a contested Atlantic.

Andrew Hunter, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, added, “The threat is especially potent” from Russia now. In recent years, it has built up Anti Access/Area Denial capability that “is sophisticated, layered and integrated.” Moscow’s ground combat systems also have been modernized, especially in indirect fires and artillery where it has an edge of the United States.

What the United States and its allies would face in Europe, they soon could be facing in other trouble spots. “Russia is likely to export these systems,” Hunter said.

If rotational brigades were to be the deterrent, as current plans exist in the European Reassurance Initiative, it “hit the ground forces hard, both the Army and the Marine Corps,” Bonds said. He said there are now nine armored Brigade Combat Teams in the Army with a 10th about to be fielded. Using the rotational math of the Defense Department that would mean, while that one brigade would be in Europe, a second would have just rotated back to its home station and the third would be training for the deployment.

Bonds said those numbers hold even with the projected growth of the Army to 540,000 soldiers on active duty and 200,000 Marines on active duty. He added it also takes time to train these new soldiers and Marines and requires more funds to ensure the equipment they have is modern and investments are being made in future systems.

Having a heavy armored brigade stationed in Korea and another in Kuwait complicates the Army’s rotational problem.

US Soldiers, assigned to Lightning Troop, 3rd Squadron, 2nd Cavalry Regiment, load Stryker Fighting Vehicles on rail cars at Rose Barracks’ railhead station, Vilseck, Germany, Jan. 7, 2016. US European Command Photo

The Army also has seen the greatest cuts in modernization programs and investments in research and development to field new systems since 2008.

Bonds said some of the shortfalls in deterrence, such as indirect fires and artillery, can be made up by capitalizing on investments European allies and partners have made in niche capabilities.

As for meeting the 2 percent of gross domestic product being spent on security threshold, the allies need “to focus on where that money is being spent,” he said.

Bonds said investments by the United States and allies to meet possible Russian aggression should be directed into precision long-range fires, sub-munitions that can break up mass assaults and short-range air defenses.

The war games had Russian forces advancing at 5 miles per hour. Shlapak said precision long-range fires are needed “to force them to slow down” and “operate in different ways.”

Shlapak also focused on air defenses. American ground forces “have not come under air attack since 1950,” but would face advanced Russian missile systems and “aircraft good enough to stay in the fight” even after a NATO response.

When asked how long the seven brigades could hold out against a Russian attack in the war games, he said 28 days, “sort of Bastogne-like,” referring to the World War II Battle of the Bulge that slowed a German advance until American reinforcements could arrive.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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