By: Mia Saidel
Senior researchers and defense analysts testified on Wednesday that Russian forces could overtake the Balkans in less than one weekend, based on the current U.S. estimates of Russia’s military capabilities in the region at a hearing for the Committee on Armed Services.
“The Eurasian security order would be transformed in a way utterly contrary to American interests,” RAND senior international research analyst David Shlapak said. “U.S. credibility and reliability would be called into question globally.”
The three witnesses from the RAND Corporation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, both non-profit policy think tanks, reported that based on analysis from a series of war games conducted by the U.S. over the past three years, an invasion by Russian armed forces in the Baltic states after a week’s notice would result in the collapse of NATO’s defenses within 36 to 60 hours.
“NATO is not postured or prepared to defend its most exposed and vulnerable member states—the Baltic republics of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania—against a Russian attack,” Shlapak said. “This would leave the U.S. president and his Canadian and European counterparts with only bad strategic choices.”
The hearing encouraged a strategy of preemption in response to recent Russian hostility toward countries in NATO’s eastern flank. Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the committee, said that Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, recent incursions into eastern Ukraine, and pushes of territorial influence over the Balkans threaten to overturn European security.
President Donald Trump suggested during his campaign that only NATO allies that paid their fair share deserved protection from the United States, which has alarmed the Baltic states. According to U.S. officials, it is unclear how President Donald Trump will respond to these looming threats by Moscow. However, the House committee signaled that action by the U.S. must be taken.
“Given the threats of Russian aggression, we must move from a posture of reassurance to a posture of deterrence,” Turner said.
The Kremlin is also signaling intimidation toward the U.S. Last week, Russian intelligence collection ships were seen operating off the East Coast. Russian military crafts have also made high-speed passes over U.S. naval ships operating in the Black Sea.
Despite recent allegations against Trump regarding his friendliness towards Russia and ties to the country prior to the election, Turner said that Secretary of Defense James Mattis and vice president Mike Pence reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to NATO, and that Russia would be “held accountable for its actions.”
The strategy implementation for greater U.S. military posture in the Balkans outlined by the witnesses includes increased spending on modernization tactics and calculated deployment of troops.
“Restoring overmatch is particularly important,” Vice President of the army research division at RAND Timothy Bonds said. “Today, the U.S. army would be outgunned, outranged and outmanned in a fight against the Russians in the Baltics. The U.S. army will need to rebuild its maneuverable, short-range air defenses, improve the survivability and lethality of its combat vehicles, and extend the range of its cannon and rocket artillery forces to simply match the Russians. The army also needs to invest in its theatre, air and missile defenses in order to match advances in Russian missile threats. ”
The analysts highlighted the posture of ground forces as important toward suppressing Russian advancement in the region. According to these experts, this posture refers to the efficient deployment of troops in strategic defense positions well in advance of an offense by the Russians. Bonds said that deploying troops after a potential war begins will not work, and that they “need to already be there in order to win.”
Andrew Hunter, the director of the Defense Industrial Initiatives Group at CSIS, identified the A2/AD capability of Russia along its border with NATO as presenting a sophisticated, multi-domain capability that hinders U.S. ability to project power in Europe. This strategy, called “anti-access/area denial,” refers to Russian integrated air defense systems and offensive ballistic and cruise missile capabilities.
The researchers also testified that Russia’s non-kinetic capabilities in electronic warfare, cyber operations and information operations significantly outpace the limited capabilities the U.S. army can currently bring to a potential conflict.
“These non-kinetic capabilities potentially undermine the effectiveness of U.S. intelligence and anti-armor systems and threaten the ability of the U.S. and its NATO allies to operate effectively as a coalition,” Hunter said.
However, sufficient reinforcement of troops could extend the clock of resistance in the Balkans to close to a month.
Shlapak said that the number of NATO brigades, or combat teams from the U.S. and NATO allies, are crucial to a victory against Russia. The size of one brigade ranges from 4,000 to 4,400 troops, which includes infantry, tanks, and artillery. “We believe that a seven brigade force, if it was properly supported, could hold out for up to 28 days against a force of 40 to 50 battalion tactical groups, which we assess as being about the maximum effort that the Russians could plausibly bring to bear given current and midterm projected Russian capabilities,” Shlapak said.
The failure of U.S. counterinsurgency in the Baltic states could be detrimental to relationships with U.S. allies. Despite these foreseen tactical shortcomings from the U.S., Hunter said that there is some security to be found within European forces.
“Our allies and partners in Europe have fielded a number of capabilities that were designed and do some measure of meeting this challenge from Russia’s systems,” Hunter said. “Whereas our indirect fire systems can be outranged, some of our partners in Europe have longer range.”
A strong U.S. posture in the Balkans not only signals a firm NATO alliance, but also a reduction of Russia’s legitimate threat to the global order, the witnesses said.
“It’s vital to recognize that the success or failure of NATO in the Baltics is not just about the fate of the countries with the combined population of Missouri, or a collective economy the size of Iowa’s,” Shlapak said. “It is about deterring, about preventing a conflict with the only country on Earth that has the capacity to destroy the United States as a modern, functioning society.”