How To Secure NATO’s Frontline States

Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, it may be time for NATO to adopt a new AirLand Battle-like concept to help guide its plans and capability priorities to counter the growing threat of Russia.

This concept could take advantage of high-capacity air and missile defense systems and a new generation of long-range precision fires to offset Russia’s A2/AD complex. NATO could deploy high-capacity air and missile defenses to offset Russia’s current conventional strike throw weight advantage.

Future Russian precision strikes on NATO forces and bases could include salvos of tens or even hundreds of guided ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, rockets, artillery, and aircraft-delivered munitions. NATO air and missile defenses now in the Baltic region would be quickly overwhelmed by such an onslaught.

Let’s look at how we got here. In 1997, NATO and the Russian Federation signed the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security, an act that was meant to herald a new relationship based on mutual trust and cooperation between the former Cold War opponents.

Then came Russia’s 2008 attack on Georgia, 2014 annexation of the Crimea, and invasion of the Ukraine, proving this to be a hollow agreement. These acts of aggression coupled with a steady stream of threats and provocations have given NATO’s leaders ample cause to worry that other Eastern European “frontline” states, particularly Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, may become the target of a Vladimir Putin-led Russia.

Russia’s deployment of highly capable anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) systems to Kaliningrad and Belarus is another reason to be concerned over the security of NATO’s northern flank. These A2/AD systems include hundreds of combat aircraft and missile launchers that can launch precision strikes on targets across Europe and Russia’s highly capable long-range S-300 and S-400 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) that can try to stop NATO aircraft flying over most of Poland and the Baltics.

Russia has also stationed tens of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of artillery pieces, tanks, and combat aircraft in its Western Military District, a force that far outnumbers the militaries of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia combined. Russia has created a force straddling the Baltic region that is capable of serving its revanchist strategy.

During its July summit in Warsaw, NATO announced its intent to station four multinational battalions on this increasingly vulnerable northern flank, one in each Baltic state and in Poland. Although this will send a signal to Russia, in reality the battalions’ 4,000 troops will be little more than a tripwire force that cannot halt a major Russian assault on one or more of the Baltic states. Moreover, it is highly unlikely the battalions will be able to prevent Russia’s air defenses and precision strike systems from cutting the air, sea, and ground lines of communication NATO must use to reinforce the Baltics in the event of a crisis.

So what would a new AirLand doctrine look like? Russia’s A2/AD threats could be countered by a different mix of NATO forces and capabilities. For instance, NATO could increase its air and missile defense capacity and field long-range, ground-based precision fires that can integrate their operations with unmanned and manned aircraft to strike targets across the Baltic region. This complex of multi-domain offensive and defensive fires is not unlike the forces needed to support the Air-Land Battle operational concept adopted by NATO in the 1980s to offset the Warsaw Pact’s numerically superior conventional forces. (Made vivid for the public in Gen. Sir John Hackett’s famous book, The Third World War.)

In addition to fielding additional SAM systems such the Patriot PAC-3 and MEADS, the United States and its NATO partners could invest in low-cost interceptors and new technologies such as solid-state lasers, high power microwaves, and artillery-fired hypervelocity projectiles to defeat Russian salvos. These high-capacity active defenses, combined with hardening key military facilities and employing camouflage, concealment, and deception tactics, could drive up the number of weapons Russia would need to use to ensure that its attacks succeed—perhaps to the point where the game would not be worth the candle for Russia.

NATO could also field a new generation of long-range, ground-based precision fires such as conventional cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and guided artillery rounds. Given that Russia’s air defenses would make it difficult for NATO aircraft to control the skies and support friendly ground forces early in a conflict, ground-based precision strike systems stationed in the region could begin to roll-back A2/AD threats and prevent invading forces from achieving a fait accompli before Alliance reinforcements could arrive in the battlespace.

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military has divested the bulk of its long-range, ground-based strike systems, including most of its Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) capacity as well as a large percentage of its combat aircraft and sea-based launchers. ATACMS with upgraded warheads and guidance systems and new weapons such as the Long Range Precision Fires Missile could form the core of a future ground-based strike force capable of imposing costs on Russia’s forces.

Combined, these capabilities could provide an effective counter to the foundation of Russia’s A2/AD complex: its ability to mass attacks with precision over long ranges and in multiple domains. They would not, however, be effective without sufficient NATO forces in place at the start of a conflict. Multinational forces stationed in the Baltic region, augmented by rapidly deploying land-based aircraft and aircraft carriers rotationally deployed to the Norwegian Sea, could create a military posture that could force Russia to reconsider its hegemonic ambitions. These forces should be highly mobile and able to quickly disperse in order to frustrate Russia’s ability to target them with precision.

In summary, NATO’s decision to deploy four multinational battalions to Poland and the Baltic states is a clear signal that it is committed to the security of its northernmost partners. That having been said, it may also be time for NATO to develop a new AirLand Battle concept and field the supporting capabilities needed for its forces to operate under Russia’s A2/AD “bubble.” These forces and capabilities could become the foundation for a deterrence posture that convinces Russia that the risks of attacking Europe’s frontline states will outweigh any possible gains.

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