“The US and its NATO allies are taking important steps in reaffirming their alliances and trying to provide a credible deterrent to Russian aggression.”
While some people don’t realize it, military training often doubles as a strategic message on the international stage. Since the Russians just concluded their Zapad exercises, the largest military training since the end of the Cold War and they also used military training in 2008 and 2014 to secretly mobilize troops and invade their neighbors, NATO has responded with additional deployments including four brigades to the Baltic countries to act as a deterrent. With the training exercises from NATO increasing in size, temperature, and intensity, they are displaying dangerous strategic thought that undermines their preparation to defend against Russian aggression.
The US led Saber Strike training is one example. It involves forces from the US, Polish, and Baltic states, including the new forward deployed brigades. A key movement within this training involved a battle group of a US Calvary squadron with Stryker combat vehicles, 150 British dragoons, plus a Polish tank division. This force moved from North Eastern Poland into Southern Lithuania to plug the vital Suwalki gap. This gap is a roughly 60 mile stretch of territory at the nexus of borders between the heavily armed Russian territory in Kaliningrad, the Russian ally Belarus, and the NATO partners Poland and Lithuania.
This small force is supposed to hold the gap against what will likely be much larger Russian forces attacking from multiple directions. As Poland found out in the early stages of World War II, an aggressive foe striking from multiple angles can eviscerate a defending force. The Saber training maneuver doesn’t fully account for how large the Russian attack might be, and the difficulty of early forward deployments such as the Battle Group that moved from Poland to Lithuania.
Due to political considerations, the NATO maneuvers often practice actions that would be foolhardy during a conflict, and thus the message sent to Russia isn’t as strong as it should be.
Moreover, the exercises don’t consider the heavy Russian firepower that might restrict access to the area. For example, NATO also practiced the forward deployment of its best asset, the A10 Warthog. They planned for a seizure of a key highway in Estonia that would allow NATO forces to seize and use airfields in the area. But this road is only 125 miles from the Russian border. On the other side of that border will be enough offensive and defensive firepower to render it and all of Estonia off limits to NATO forces for the first days or even weeks of any war with Russia.
The NATO maneuvers are practicing something that would be impractical before the US and NATO forces degraded or destroyed the anti-aircraft batteries, radar stations, artillery sites, missile silos, and air force that can project power over all of the Baltic states in the early stages of any war. But America must reassure its Baltic allies by promising and practicing the advanced deployment of significant resources.
The US and its NATO allies are taking important steps in reaffirming their alliances and trying to provide a credible deterrent to Russian aggression. But an important component of deterrence is making sure that the potential enemy understands the consequences of direct action.
Due to political considerations, the NATO maneuvers often practice actions that would be foolhardy during a conflict, and thus the message sent to Russia isn’t as strong as it should be. Under US leadership they should practice maneuvers that more accurately reflect and prepare for a future conflict and send the message we really want to send.