On March 5, 1946, the former British Prime Minister and then-leader of the opposition Conservative Party, Winston Churchill, delivered what many historians believe to be the most important remarks of his post-war career. In a speech intended to make the case for a Western strategic concept of deterring war and opposing tyranny, Churchill declared that, “from Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia …”
Today, the United States and its European allies face a situation not dissimilar to that which confronted the designers of the security architecture that prevented a war with the Soviet Union for almost 50 years. Now, like then, the autocrat in the Kremlin is employing an array of capabilities including information operations, hacking, bribery, economic coercion, military intimidation, assassinations and even outright naked military aggression to create a new Russian empire in eastern Europe.
According to Churchill, the keys to the architecture needed to oppose Soviet aggression were allied solidarity, resolve to oppose tyranny and a willingness to create and maintain the military strength necessary to make aggression an unattractive option for Moscow. As Churchill observed in what became known as his Iron Curtain speech, “from what I have seen of our Russian friends and Allies during the war, I am convinced that there is nothing they admire so much as strength, and there is nothing for which they have less respect than for weakness, especially military weakness.”
Now it is NATO that is in need of an iron curtain, one designed to protect itself from Russian aggression. Beginning in 2014, with Moscow’s seizure of Crimea and then its indirect invasion of eastern Ukraine, the fundamental nature of the security environment in Europe changed. Recognition of this new situation and the need for a unified response was clearly demonstrated at NATO’s 2016 Warsaw Summit when the Alliance changed its basic security paradigm from one of assurance to deterrence.
But for deterrence to work, as the head of U.S. Army forces in Europe, Lieutenant General Ben Hodges observed recently, “you have to have real capability — the capability to compel or to defeat.” To that end, the United States is sending military forces back to Europe and redeploying those that were resident there eastward. Company-size formations from the 173rd Airborne Brigade are being deployed alongside small contingents from NATO members to the Baltic states and Poland.
However, a U.S. single airborne brigade and one lone Stryker brigade, even when supported by a rotational heavy brigade and a combat aviation brigade, are simply insufficient to deter a determined Russian adversary. To paraphrase a Churchillian formulation from World War Two, these new deployments are not the end or even the beginning of the end. They are, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
What NATO requires in order to implement its strategy of deterring Russian aggression is a sturdy iron curtain consisting of sufficient heavy land forces to deny Russia the prospect for a rapid conventional war against any member of the Alliance. A recent RAND Corporation study concluded that at present Russia could overrun the three Baltic states in as little as 36 hours. However, a force of some seven brigades deployed to the Baltics, including a full armored division with associated supporting forces, could be sufficient to deny Moscow a quick victory.
In reality, what NATO requires is large, heavy forces deployed to its eastern borders with Russia, Belarus and the Ukraine. General Hodges likes to talk about making his current force of 30,000 deter the way a Cold War force of 300,000 could. This is simply not possible. The centerpiece of a deterrent force must be a full U.S. heavy corps. A second heavy corps, consisting of German, French, British and Polish forces, also would be necessary. These must be supported by additional air and naval forces including the F-22, U.S. and European F-35s (when available) and Aegis-capable surface combatants.
For the current, limited, U.S. deployments to Europe or even a future heavy corps to credibly deter, these forces must be upgraded as soon as possible. The U.S. Army recognizes this fact, at least insofar as it is enhancing the lethality of a portion of the European-based Stryker brigade. This is hardly sufficient. The armored fighting vehicles that are in prepositioned equipment sets in Europe and are being deployed with rotational forces need to be upgraded immediately. Current plans to upgrade the Abrams tank, Bradley and Stryker fighting vehicles, enhance the performance of the Paladin self-propelled howitzer and Guided MLRS artillery rockets, and replace the venerable M-113 with the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle need to be accelerated. Because they are likely to fight outnumbered and under air and missile assault, forward-deployed U.S. forces will need upgraded communications such as WIN-T, enhanced short-range air defenses, counter-drone systems and much improved electronic warfare capabilities.
In addition to deploying modernized ground combat forces, the U.S. and its allies must invest in the supporting infrastructure, communications, logistics, engineering, and air and missile defenses necessary to deploy, sustain and defend forward positioned forces. For the first time in decades, the U.S. Army is practicing the crisis deployment of ground forces to Europe. But the debarkation sites, airfields and logistics centers must be enhanced, the lines of communication from Central to Eastern Europe improved and all this infrastructure protected. Funding these improvements is one way NATO Europe can demonstrate its financial commitment to improved defense.
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