A specter is haunting Europe; it is the specter of land war. The emerging conflict in Europe is about nationalism, the control of territory and the domination of populations, precisely the kind of fight we were told was passé in the 21st century. The massing of Russian forces along that country’s border with Ukraine is reminiscent of the lead up to Soviet aggression throughout the 40-year-long Cold War. Like that period, the security of the Ukraine and the easternmost members of NATO cannot be guaranteed by airpower alone.
Fortunately, the Russian Army is a faint shadow of what it once was under the Soviets. At the height of the Cold War, the Red Army consisted of about 200 divisions, including more than 40 tank divisions. Around a quarter of these were sufficiently manned and equipped for a relatively rapid conflict and most were deployed in Eastern Europe and the Western military districts facing NATO. There were 20 Soviet divisions in East Germany alone, two in Poland, five in Czechoslovakia and four in Hungary. Non-Soviet Warsaw Pact countries added some 24 divisions to this total. Backing up their land forces was an artillery park consisting of tens of thousands of artillery pieces and rocket launchers, an Army aviation park of thousands of utility and ground-attack helicopters, an Air Force deploying literally thousands of ground-attack aircraft and light bombers and an air defense force with masses of advanced fighters and highly capable surface-to-air missile batteries.
Today, the Russian military has shrunk to perhaps ten percent of its Soviet-era size. Instead of nearly 200 tank and mechanized infantry divisions, there are some 40 combined arms brigades, some still organized into divisions. Most of the equipment, both ground and air, is Soviet vintage, although the Kremlin has been pouring money into the military over the past five years. Recently, the Russian military has been conducting extensive combined arms exercises that also involved elements of the strategic forces.
Unfortunately, the NATO armies that once stood guard along the Iron Curtain are gone as well. Forward positioned NATO forces once consisted of some 20 German, United Kingdom, French, Belgian, Danish and Dutch divisions. The U.S. contributed an additional two corps (four divisions plus support units) of the best equipped and trained combat forces in the world. Additional divisions were deployed by Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey and Norway.
Today, NATO stands on the brink of true demilitarization. NATO does not spend enough on its military and what is spent isn’t allocated wisely. Ground forces, in particular, have been gutted. Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark have essentially disbanded their heavy armored formations. The U.K., France and Germany maintain only eight heavy brigades, along with a number of lighter infantry, air mobile and marine formations. Poland has a total of nine armored mechanized and cavalry brigades. The U.S. Army in Europe now consists of two light units, the two-battalion 173rd airborne brigade and the 2nd Cavalry regiment. Two stateside heavy brigade combat teams are the designated regionally-aligned brigades for Europe. That is it! On the ground, NATO may be even weaker than the Russian Army.
Moreover, NATO has only recently begun to conduct large-scale combined arms exercises, something that was standard during the Cold War. Nor has the U.S. done an exercise based on reinforcing Europe in about 20 years. In the near-term, a conflict over Ukraine would be decided by which side first suffered a collapse of its logistics system.
With respect to events in Eastern Europe, the U.S. and NATO should heed the advice of Polish Defense Minister Tomasz Siemoniak and increase its military presence in Poland and in other NATO members in Central and Eastern Europe. It would be a good idea to return at least two heavy brigades to the European continent.
The irony is that before Crimea, the U.S. and its NATO allies had pretty much decided to exit the business of preparing to fight major conventional land wars. In the FY2015 budget, the U.S. Army cancelled its last new-design armored fighting vehicle program, the Ground Combat Vehicle. In fact, the Army had insisted that it could shutter this nation’s sole tank production facility at Lima, Ohio for four years. Literally, events on the ground are challenging our vision of future conflicts. They also call into question current proposals to reduce the size of the active Army to 420,000 and to retain significant heavy land and air capabilities in the National Guard. Vladimir Putin may have saved the West from the folly of believing that fantasy could become reality merely by wishing it so.
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