Russian Military Successes in Syria Concerning US and NATO
Just a little over a year ago, Retired Army Gen. Bob Scales told Fox News, “The Russian military is very weak outside its nuclear arsenal, while the United States still has a strong military.”
Defense officials don’t see it that way anymore. The Russian Army, once seen as a mere shadow of itself during the Cold War is once again being seen as a serious threat – thanks in part to its successes in Syria over the past four months.
As the Washington Post reported on Wednesday, “President Vladimir Putin has reversed the fortunes of forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which were rapidly losing ground last year to moderate and Islamist rebel forces in the country’s five-year-old crisis. Government forces are now on the offensive, and on Tuesday, they scored their most significant victory yet, seizing the strategic town of Sheikh Miskeen from rebels who are backed by a U.S.-led coalition.”
This success has been in the face of a larger NATO presence that has proved to be less effective than the Russian contingent in supporting it allies in the field.
This newer, smaller, more professional Russian Army has NATO experts worried. A recent RAND Corp. study, based on table top war games indicates that NATO forces would only be able to stop a Russian advance for a few hours if Putin decided to attack the Baltic nations.
In numerous tabletop war games played over several months between 2014-2015, Russian forces were knocking on the doors of the Estonian capital of Tallinn or the Latvian capital of Riga within 36 to 60 hours. U.S. and Baltic troops – and American airpower – proved unable to halt the advance of mechanized Russian units and suffered heavy casualties, the report said.
“The games’ findings are unambiguous: As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members,” said the RAND report.
It’s not just numbers of NATO forces in the area. The types of NATO forces stationed near Russia are too light to counter the heavy, mechanized Russian Army. This is a reflection of the Obama Administration’s decision to cut back on traditional mechanized equipment and focus more on light infantry and Special Forces.
With only light infantry units in position in the Baltic region, U.S. and NATO planners are also worried about the continued Russian arms buildup in the exclave of Kaliningrad on the Baltic coast between Poland and Lithuania, and Moscow’s intention to build a new air force base in Belarus, just south of the Polish-Lithuanian border.
The war games run by RAND underscored how U.S. and NATO forces lack the vehicles and firepower to take on their Russian adversaries, which have maintained more mechanized and tank units. NATO ground troops also lacked anti-aircraft artillery to fend off Russian warplanes in the Baltic scenario.
“By and large, NATO’s infantry found themselves unable even to retreat successfully and were destroyed in place,” the report said.
The report said a force of about seven brigades in the area, including three heavy armored brigades, and backed up by airpower and artillery, would be enough “to prevent the rapid overrun of the Baltic states.” The additional forces would cost an estimated $2.7 billion a year to maintain.
Given the findings of this study, it’s no surprise that SecDef Ashton Carter unveiled plans to add more heavy weapons and armored vehicles to prepositioned stocks in Eastern Europe to give the Pentagon two brigade sets worth of heavy equipment on NATO’s eastern frontier.
As it stands now, there are two U.S. Army infantry brigades stationed in Europe — one in Italy and the other in Germany — but they are stretched. The new $3.4 billion plan outlined by Carter and the White House would add another brigade to the mix, but it would be made up of soldiers from the United States, rotating in for months at a time.
However a brigade of constantly rotating soldiers from the US isn’t the same as a permanently stationed unit. They can supplement NATO forces in Eastern Europe, but they are not a substitute for a permanent forward deployed presence. It’s also important to realize that pre-deployed heavy equipment like tanks can only become effective if troops are deployed for the US to Europe well in advance of a crisis.
Although heavy equipment will be prepositioned in Eastern Europe, It’s very likely that these depots will be hit be Russian strikes before they can be mobilized. In that case, America will have to rely upon what the units flying in from the US will bring with them – not what they can expect to find in a NATO warehouse.
A situation in Eastern Europe may very well rely upon a forced entry into hostile or contested territory. This is something the 82nd Division can do, but with limited ability to project power beyond a limited range. The 82nd Division can land 2,000 paratroopers, armored vehicles, and 155mm howitzers over a three mile drop zone to seize and defend an airfield in order to allow reinforcements, including air mobile Stryker armored units, to land and fight their way to the objective. However, the ability of the attack to reach its objective relies upon the reinforcements and the air cover to allow them to land.
However, this change in emphasis by the Obama Administration shows that the US and NATO are once again taking the Russian threat seriously. In addition to upgrading the Army’s heavy armor and mechanized forces, it was just announced that that American A-10 ground attack aircraft, which was specifically designed for a tank war in Europe, will remain in active duty until 2022.
Is this Enough to Stop Putin? Hawks of the military complex views…
American military experts warned “Unfortunately, more money alone won’t be enough to deter Putin from new aggression. NATO’s military posture in Europe is inadequate. And while new spending will improve matters, it will not be decisive.
One problem is that the administration assumes that increased funding can deter Putin. That presumes that his actions in Ukraine and Europe are rooted in simple opportunism. However, while Putin’s aggression has certainly been encouraged by U.S. hesitation (Obama’s failure to act in the Ukrainian invasion or Syrian chemical weaponscase), he is ultimately driven by his belief that he can resurrect Russia’s military superpower status – in Europe and the Middle East”.
They add: “In that case, pre-positioned tanks, more money, and more soldiers will not be enough. Obama must forcibly challenge Putin and show that he is willing to back up the challenges with more armored brigades in Eastern Europe”.
In their view, “it is also critical to continue to arm Eastern European nations with more modern weapons. Many Eastern European NATO nations are relying on Cold War equipment they inherited from the Soviet Union. Few have any serious tank forces – except for Poland. However, Estonia is receiving the Javelin anti-tank missile to help blunt any Russian armored attack”.
They are suggesting “Obama must also force other NATO countries to bolster their defense spending – especially in mechanized and heavy infantry categories. Currently, the US accounts for about 72% of NATO defense spending”.
Where once 20 heavily armored and mechanized NATO divisions protected Europe from the USSR, Germany’s arsenal of about 2,200 main battle tanks in the Cold War has declined to roughly 250. Britain, meanwhile, is planning on pulling out its last brigade headquarters left on the continent.
U.S. military hawks argue that the US should also look at its NATO spending priorities. Much of its infrastructure is in Western Europe, where a war would have been fought in the Cold War era. Today, with the NATO-Russian frontier several hundred kilometers further east, NATO should start building facilities in Eastern Europe, while closing down older facilities in the west. This, in and of itself, would show NATO resolve to defend its eastern NATO allies.
On the economic front they are advocating that, the US should boost energy exports to Europe. The US recently began exporting not only crude oil, but natural gas as well to Europe. Their dependence on Russia for their energy supplies is somewhat lessened and they might be able to act more boldly in the face of assertiveness from Putin without fear of having the pipelines cut off. Anything that weakens Putin’s hand along his western flank can only help NATO.
In the end according to them a realistic strategy to counter Russian aggressiveness requires more than another brigade in Europe. It requires commitment to stand up to Putin, more investment in expensive, armored and mechanized units, tangible support for the eastern most NATO countries, and support for more energy independence for NATO.
The Human Cost of War in the Middle East: A Graphic Overview
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
February 3, 2016
War is always a tragedy in human terms, but the four wars in the Middle East have raised the level of that tragedy to truly massive proportions. These costs are summarized in detail in a new analysis by the Burke Chair at CSIS entitled The Human Cost of War in the Middle East: A Graphic Overview. It draws on the work of a variety of UN agencies, the World Bank, the IMF, NGOs, media sources, work by other research centers, the CIA, and estimates of the trends in terrorism by START and Vision of Humanity. It provides both comparisons of the overall trends involved, and a country-by-country analysis of these impacts.
Creeping Incrementalism: U.S. Forces and Strategy in Iraq and Syria from 2011 to 2016: An Update
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
February 1, 2016
The United States and its allies have made some gains in the process, and the U.S. led coalition now provides substantial amounts of airpower in attacks on ISIS and in support of Iraqi, Kurdish, and Arab rebel forces. In broad terms, however, the United States has still reacted slowly to the threat posed by ISIS and the internal division with Iraq and Syria, and made only low levels of incremental increases in its forces. At the same time, the United States has seen Iraq become more divided on a sectarian and ethnic basis, has seen Russian intervention in Syria increase Assad’s chance of survival, and has still failed to create either effective Iraqi land forces or Arab rebel forces in Syria. It has not succeeded in reducing Iranian influence in the region, or brought effective unity to its partnership in either Syria or Iraq in dealing with its Arab allies.
2017 defense budget losers
By Mackenzie Eaglen
American Enterprise Institute
February 2, 2016
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s preview of the Pentagon’s forthcoming budget for fiscal year 2017 was broad on themes, but unsurprisingly short on details about which programs would get cut to pay for his new priorities. What he did reiterate was the “Third Offset” high-tech investment portfolio that Pentagon leaders are pursuing as they seek to restore rapidly declining U.S. military technological supremacy. I’ve outlined the defense programs that Carter will likely privilege as part of this strategy — including technologies such as artificial intelligence, space and cyber capabilities, and next-generation weapons systems. But there will be victims of this priority set, too, and Carter spent only one sentence of his remarks to mention cuts to the Littoral Combat Ship.
Look Homeward, Democracy Promoter
By Thomas Carothers
January 27, 2016
In the 1980s and 1990s, when I used to observe Americans engaged in the then-new field of democracy aid giving training sessions to foreign officials and activists, the trainers often paused at the start of their presentations and acknowledged with a rueful smile that the United States was itself not a perfect democracy. For a moment, they seemed well aware of the implicit hubris of holding themselves and the United States out as political exemplars. But then they would treat that comment as a throwaway line and proceed with their remarks, confident in their status as representatives of a successful democracy who are helping the less politically fortunate.
Strategic Planning for the Next President: Recommendations for the NSC Proces
By Colin Dueck
Foreign Policy Research Institute
On January 20, 2017, the next American president will inherit a powerful array of international challenges, capabilities, and opportunities. Apart from the naturally current focus on the election season itself, the various presidential campaigns and their leading foreign policy advisers would benefit from thinking through how they plan to tackle these international security challenges, not only country by country, but overall. A genuinely prudent US foreign policy strategy, starting in 2017, would involve a shift toward a different presidential decision-making style along with a shift in overall direction. In terms of decision-making style, if a president wanted to impose greater order and coherence on US foreign policy strategy, it would certainly be possible to do so. Based on both recent and historical experience, a variety of instruments might be developed. These are laid out in the essay below. In truth, the precise organizational flowchart adopted is less important than the fact of genuine interest and trust from the top down. No formal arrangement for strategic planning will avail if it does not fit the personality of the president, or if it does not have his confidence. On the other hand, any one of several mechanisms could help considerably if a president decided to get serious about conceiving, developing and imposing a successful strategy on US foreign and security policies. Since these are literally matters of life and death, getting serious would seem appropriate.
The Pitfalls of Relying on Kurdish Forces to Counter ISIS
By Patrick Martin
Institute for the Study of War
February 3, 2016
American over-reliance on Kurdish forces as the primary ground partner in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) threatens the long-term success of the anti-ISIS campaign. The U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition currently provides extensive military support to Kurds in both Iraq and Syria through weapons shipments, advisory missions, and close air support. This cooperation has enabled Kurdish forces to seize large swaths of territory from ISIS throughout 2015, including the majority of the Syrian-Turkish border and key terrain in the vicinity of Mosul. U.S. President Barack Obama lauded the gains as a demonstration of what can be accomplished “when [the U.S.] has an effective partner on the ground.” This partnership, however, faces two fundamental pitfalls that challenge broader U.S. national security objectives. First, the U.S.-led air campaign in Syria supports the expansion of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization that has conducted an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984. This cooperation threatens to drive Turkey away from deeper coordination with the anti- ISIS coalition. Second, the U.S. risks fueling long-term ethnic conflict in both Iraq and Syria due to the relative empowerment of the Kurds at the expense of other local powerbrokers, often Sunni Arabs. These pitfalls could promote future regional disorder and prevent the U.S. from successfully degrading and destroying ISIS.
Between a Hard Place and the United States: Turkey’s Syria Policy Ahead of the Geneva Talks
By Saban Kardas
German Marshall Fund
February 3, 2016
Turkey has suffered greatly from the international community’s inability to end the Syrian crisis. As diplomatic efforts have ended in failure, Turkey has watched the conflict grow into the greatest challenge it has confronted in the post-Cold War era. It has incurred enormous costs in hosting more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees, while its economic ties with the region have been hampered. Its national security has been threatened by the deepening conflict; spill-over effects of violence originating in Syria have taken a heavy toll in the form of attacks by the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Turkey also faces the risk of a direct confrontation with Russia due to the Syrian crisis, which may mark a sea change in post-Cold War Turkish foreign policy, not to mention creating deep disagreements with its traditional Western allies.
Turkey’s Syria Problem
By Lee Smith
January 30th, 2016
Even before Vice President Joe Biden met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara last week, the Turks were displeased. The day before, Biden had granted interviews only to opposition media and slammed the government for stepping on freedom of speech. “That’s not the kind of example that needs to be set [for the rest of the region],” said Biden. He was referring to, among other issues, the arrest of two Turkish journalists who published information, almost certainly false, claiming that Ankara sends arms across the Syrian border to the Islamic State. He was also referring to the detention of 15 academics for signing a petition denouncing Erdogan’s counterinsurgency against the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK). The Turkish government overreacted in both cases, and under normal circumstances, it would have been unexceptional for a visiting American vice president to make remarks like Biden’s. But circumstances aren’t normal. The Obama White House has been putting regional allies like Israel, Saudi Arabia, and now Turkey in the deep freeze. At the same time, it has excused Iran for setting fire to Saudi diplomatic missions and taking American sailors hostage.
A Turkish-Friendly Zone Inside Syria
By Ed Stafford and Soner Cagaptay
January 29, 2016
The attack earlier this month in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Turkey’s financial capital, is more likely to harden Ankara’s resolve against the Islamic State than to deter it from plans to intensify cooperation with the anti-IS coalition to better seal Turkey’s border with northwestern Syria, where IS controls a nearly 60-mile-wide and 20-to-30-mile-deep territory known as the Azaz-Jarabulus (corresponding to Kilis-Cerablus, in Turkey) belt. But the question remains as to how effectively Turkey can seal this long border with IS.
Lining Up the Tools to Break the Islamic State Brand
By Alberto M. Fernandez
February 2, 2016
The Islamic State brand is an ambitious and seductive vision that has proven to be a tremendous media success. Yet this vision is ultimately tethered to the perception of an actual, functioning utopian state. Military action against IS havens in Syria and Iraq is thus the most effective way to puncture the group’s propaganda balloon. Ongoing efforts toward that end are producing some tangible results, but all too slowly. And while technical measures to diminish the volume of IS material available on social media are also important, the brand is now a mature one that is well understood and internalized by proponents and adversaries alike. Washington will therefore need to find more creative ways of getting its own message across, mainly via its partners in the Middle East.