One Day's Worth of Federal Spending Per Year Can Avert U.S. Military Defeat in Europe
The United States is facing a potential military crisis in Europe, and not enough is being done to avert it. The problem is that a resurgent Russia is moving to reclaim lost influence along its western border at a time when NATO's ability to repulse an invasion is at a low ebb. Everything Moscow is doing signals that it will take advantage of Western weakness to rebuild its former European empire.
Despite all the statistical indicators demonstrating NATO has vastly more military capability than Russia, the alliance actually is weak in the areas where Moscow is likely to make a move. The Baltic states are nearly indefensible due to their geographical circumstances, and there are few natural barriers to prevent a rapid Russian advance westward against countries like Ukraine. Moscow would have the advantages of surprise and short distances, whereas NATO would have all the disadvantages of a diverse, consensus-based security organization.
It is no mystery why Moscow has become so emboldened in recent years. Western capitals largely dismantled their military forces in the region, thinking that the security environment had permanently changed. The U.S., which contributes over two-thirds of all NATO military spending, reduced its ground forces on the continent to two light brigades that could be easily defeated by heavier Russian units. The number of main battle tanks in West Germany's army has declined from over 2,000 to only 250.
While the West was disarming in Europe, Moscow was building up -- thanks to a ten-year, $700 billion military modernization plan launched in 2010. Much of Eastern Europe is now covered by a dense Russian air defense network that could intercept the non-stealthy aircraft dominating Western air forces. NATO ground forces lack the kind of tactical air defenses needed to intercept Russian aircraft equipped with electronic countermeasures, an area where Moscow has pulled ahead while Western military investment languished.
Moscow could use its edge in electronic warfare to disable command links among NATO forces. Its tanks increasingly are equipped with active protection systems capable of negating Western antitank weapons, a feature almost entirely absent from U.S. armored vehicles. In fact, everywhere you look across the spectrum of conflict, from indirect fires to cyber operations to electronic warfare to air defenses to vehicle survivability, Russia has an advantage in the places where war is most likely to occur. It even has an edge in theater nuclear weapons.
In the past, the U.S. Army has been able to count on the Air Force to compensate for its deficiencies. That's why no U.S. soldier has been killed by hostile aircraft since the Korean War. But it is far from clear that the U.S. and its allies could sustain air superiority in any Eastern European conflict today given the sophistication of Russian air defenses, the deficient survivability of most Western tactical aircraft, and the difficulty of applying naval aviation given local geography. The next European war could be mainly an Army show, and America's Army isn't ready.
Or perhaps I should say, it isn't equipped. After 15 years of fighting insurgents in the sands of Arabia, the U.S. Army is postured for the wrong kind of conflict if it will have to take the lead in repulsing Russian aggression in Europe. The last buildup of heavy combat equipment occurred 30 years ago during the Reagan Administration, and with the exception of a few items such as the Stryker wheeled troop carrier, the service hasn't bought anything genuinely new since then. Now there is no time, because Army leaders expect war could occur within five years.
The Obama Administration has moved to increase U.S. ground-force presence in Europe through rotational deployments, but it hasn't done much to fix the shortfalls in combat hardware. Quite the opposite: the administration's 2017 budget request of $22 billion for all aspects of Army technology development and procurement amounts to a paltry two day's worth of federal spending. Americans spend more than that every two months on beer and cigarettes. If the Army is to be prepared for war in Europe, the next administration will need to spend more money, and fast.
And now for three pieces of good news. First, if the Army quickly acquires what it needs to stop a westward advance by Russian forces, then war is less likely to occur; Moscow will be deterred. Second, the Army's vulnerability in Europe is temporary; once America and its NATO allies begin deploying the stealthy F-35 fighter in numbers, that will largely negate the effectiveness of Russian air defenses that today impede establishing air superiority. And third, it won't cost much to fix what ails the Army, it just needs to be done quickly.
What that means is coughing up more money to get improved capabilities into the field in a few years. The most obvious examples are installing active protection systems and other defensive features on large numbers of armored vehicles; equipping Strykers with improved firepower for taking out enemy armored vehicles; accelerating the fielding of more resilient, mobile communications networks; and enhancing fires by speeding up the Paladin self-propelled howitzer program. There also needs to be more spending on electronic warfare, precision-guided munitions and tactical air defenses for defeating enemy attack planes and drones.