The Buzz

The Ultimate Weapon to Deter Russia in the Baltics: The F-35?

Could NATO drones, F-35s and US Special Operations Forces deter further Russian actions and potentially stop an invasion of the Baltics?

That clearly seems to be part of the calculus motivating current SOF deployments and F-35 training operations in Eastern Europe, US officials said.

A NATO statement said "the deployment is part of the European Reassurance Initiative, implemented by the United States to provide effective deterrence and assurance measures in Eastern Europe. In the wake of a more aggressive Russia, the move aims to reassure NATO Allies."

Certainly long ranges sensors built into current US and NATO drones, along with substantial F-35 ISR technologies, could both detect and attack any Russian advance early on in an operation, and such deployments are designed to be fortified by additional rotating US Army ground troop units.

"The introduction of the premier fifth-generation fighter to Europe brings state-of-the-art sensors, interoperability and a vast array of advanced air-to-air and air-to-surface munitions that will help maintain the fundamental territorial and air sovereignty rights of all nations," according to a statement from U.S. European Command

Although Gen. Raymond T. Thomas, the head of the Pentagon’s Special OperationsCommand, recently told Congress that SOF forces were "over-deployed" and could not sustain the current global op-tempo - there are still special Special Operations units in the Baltics to work with and reassure Baltic states.

“They’re scared to death of Russia,” , Thomas told the New York Times in January of this year.

According to the New York Times report from earlier this year, Thomas has visited the Baltics on numerous occasions. He told the paper, "They're desperate for our leadership."

"As a result, General Thomas said, American commandos now have a “persistent” presence here with Baltic special operations troops, after forging close ties with them over the past decade while fighting together in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Americans bring sophisticated surveillance technology and broad sources of intelligence," the New York Times reported.

Meanwhile, a prior think tank study concluded last year that, at that time, NATO force structure in Eastern Europe would be unable to withstand a Russian invasion into neighboring Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

RAND Wargame: 

After conducting an exhaustive series of wargames wherein “red” (Russian) and “blue” (NATO) forces engaged in a wide range of war scenarios over the Baltic states, a Rand Corporation study called “Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank” determined that a successful NATO defense of the region would require a much larger air-ground force than what is currently deployed.

In particular, the study calls for a NATO strategy similar to the Cold War era’s “AirLand Battle” doctrine from the 1980s.  During this time, the U.S. Army stationed at least several hundred thousand troops in Europe as a strategy to deter a potential Russian invasion. Officials with U.S. Army Europe tell Scout Warrior that there are currenty 30,000 U.S. Army soldiers in Europe.

The Rand study maintains that, without a deterrent the size of at least seven brigades, fires and air support protecting Eastern Europe, that Russia cold overrun the Baltic states as quickly as in 60 hours.

“As currently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members. Across multiple games using a wide range of expert participants in and out of uniform playing both sides, the longest it has taken Russian forces to reach the outskirts of the Estonian and/or Latvian capitals of Tallinn and Riga, respectively, is 60 hours. Such a rapid defeat would leave NATO with a limited number of options,” the study writes.

“AirLand” Battle was a strategic warfighting concept followed by U.S. and allied forces during the Cold War which, among other things, relied upon precise coordination between a large maneuvering mechanized ground force and attack aircraft overhead.  As part of the approach, air attacks would seek to weaken enemy assets supporting front line enemy troops by bombing supply elements in the rear. As part of the air-ground integration, large conventional ground forces could then more easily advance through defended enemy front line areas.

A rapid assault on the Baltic region would leave NATO with few attractive options, including a massive risky counterattack, threatening a nuclear weapons option or simply allowing the Russian to annex the countries.

One of the limited options cited in the study could include taking huge amounts of time to mobilize and deploy a massive counterattack force which would likely result in a drawn-out, deadly battle. Another possibility would be to threaten a nuclear option, a scenario which seems unlikely if not completely unrealistic in light of the U.S. strategy to decrease nuclear arsenals and discourage the prospect of using nuclear weapons, the study finds.  

A third and final option, the report mentions, would simply be to concede the Baltic states and immerse the alliance into a much more intense Cold War posture. Such an option would naturally not be welcomed by many of the residents of these states and would, without question, leave the NATO alliance weakened if not partially fractured.

The study spells out exactly what its wargames determined would be necessary as a credible, effective deterrent.