Key point: NATO needs to ensure it can quickly rush forces to the poorly-defended Baltic states.
The new Joint Support and Enabling Command, based in Ulm, Germany, achieved initial operating capability on Sept, 17, 2019, NATO spokesperson Oana Lungescu announced.
The command has its work cut out for it. A recent report revealed just how vulnerable NATO’s eastern flank is to a sudden Russian assault -- and how important armored forces could be in the alliance’s defensive efforts.
Russia keeps around 760 tanks in units within quick striking distance of NATO's Baltic members. NATO countries together keep around 130 tanks in the same region -- and around 90 of those are American M-1s on their temporary rotation.
In 2016 RAND war-gamed a Russian invasion of the Baltics. In RAND's scenario, the Russian forces quickly overrun lightly-armed NATO forces. The Western alliance quickly deploys helicopters and air-mobile troops to confront the Russian advance. But NATO tanks are too slow to arrive.
"What cannot get there in time are the kinds of armored forces required to engage their Russian counterparts on equal terms, delay their advance, expose them to more-frequent and more-effective attacks from air- and land-based fires and subject them to spoiling counterattacks," RAND explained.
Across NATO there’s no shortage of tanks and other heavy forces. But very few of NATO’s tanks are available on short notice to defend the alliance’s eastern flank. RAND counted just 129 NATO tanks that realistically could participate in a “short-notice Baltic scenario.”
By RAND’s count they could face as many as 757 Russian tanks that Moscow keeps on high readiness in the country’s western military district. Similarly, Russia deploys around 1,280 infantry fighting vehicles near its border with NATO, while NATO has just 280 fighting vehicles in the same region.
The heaviest most sophisticated American formations in particular are thin on the ground. For decades the U.S. Army maintained heavy forces in Europe in order to defend against the Soviet Union and later Russia. Force levels precipitously decreased following the end of the Cold War, but as late as 2012 the Army had four brigades in Europe, two of them with tanks.
The Obama administration cut the two Europe-based tank brigades in the wake of the 2011 debt-ceiling squabble with Congress that resulted in the Budget Control Act and automatic "sequestration" budget cuts. Army troops permanently in Europe declined from 40,000 to around 25,000.
Two years later in 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine. The Pentagon scrambled to restore its fighting strength in Europe. The Obama administration budgeted billions of dollars for temporary deployments to Europe under the auspices of the European Reassurance Initiative.
But a permanent increase in Europe-based forces was not in the offing. And five years after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. Army’s 2nd Cavalry Regiment with its 300 Stryker wheeled medium vehicles is the heaviest American formation that's always in Europe.
The Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade also is based in Europe. To bolster the airborne brigade and the 2nd ACR, the Army temporarily deploys one armored brigade at a time to the continent, each on a nine-month rotation. A typical armored brigade has around 90 M-1 tanks and 130 M-2 fighting vehicles plus around 18 M-109 self-propelled howitzers.
NATO’s new Joint Support and Enabling Command could help move around the U.S. vehicles as well as tanks belonging to the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Poland another other alliance states.
“The new command in Ulm will help our forces become more mobile and enable rapid reinforcement within the alliance, ensuring we have the right forces in the right place at the right time,” Lungescu said.
According to Stars and Stripes, the command could have 160 personnel by 2021. In a crisis its strength could swell to 600 people.
“Setting up new commands to manage the flow of forces in a crisis is one of the ways the alliance has tried to adapt,” Stars and Stripes noted. “NATO and the European Union also have discussed the need to streamline diplomatic clearances for troop movements as well as ensure that infrastructure on the continent — such as tunnels and bridges — are strong enough to handle tanks and other heavy military vehicles.”