As they now exist, Russian special forces represent a major problem for the West at all levels of escalation. In the event of conflict, we could expect Russian special forces to operate at various stages of the conflict, as they have during the Ukraine crisis. If war develops over a border dispute between Russia and one of the Baltics, we will undoubtedly find Russian special operators there ahead of us. In the case of general war, special forces may deploy from submarines or other vehicles to launch attacks throughout NATO’s depth.
The technologies of war developed since the end of the Cold War (and indeed, in the last decade of the Cold War) remain untested in high intensity combat against sophisticated, resourceful opponents. The NATO alliance (and its most powerful members, in non-alliance conflicts) have soundly beaten foes with aging air defense systems, non-existent air forces, and trivial offensive capabilities.
It remains to be seen, however, how effectively NATO would fight against a determined, well-trained opponent with relatively modern technology. Recent events, like those in Ukraine and now Syria have, for the first time since the Cold War, raised the spectre of direct conflict with Russia . If diplomacy fails and politics push the alliance into war, these are the weapons NATO will need to worry about the most.
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Iskander Ballistic Missile
In the final years of the Cold War, the Soviet Union developed short-range conventional ballistic missiles capable of striking, with great precision, airbases and staging areas well behind NATO lines. The American answer to this was theater missile defense, which (as experience in the Gulf War demonstrated), would not have stopped the opening Soviet volleys.
(This first appeared in 2014 and is being reposted, with light edits, due to breaking events).
Anti-ballistic missile systems have improved since the 1980s, but so have Russian missiles. The Iskander-M has a range of 400km, can carry a 700kg warhead of several varieties, and has a circular error probability of around five meters. This makes it deadly to airfields, logistics points, and other stationary infrastructure along a broad front of conflict. Especially given the irregular and broken nature of Russia’s border with NATO, the Iskander gives the Russian military the opportunity to threaten targets deep in Europe.
The Iskander has the capability to retarget in flight, making it possible to engage mobile targets (including ships). It also has a set of built-in evasive maneuver techniques designed to make targeting from missile defenses difficult. In short, the Iskander can threaten to do to NATO forces what NATO forces typically do to everyone else.
The Iskander can put pressure on NATO missile defenses, but also on NATO air forces. Jets operating from forward bases will immediately come under threat of attack, or at least immobilization. If positioned in Kaliningrad, Iskander launchers could threaten a wide array of military and political targets across NATO.
Consequently, we can expect that NATO would target mobile Iskander launchers in the first stage of any conflict. As the history of tracking and destroying mobile missile launchers has been sketchy at best, however, NATO would have to be wary of SRBM attacks deep into the war. And successful attacks against the Iskander launchers depend on the achievement of air superiority over the theater of operations.
Su-27 Flanker Family
Designed as the USSR’s answer to the F-15, the first Flankers entered service in 1985, but production troubles kept their numbers low until the early 1990s. At that point, the collapse of the Soviet Union significantly reduced the overall production run. The aircraft of the Flanker family combine size, range, speed, and wicked maneuverability into a single deadly platform. With gaunt, unforgiving lines, the Flanker is not a beautiful plane, but its appearance does suggest danger.
The Russian Air Force continues to operate several hundred Flankers in various configurations. The basic Flanker frame has proven remarkably flexible for upgrade, and has become the platform of choice for discerning fighter customers. Variants of the Flanker include the Su-30 multi-role fighter, the Su-33 carrier-based fighter, the S-34 fighter-bomber, the Su-35 air superiority fighter, and several Chinese knock-offs.
The Flanker has never met the most advanced Generation 4 and Generation 4.5 aircraft in combat, and it obviously has never engaged the F-22. Nevertheless, we can expect that it will give fits to pilots of Eagles, Vipers, and Typhoons, and may even cause problems for Raptors. The Russian Air Force has developed tactics for using Flankers to fight stealth fighters that concentrate on taking advantage of the plane’s remarkable maneuverability to survive the first missile attack. Moreover, the Flanker is heavy and fast enough to hit hard and then retreat to safety before any NATO fighters can catch it.
S-400 Surface to Air Missile System
The entire Western way of war depends on the achievement of air supremacy. NATO forces have not fought against a modern, capable air defense system in a very long time. During that time, the cost of NATO fighter-bombers has metastasized, making the loss of a single aircraft very nearly a national fiscal catastrophe.