Tensions between NATO and Russia continue to hold steady at the highest levels since the collapse of the old Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union (25 years ago this month).
From the neverending crisis in Ukraine to the ongoing nightmarish civil war in Syria to lingering challenges in the Baltics and beyond, the spectre of a showdown looms over these rival camps. And massive nuclear weapons arsenals on both sides only complicates this dangerous dynamic.
But what would happen if tensions ever escalated to all out military conflict? Who would have the advantage?
Indeed, Russia has built up its military might considerably over the last decade--but would it be enough?
NATO, thanks to Washington’s massive arsenal, is considered the most powerful alliance ever created. But does it have the tools it needs to win in a conflict against the dangerous Russian bear?
For your reading pleasure, we have packaged two articles that tackle this issue from our archives. Frequent contributor Robert Farley (back in 2014) and Defense Editor Dave Majumdar (earlier this year) both explored this issue in depth from opposite sides, with Farley looking at Russia, and Majumdar examining NATO.
So which side stands the tallest if war came? Let the debate begin :
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 in Ukraine 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.
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.
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.
An S-400 battery has three kinds of missiles, each intended to engage aerial targets at different ranges. The longest ranged SAM can engage at 400km, with shorter-ranged missiles compensating with enhanced capabilities for killing fast, maneuverable targets. The S-400 can also engage ballistic missiles, although it’s unlikely that NATO would use such weapons. The sensor systems of the S-400 are thought to be extremely effective, especially as Russia can layer S-400 defense zones in nearly every conceivable theater of conflict. Positioning the S-400 at Kaliningrad could endanger NATO air operations deep into Europe.
In combination with the Iskander and the Flanker, these missiles would make the job of NATO air forces in the early days of a conflict very difficult, indeed. Russian sensor systems (ground and air) exceed the capabilities of any opponent that NATO countries have fought in the last twenty-five years. The SEAD (suppression of enemy air defense) mission against an integrated air defense network (Russia has a wide variety of shorter-range systems for point defense) would prove extremely treacherous.
At least in the early days of the war, the S-400 and its associated systems could neutralize NATO airpower, undermining one of the central pillars of the Western way of war.
Akula class Submarines:
NATO forces developed an extremely capable anti-submarine system during the Cold War, including aircraft, attack submarines, stationary sensors, and surface ships. The collapse of the Soviet Union dramatically reduced the Russian submarine threat, with the eventual consequence of a reduction of NATO anti-submarine warfare (ASW) capabilities. While NATO forces (and especially US forces) have continued to pursue ASW, they no longer can draw upon the resources they enjoyed during the Cold War.
And yet Russian submarines remain. In the 1980s and 1990s, the USSR and Russia built fifteen Akula (Shcuka-B) class submarines, nine of which remain in service. Extremely stealthy for Soviet subs of their period, the Russian Navy has upgraded the boats with the latest quieting technology. Perhaps most importantly, the Akulas carry a massive array of weaponry, including torpedoes and cruise missiles. The cruise missiles can strike both sea and land targets, putting much of NATO’s coastline at risk.
The best NATO subs can still track and defeat the Akulas, although the latter’s high speed makes catching them an iffy proposition. But even if NATO can sink the Russian subs, they can still wreak an enormous amount of havoc before they submerge for good. This could mean killing a carrier, or simply causing enormous, unexpected damage to critical infrastructure ashore.
In five years, as Russian diesel-electric technology continues to develop, the Lada class may replace the Akulas, at least in context of the narrow contours of a NATO-Russian conflict. For now, however, the enduring stealth and massive armament of the Akulas continues to present a threat, not only to NATO shipping, but also to NATO land installations.