Would Russia Attack & Invade the Baltics? Could US F-35s and Special Ops Forces Stop a Russian Invasion?

A Previous Rand Wargame found that Russian forces could quickly overwhelm Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia; could the F-35 and US Special Operations Forces change this equation?

Could NATO, drones, F-35s and US Special Operations Forces deter further Russian aggression 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 range 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 Operations Command, 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.

SOF training of motivated Baltic resistance forces, combined with an ability to provide ground-based targeting assistance for NATO attack aircraft, would likely make it difficult for advancing Russian ground forces to mass together in more condensed mechanized formations. Grouping into a large force-on-force structure would naturally make advancing combat units more vulnerable to air attack. 

However, Russia still has more than 27,000 tanks, such as thousands of modernized T-72s, according to open source assessments in globalfirepower.org. In addition, Russia is receiving much attention for its emerging fleet of Aramata armored vehicles such as the T-14 tank. With its 125mm smoothbore cannon and next-generation armor and sensors, advancing T-14s could present problems for some ground defense units. 

The multi-role elements of the F-35 include long range surveillance and targeting sensors, air-to-air combat technology, air-to-air weapons, air-to-ground weapons and close air support in the form of a 25mm gun mounted on the aircraft. However, any Russian invasion would likely include Su-35 or Su-27 fighter jet support from the air to assist advancing ground forces. Such a scenario might necessitate the presence of US F-22s in addition to F-35s as a way to ensure air-to-air superiority. 

At the same time, it is also highly conceivable that the F-35 could - by design - detect Russian fighter aircraft at much farther ranges than they themselves can be seen. Such is the rationale of engineers who created the F-35 - who built the F-35's Distributed Aperture System and Electro-Optical Targeting System to detect and engage enemy targets while safely positioned at greater distances out of range of enemy sensors. Also, advanced data-links built into the F-35 would likely facilitate and unprecedented measure of air-to-air targeting connectivity and real-time ISR data, making things much more precarious for attacking Russian ground units. 

 Russian built S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft air defenses, if maintained and modernized, are said to be particularly effective and among the best in the world, experts have said.  In addition, the National Interest has reported that Russia is now developing an upgraded S-500 air defense system able to find and destroy enemy targets at ranges up to 125 miles away. 

These modernized Russian air defenses, which are now better networked with faster processors and able to detect aircraft on a wider range of frequencies - would likely present problems for NATO F-35s should they fly within range in a combat scenario.

While stealth characteristics of the F-35, coupled with advanced electronic warfare jamming technology, would likely succeed in eluding "engagement" radar designed to specifically target aircraft with high-frequency radar, it is less likely that the F-35 would be able to avoid lower-frequency "surveillance" radar designed to merely detect whether an enemy aircraft is in the vicinity. 

Given these risks - armed drones, long-range ground rockets or high-altitude bombers might be an advisable strategy when contemplating attacks on Russian air defenses. Given that these air defenses are mobile - some of them truck mounted - they would likely advance alongside attacking forces as a counterbalance to NATO aircraft. For instance, should a ground-mobile GPS-guided Army Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System enter within its 80-kilometer range of Russian air-defenses, it could unquestionably launch land-attacks against Russian air defenses - perhaps with ISR targeting support from overhead drones or F-35s. 

As a result, sizeable US-NATO mechanized or armored ground force would be required to amass any kind of credible defense against advancing Russian forces, a RAND wargame study concluded last year. 

In fact, NATO Supreme Allied Commander and Commander of US Army Europe Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti recently told Congress that Russian deterrence efforts were in danger of failing in the absence of more resources, including more combat troops. 

According to a report in Sputnik International, the US has one combat brigade each in Germany and Italy, comprising about 10,000 of the total 65,000 troops permanently stationed in Europe. The force includes a rotational armored brigade of 4,000 soldiers and an additional 1,750 troops from an aviation brigade. The European force also has hundreds of tanks, ground-based weapons and fighter aircraft, the Sputnik International report said. 

However, this force hardly compares to the current Russian military posture; the Russian military had roughly 766,000 active front line personnel in 2013 and as many as 2.4 million reserve forces, according to globalfirepower.com. During the Cold War, the Russian Army had as many as three to four million members.

By the same 2013 assessment, the Russian military is listed as having more than 3,000 aircraft and 973 helicopters. On the ground, Globalfirepower.com says Russia has 15-thousand tanks, 27,000 armored fighting vehicles and nearly 6,000 self-propelled guns for artillery. While the Russian military may not have a conventional force the sheer size of its Cold War force, they have made efforts to both modernized and maintain portions of their mechanized weaponry and platforms. The Russian T-72 tank, for example, has been upgraded numerous times since its initial construction in the 1970s.

Overall, the Russian conventional military during the Cold War – in terms of sheer size – was likely five times what it is today.

Analysts have also said that the Russian military made huge amounts of conventional and nuclear weapons in the 80s, ranging from rockets and cruise missiles to very effective air defenses.

Russia has clearly postured itself in response to NATO as though it can counter-balance or deter the alliance, however expert examination of Russia’s current military reveals it is not likely to pose a real challenge to NATO in a prolonged, all-out military engagement.

Russia’s economic pressures have not slowed the countries’ commitment to rapid military modernization and the increase of defense budgets, despite the fact that the country’s military is a fraction of what it was during the height of the Cold War in the 1980s.

While the former Cold War giant’s territories and outer most borders are sizeably less than they were in the 1980s, Russia’s conventional land, air and sea forces are trying to expand quickly, transition into the higher-tech information age and steadily pursue next generation platforms.

Russia’s conventional and nuclear arsenal is a small piece of what it was during the Cold War, however the country is pursuing a new class of air-independent submarines, a T-50 stealth fighter jet, next-generation missiles and high-tech gear for individual ground soldiers.

During the Cold War, the Russian defense budget amounted to nearly half of the country’s overall expenditures, analysts have said.

Now, the countries’ military spending draws upon a smaller percentage of its national expenditure. However, despite these huge percentage differences compared to the 1980s, the Russian defense budget is climbing again. From 2006 to 2009, the Russian defense budget jumped from $25 billion up to $50 billion according to Business Insider – and the 2013 defense budget is listed elsewhere at $90 billion.

 

In the air, the Russian have maintained their 1980s built Su-27 fighter jets, which have been postured throughout the region by the Russian military.

Often compared to the U.S. Air Force’s F-15 Eagle fighter, the Su-27 is a maneuverable twin engine fighter built in the 1980s and primarily configured for air superiority missions.

While many experts maintain that NATO’s size, fire-power, air supremacy and technology would ultimately prevail in a substantial engagement with Russia, that does not necessarily negate the Rand study’s findings that NATO would be put in a terrible predicament should Russia invade

RAND WARGAME

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. 

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 currently 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.

“Gaming indicates that a force of about seven brigades, including three heavy armored brigades—adequately supported by airpower, land-based fires, and other enablers on the ground and ready to fight at the onset of hostilities—could suffice to prevent the rapid overrun of the Baltic states,” the study writes.

During the various scenarios explored for the wargame, its participants concluded that NATO resistance would be overrun quickly in the absence of a larger mechanized defensive force posture.

“The absence of short-range air defenses in the U.S. units, and the minimal defenses in the other NATO units, meant that many of these attacks encountered resistance only from NATO combat air patrols, which were overwhelmed by sheer numbers. The result was heavy losses to several Blue (NATO) battalions and the disruption of the counterattack,” the study states.

Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia could be likely Russian targets because all three countries are in close proximity to Russia and spent many years as part of the former Soviet Union

“Also like Ukraine, Estonia and Latvia are home to sizable ethnic Russian populations that have been at best unevenly integrated into the two countries’ post-independence political and social mainstreams and that give Russia a self-justification for meddling in Estonian and Latvian affairs,” the study explains.

While the Pentagon’s European Reassurance Initiative calls for additional funds, forces and force rotations through Europe in coming years, it is unclear whether their ultimate troop increases will come anywhere near what Rand recommends.  Pentagon officials would not, at the moment, speculate as to whether thoughts and considerations were being given to raising forces levels beyond what is called for in the initiative.

At the same time, the Pentagon’s $3.4 Billion ERI request does call for an increased force presence in Europe as well as “fires,” “pre-positioned stocks” and “headquarters” support for NATO forces.

Officials with U.S. Army Europe tell Scout Warrior that more solidarity exercises with NATO allies in Europe are also on the horizon, and that more manpower could also be on the way. 

Increased solidarity exercises would be designed to further deter Russia by showing allies cooperation along with an ability to quickly deploy and move mechanized forces across the European continent.

The Rand study maintains that, while expensive, adding brigades would be a worthy effort for NATO.

Buying three brand-new ABCTs and adding them to the U.S. Army would not be inexpensive—the up-front costs for all the equipment for the brigades and associated artillery, air defense, and other enabling units runs on the order of $13 billion. However, much of that gear—especially the expensive Abrams tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles—already exists,” the study says.  

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