Editor’s Note: Rand Corporation has been a long-trusted think-tank in the Washington, D.C. area and, based on its latest report, the company believes NATO would end up losing an engagement with the Russians over territory in the Baltic Sea region. A lot of factors are at play, but the study’s conclusion are certainly not unfounded. If you examine the economic situation in the region, coupled with military budget woes and the dire need for force modernization, you’d probably arrive at the same conclusions. 

A Russian offensive on NATO territory in the Baltics would overwhelm underarmed alliance forces in a matter of hours, leaving NATO with a harsh dilemma: Launch a long, bloody counteroffensive or concede defeat. That is the conclusion of a new report by Rand Corp., which conducted a series of elaborate war games from summer 2014 to spring 2015 with the assistance of numerous American military commands and experts.

“As presently postured, NATO cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members,” the Rand Corp. study says.

860154_F15C_LN_LSV_JULY08_TO1FS
F-15Cs like this one from the 493rd Fighter Squadron at RAF Lakenheath would likely be on the front line to defend the Baltic region from any armed aggression coming from the east. (Photo by Jonathan Derden)

The findings are likely to come as no surprise to the military’s top officers in Europe, who have been warning that sophisticated Russian anti-aircraft systems could deny allies quick military access to the Baltics. Russia has superior numbers of air and ground forces across the border from the vulnerable Baltic states, which were once part of the Soviet Union. However, Russia has repeatedly stressed that it has no territorial designs on the Baltics.

Policymakers must determine whether the risks of potential Russian aggression are strong enough to demand the kind of reinforcements that could thwart a Russian assault. The costs of placing such a force in the region would be substantial but manageable for a NATO alliance with a collective gross domestic product of more than $35 trillion, Rand says.

The report was issued just days before the release next week of the Pentagon’s 2017 budget, which includes plans to add a brigade’s worth of pre-positioned tanks and other heavy equipment in Europe, where the Pentagon now rotates one heavy brigade. The U.S. maintains only two infantry brigades permanently in Europe and no heavy units.

There are about 65,000 troops in total forward stationed. A plan to quadruple investment in the European Reassurance Initiative to $3.4 billion will add several thousand more rotational troops in a plan to increase operations along NATO’s eastern flank, but falls far short of Rand’s recommendations.

NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and Commander of the U.S. European Command General Philip Breedlove listens to a question during a news conference at the National Defence headquarters in Ottawa May 6, 2014. NATO will have to consider permanently stationing troops in eastern Europe as a result of the increased tension between Russia and Ukraine, the alliance's top military commander Breedlove said on Tuesday. REUTERS/Chris Wattie (CANADA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY)
NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe and Commander of the U.S. European Command General Philip Breedlove listens to a question during a news conference at the National Defence headquarters in Ottawa May 6, 2014. NATO will have to consider permanently stationing troops in eastern Europe as a result of the increased tension between Russia and Ukraine, the alliance’s top military commander Breedlove said. (Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Chris Wattie)

The minimum force requirement, according to Rand: seven NATO brigades, including three heavy armored brigades — adequately supported by air power, land-based fire support and troops ready to fight at the onset of hostilities, Rand says. Adding three U.S. Army armored brigades, with associated artillery and enabling units, would come with an up-front price tag of about $13 billion. Annual operating cost would be roughly $2.7 billion, Rand says.

The force could not mount a sustained defense of the region, but it would buy allies time to assemble a larger force. The presence of multiple brigades and air power also would “fundamentally change the strategic picture as seen from Moscow,” according to Rand.
“While this deterrent posture would not be inexpensive in absolute terms, it is not unaffordable, especially in comparison with the potential costs of failing to defend NATO’s most exposed and vulnerable allies,” Rand says.

Still, many NATO allies would likely balk at such a plan. Germany, for example, has long opposed any placement of permanent NATO forces in the Baltics or eastern Europe, which Berlin contends would be an unnecessary provocation to Russia. Moscow contends such a move would violate a 1997 NATO agreement that it says limits the types of forces that can be placed near its border.

Also, there is little evidence that Russia intends to launch any kind of formal attack on a NATO state, which could trigger a collective alliance military response under NATO’s Article 5 provision that an attack on one member demands a response from all.

A German Air Force Typhoon takes off during a Red Flag-Alaska mission. The German Air Force is one of several nations which currently operate the Eurofighter only in an air superiority role
A German Air Force Typhoon takes off during a Red Flag-Alaska mission. The German Air Force is one of several nations which currently operate the Eurofighter only in an air superiority role. (Photo by Jonathan Derden)

“I think it’s highly unlikely that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin would contemplate an invasion of the Baltics, be it a traditional conventional invasion or a more covert hybrid invasion of the sort executed in Ukraine,” said Robert Person, a Russia expert at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. “It is hard to see what Russia would gain by doing so, as I do not believe that Putin is trying to reassemble the original territory of the Soviet Union.”

NATO’s collective security pact on its own should give Moscow pause before launching an attack on the U.S.-led NATO alliance, whose $1 trillion in defense spending dwarfs Russia’s.

“My sense is that Putin understands the strategic implications of such an adventure, an understanding that would make him think long and hard about launching a war that he cannot afford and cannot win in the long run,” Person said. “In the short run, however, it is absolutely worth reminding him of the credibility of NATO’s deterrent threat.”

The original article on military.com can be viewed here.

(Featured photo: A Russian SU-27 Flanker aircraft banks away with a RAF Typhoon in the background. Courtesy of RAF/MoD)