The USS Zumwalt is the lead ship of a new type of Zumwalt-class destroyer designed as a multi-mission stealth ship with a focus on land attack. US Navy photo courtesy of General Dynamics Bath Iron Works/Released / CC BY 2.0
In 478 BC, formal delegations from all across the Greek world met on the small Aegean island of Delos. They had just repelled an invasion by the greatest threat any of them could recall in their lifetimes – the Persian Empire – and they were determined to cement the coalition that had enabled their victory into a formal, enduring, alliance. After much negotiation about force contributions, yearly meetings, and all the other nuts and bolts of international cooperation, the members gathered at the edge of the sea, and ceremonially cast iron ingots into the greenish-blue surf. The ritual symbolized the intense commitment of the alliance, which would endure until the bars floated to the surface.
To the many tiny island nations of the Aegean and coastal Asia Minor, it was more than a poetic gesture – it was a very real commitment of mainland power Athens to their collective defense against a Persian threat which was, for allies such as Lesbos and Chios, a next-door neighbor. The casting of the ingots committed Athens to projecting an umbrella of power across an area unprecedented in size for the small city-state – and yet, that is exactly what Athens accomplished over the next century, using strong naval forces capable of responding to diverse threats all around the Aegean.
The US – and NATO – can learn valuable lessons from the example of the Athenians. Much like Athens, the US faces the task of guaranteeing the security of an array of smaller states, some of which are geographically positioned far from American shores but directly next to a powerful and dominating adversary: Russia. Much like the Lesbos and Chios of 478 BC, the Baltic states themselves are all too aware of their vulnerability, and look to NATO for their security. But while NATO remains ostensibly committed to the defense of all of its members, troop numbers in the region indicate a different state of affairs. According to an oft-cited recent RAND Study, Russia’s military capability in the Baltics and Eastern Europe is sufficient to all but guarantee victory over NATO forces in a conventional warfare scenario.
In order to address this gap, commentators have called for force buildups in forward-postured positions throughout the Baltics and Europe. The United States has largely heeded these calls – the President has increased the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), the recently-concluded NATO meeting in Warsaw instituted a plan to deploy 4 allied battalions in the Baltics and Poland, and Operation Atlantic Resolves continues to rotate air-strike components throughout the region.
The wisdom of this form of conventional balancing, however, has been called into question. Michael Kofman argues at War on the Rocks that Russia is unlikely to conventionally challenge NATO in the Baltics, given that such action would be unlikely to address Russia’s current overarching national security goal – the removal of NATO from its neighborhood. Even if Russia did invade the Baltic states conventionally, both Kofman and Major General Ralph S. Clem argue that the geographic situation of the Baltics makes them almost indefensible. The overwhelming majority of Baltic territory lies under Russian anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) bubbles extending from inside Kaliningrad, St. Petersburg, and Belarus. These so-called bubbles incorporate detection, fire control, and both kinetic and non-kinetic weapons in an attempt to prevent penetration of air, sea, or land-space by conventional military forces. No reliable evidence presently exists indicating how American power projection would fare against these integrated access denial systems. Russia and China have invested heavily in these systems nonetheless, indicating their strong belief that such networks will be able to hold American power at arm’s length. Finally, the geography of the Baltics is a harsh mistress for any conventional defense force. The furthest western point in Estonia is merely 220 miles from the Russian border, and only a tiny 60-mile gap separates the Russian military’s stronghold at Kaliningrad from Russian client-state Belarus.
Taken together, these arguments paint a grim reality for forces attempting to defend the Baltic states from a conventional Russian invasion. Because of its territorial advantages, Russia has the ability to overrun NATO defenses while denying access to any reinforcements that might arrive in time. NATO planners seem to be preparing to fight a delaying action in the Baltics, similar to their plans for a defense-in-depth of the famous Fulda Gap. The Baltics are not, however, heartland Germany, and the nature of the geographic situation begins to make them look far more like a different historical example – the Falaise Pocket. In the immediate aftermath of the Allied breakout from Normandy, German forces became encircled by Allied forces. Hitler denied his field commander permission to retreat, and as a result some 50,000 German soldiers became trapped and many were systematically destroyed. NATO should fear this example – the more forces that NATO pours into the Baltic States, the more forces it will find trapped within Russian A2/AD bubbles, in easy range of both land and air strike, with little in the way of resupply or reinforcement. Given American overdependence on air superiority, fighting a high-end conflict against superior Russian forces in an at-best contested aerial environment does not seem like a winning proposition – especially given Russian superiority in conventional artillery systems.
Despite all of these challenges, NATO simply cannot do nothing in response to Russian posturing. Deterrence of aggression against its members is the cornerstone upon which western military cooperation is built. Challenging Russian parity – or even possibly superiority – in land and air forces in the Baltics is not, however, the best way to accomplish this goal. Instead, sound strategy tells us to look to areas where we possess a comparative advantage vis-à-vis our adversary – and when it comes to Russia, that advantage is the US Navy.
During the Cold War, it was expected that allied forces in Europe would be pushed back by the weight of Soviet tank divisions, fighting a delaying action until reinforcements from the continental US could arrive. The US Navy was tasked with clearing and keeping open the Atlantic so that these troop convoys could successfully arrive. Relegated as it was to this support role, the Navy never played a prominent part in contributing to AirLand battle war plans. As Kofman points out, the RAND study seems to have rolled over many of the AirLand battle tenets into the 21st century, continuing the trend of forgetting about the US Navy in the contest with Russia.
Warfare in the Baltics, however, is not the same as warfare in the heartland of Germany, as it would take place in close proximity to the sea – and in that domain the US has a significant advantage. Russian naval forces in the Baltic are, like their naval forces elsewhere, heavily dependent on aging surface combatants complemented by highly competent, quiet, small diesel submarines. NATO, meanwhile, can bring to bear a range of capabilities and forces from the many nations surrounding the Baltics, as well as from US, UK, and French high-end forces.
In any conflict in the Baltic, American naval forces would offer a flexible, mobile tool for conducting long-range strike missions into Russian A2/AD bubbles (with Tomahawk and similar missile systems) and with carrier aviation if the environment permits. Granted, this capability would not come without danger to US systems- Russian anti-ship missile systems are quite good, on paper – but then no scenario of high –spectrum conflict between two of the world’s strongest militaries will occur without significant casualties on both sides. Unlike forward based army- or air-forces, however, ships are not tied to bases within easy strike range of Russian missiles – they are mobile, and can move in and out of zones of risk as situations change. This returns the initiative – presumably taken at the outset by a surprise Russian invasion – to NATO commanders, who can choose the location and timing of their retaliatory strikes, rather than committing to support particular forces on the ground. As matters currently stand, US Naval Forces represent NATO’s primary comparative force advantage in the Baltics.
Aside from strictly military concerns, naval forces can also adequately address the issue of reassurance for our allies in the region. Some might argue that having a mobile and non-regular force presence means sacrificing the physical deterrent of forward based combat troops. But naval systems can be just as effective at demonstrating resolve as land-based forces. Throughout history, ships have been used as symbols of state power, whether for intimidation or reassurance. As large capital investments, the presence of a US Naval vessel in your harbor indicates that the United States has a continuing interest in your affairs, for good or ill – $10 billion dollar vessels don’t spend $7 million dollars a day to take pleasure cruises. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the Russians are any less deterred by naval forces than by land forces – indeed, given the particularly hostile response US naval forces have received during their trips to the Baltics, it would seem that just the opposite is the case. Just about the only role naval forces can’t play in the “conventional war in the Baltics” scenario is that of a tripwire, which many cynically argue is the principle reason for NATO ground troops in the first place. But if this is the real reason for forward-deployed troops, one company of special operation forces in Tallinn should prove an equally compelling tripwire for war to a US army brigade, while reducing the daily cost to the taxpayer and reducing the overexposure of US military systems.
Just as the Athenians dropped iron ingots into the sea to demonstrate their commitment to their allies, its time the US turned back to the sea to deter Russia in Europe. The flashpoint in the new Cold War isn’t taking place in the German heartland, anymore. Naval forces can’t fulfill every strategic mission, but at present they are being asked to do NO strategic mission – future force planning for European deterrence should take into account the strengths that the US Navy can bring to the table, while increasing the flexibility of NATO commanders to respond to diverse Russian threats.
Colin Reed is a recent graduate of the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. He received his undergraduate degrees in History and International Studies from North Carolina State University, where he was a junior fellow in the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and presented thesis research on the effectiveness of UCAV operations in Pakistan. He specializes in NATO-Russian relations, naval strategy, and intelligence methods. He is currently employed as an operations analyst in the private sector.