Small Wars Journal

Send Armored Forces to Deter Russia

Wed, 03/25/2015 - 7:44am

Send Armored Forces to Deter Russia

Nathan A. Jennings

In February of 2014, just six years after Russia invaded Georgia with heavy tanks, the world watched aghast as it brazenly occupied Crimea with light armored forces. Since then Moscow has destabilized Ukraine with an insidious, hybrid military campaign as the West appeared unable to prevent the expansion. Now, a year later, the U.S. Army and NATO are responding decisively as they deploy substantial ground units—in concert with ongoing strategies to politically and economically isolate the aggressor—to partner in former Soviet-bloc countries in Eastern Europe.

Called Operation Atlantic Resolve, the deployment of heavily armed and armored American forces, in particular, to threatened countries like Poland, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Romania decisively empowers broader coalition efforts to deter Russian advances. As declared by the commander of the 173rd Airborne Brigade, a U.S. unit which is permanently stationed in Italy, “by the end of the summer, you could very well see an operation that stretches from the Baltics all the way down to the Black Sea.”[1] More graduated than the unrealistic threat of massive aerial bombardment, less transitory than naval presence, and complimentary to intervention by lighter ground units, the positioning of heavy U.S. Army assets in proximity Russia’s borders offers the most viable strategic deterrence.

This unique capacity to counter Soviet-style intimidation stems from the proven tactical value of well-trained and resourced mechanized forces. According to U.S. Army doctrine, such units are optimized to excel at “sustained and large-scale actions in full spectrum operations,” while their “combination of firepower, tactical mobility, and organic reconnaissance assets” make them “invaluable to a higher headquarters commander in combat operations.”[2] Brigades containing tanks, infantry, cavalry, engineers, and artillery—all armed with large-caliber weapons, protected by thick armor, and propelled by tracked systems—wield a combination of lethality, survivability, and mobility unmatched in land warfare. Even as they possess immense capacity to defend against enemy attacks, armored forces possess ability to unleash devastating firepower against opponents.

These singular attributes justify why the United States’ decision to deploy highly lethal combined arms and coalition contingents not just to Germany, but across Eastern Europe, serves as an effective and enabling military component to NATOs larger political strategy to block Russia. Moving beyond tactical equations, the messaging to both allies and opponents is clear: America has rejoined the game. Reversing recent trends of reducing the U.S. Army’s fighting presence in Europe to a less destructive wheeled and airborne units, the return of American heavy armor to the former theater of Cold War confrontation definitively communicates strength of national will.

This tangible statement of martial resolve—when employed to encourage political and economic unity amongst NATO participants—holds immediate potential to bolster allies and intimidate opponents. On one hand large countries like England, Germany and Poland, in addition to other smaller and more vulnerable states that border Russia, will be assured by America’s deliberate stand against Moscow’s subversive designs. On the other, the revanchist Russian empire will find itself strategically frustrated, or at the very least operationally blocked, from further military expansion.

The effect of this armored network, symbolically dropping a cordon of NATO steel in place of the old Soviet iron curtain, holds potential to dissuade Moscow while synergistically enhancing other elements of allied coercive power. As argued by Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster—an ardent and influential champion for maintaining a robust American armored corps to compliment modern combined arms and joint forces—in his recent essay in Military Review, “the forward positioning of capable ground forces elevates the cost of aggression to a level that the aggressor is unwilling to pay and prevents the aggressor from doing what Russia has in Ukraine—posing to the international community a fait accompli and then portraying its reactions as escalatory.”[3]

The positioning consequently offers both risk and reward for the American-led coalition. While the Russian government will not openly assault American capital assets lest they provoke a major conflict, hybrid attacks or non-state interference will likewise fail to achieve meaningfully impact so long as partnered forces avoid compromising exposure in peace-keeping operations. Though no operation is ultimately predictable, and it is possible that Moscow will respond by socially and politically destabilizing partnered nations by inciting ethnic Russians or other disaffected populations, Atlantic Resolve is emerging as the most serious, but scalable, option for facilitating Western military involvement without provoking kinetic confrontation.

America’s leading role in NATO’s plan to establish contingents across Eastern Europe contains additional nuance. By dispersing only limited U.S. forces, European host nations and western contributors are compelled to deploy significant ground units to each coalition task force instead of relying on American largess. Never intended to match the much larger Russian Army tank-for-tank or threaten massive invasion, the concept allows an economized and invested alliance to physically and psychologically secure territory in a chess-match of strategic posturing. By proactively occupying ground, just as Russia did with Crimea, allied forward positioning severely limits opposing military options without risking rapid and expensive escalation.

Despite the United States’ laudable decision to place coalition detachments across Eastern Europe on a rotational basis, the current operation may prove only an initial step towards countering the Russian menace. If interference in Ukraine continues further action will warranted and justified. To that end, America should prepare to pursue the heretofore unthinkable: the establishment of a larger and semi-permanent joint task force, centered on but not limited to a consolidated Armored Brigade Combat Team of 4,500 soldiers and hundreds of tanks and fighting vehicles, in Poland under legally sanctioned status.  Similar to deterrent effects won by the U.S. Army’s long-term commitment in South Korea, this partnership would reflect a normative and historically successful option in American foreign policy.

This forward positioning, which would compliment smaller rotational NATO contingents along Moscow’s periphery, would enable a highly mobile and potent allied force to foster enhanced partnership with a sovereign ally in acute proximity to Russian territory. More importantly, the logistical footprint required to support a robust combat unit with their full armament of heavy weaponry would facilitate, and telegraph, the possibility of follow-on NATO forces should further involvement, or scalable strategic maneuvering, be required. Despite these implications, the presence of a brigade-sized task force would not threaten territorial invasion of Russia and thus communicate only defensive intentions.

A robust and enduring partnership between American and Polish armies would also yield immediate political dividends. The establishment of a long-term Status of Forces Agreement—along with coalition training and wargames—would unmistakably signal America’s commitment to defending allies in Europe. Representing high-stakes geo-political brinksmanship, the move would compel Russia to choose between suffering an uncomfortable NATO build-up near their borders, halting, or at least lessening, its interference in Ukraine and elsewhere, or resorting to highly problematic escalatory measures. Were the Russians to cease provocations, the United States could then simply announce a staged withdraw to reward desirable behavior.

An entire American armored brigade in Poland, in particular, would finally capture acute historical significance. For Russians with long memories, Poland represents the pathway that Napoleonic and German invaders marched through to nearly annihilate their nation. For Poles who remember the brutality of Nazi and Soviet occupation during the Second World War, reinforcement by the U.S. military in a resolute fashion would conversely provide strategic reassurance. If the former nation could not abide a robust U.S. Army presence in such emotionally significant territory, the latter democracy would certainly welcome it.

Whether pursing the planned rotational system or more substantial and long-term posturing, America should respond to the Russian threat decisively. As famously declared by Dwight D. Eisenhower, “the hand of the aggressor is stayed by strength—and strength alone.”[4] Russia proved the truth of this axiom last spring when it forcefully sized Crimea, and continues to prove it as it fosters proxy war in Ukraine. Given such belligerence, America should continue Atlantic Resolve but be prepared to compliment allied political and economic isolation of Moscow with a larger, permanent, and symbolic military presence near Warsaw. If Russia chooses to destabilize European borders, let them find NATO tanks resolutely over-watching theirs. For the United States and the Free World, it’s time to send a resolute message that will deter the aggressor.

End Notes

[1] Joe Gould, “US Army Official: Atlantic Resolve May Expand,” Defense News, March 4, 2015.

[2] FM 3-90.6 Brigade Combat Team, Headquarters, Department of the Army, September 2010, 1-9.

[3] H.R. McMaster, “Continuity and Change: The Army Operating Concept and Clear Thinking About Future War,” Military Review, March-April, 2015, 14-15.

[4] Monument, Eisenhower Hall, Untied States Military Academy at West Point, New York.


About the Author(s)

Nathan Jennings is an Army Strategist and Assistant Professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. He served multiple combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, is a graduate of the School of Advanced Military Studies, holds a MA in History from the University of Texas at Austin, and a holds a PhD in History from the University of Kent. He is the author of Riding for the Lone Star: Frontier Cavalry and the Texas Way of War, 1822-1865.


Outlaw 09

Thu, 03/26/2015 - 12:11pm

In reply to by Sparapet

Notice the difference in the CIA estimate of Soviet thinking in 1983 and yet what do we get out of the CIA reference Russia in 2015.

Remarkable analysis by CIA from 1983 "Soviet Thinking on the Possibility of Armed Confrontation with the United States"

This is the other side of Russia that is not getting much attention in DC--remember 80% of the Russian foreign fighters inside the Ukraine are in fact Chechen:

Extremely “altered state of reality”:
Chechen politician calls to arm Mexico for reconquest of California if US arms Ukraine (Video)…

Kremlin Spokesman Denies Plans to Supply Mexico w Weapons After Chechen Calls for Deployment …


Thu, 03/26/2015 - 9:46am

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Personally, I think that the strategy on Russia specifically is in some ways worse and in some ways better than you characterize.

It is better in that I don't think the Administration thinks in Machiavellian-enough terms to be down with Russia because of Iran. That takes a level of foresight and shaping that the National Security team has rarely shown the capacity for. It is much worse in that looking at what the Administration has said over the years and the general mood in DC, everyone pretty much wrote Russia off as a player of note. Why, you might ask? Look at the National Intelligence Council Global Trends 2030 report and see how it treats Russia. That report is built on "expert opinion" on the things we think we care about; according to which Russia was simply not that important. Implied in this is the idea that what we think we cared about were in fact the things that actually affected us. Bad assumptions leading to bad ideas. In other words, every day the Administration wakes up, it probably asks itself "what has Russia done now?" instead of "has Russia done like we thought it would?" Two questions that require very very different mindsets to ask.

The slow heat build up that we are doing now probably follows this pattern in that it isn't calculated with enough foresight. It is purely reactionary. Which, might be good enough, but very costly compared to what we would have had to work with if we had not written off Russia prematurely. That "write off" is this and the previous Administrations' fault, but is also the fault of the punditry in fashion in DC over the last 10 yrs.

Outlaw 09

Wed, 03/25/2015 - 4:07pm

Sparapet--liked the compraison to steaks but here is the problem--right now I and alot of others somehow missed the DC exit to their actual strategy--there is none thus the slow burn--when a National Command Auhtority has to wait to figure out what is happening and or how to react it is way to late.

Perfect example--take the disarmament activites of all NATO members following the OSCE agreements--Russia was the only OSCE member that did not heed the OSCE armored vehicle destruction reguirements as they argued for a reprieve due the fighting in Chechnya and after it was all over--no complaints from the US. Example-- Germany has now two repeat two tanks BNs and the Russian mercenaries in eastern Ukraine have 200 tanks more than the entire German Army why because German destroyed their OSCE required numbers and Russia did not.

Take the Russian INF violation not much in the way of US complaints until Crimea and eastern Ukraine hit and then it took media pressure to get US action.

Take this last Russian snap exericse that reached the levels of 80K troops and over 200 aircraft which violated the Vienna Convention Chapters V and VI and required OSCE monitors--not a single complaint out of DC. Not a single attempt to bring it up at OSCE-nothing not even a press conference to point it out.

Is DC simply asleep at the wheel or do they not really care as 2017 is around the corner.

OR is it what many Ukrainians say--Obama needs Russian help with Iran so he is unwilling to rock the Russian boat on anything--there is some truth to those comments.


Wed, 03/25/2015 - 3:12pm

In reply to by Outlaw 09

Here in DC, soft power has become more a school of philosophy rather than a category of political tools available to policy makers. In other words, the soft power believers are hard power deniers. Even though some of them may intellectually acknowledge the role of hard power, they can only conceive the most extreme cases for when to use it. Meaning that in practice they would never suggest it.

Combine this school of philosophy with the money pinch, and the outcome becomes almost unavoidable. Hard power, in this case credible deterrence, becomes obsolete. Until it isn't. Soft power acolytes also believe in the slow cooking theory. They don't want to burn the steak so they start out slow and turn the heat up. Problem being, they haven't decided on what kind of steak they want. And by the time they decide on a medium rare steak, the slow heat build up had turned the steak well done. In other words, by the time they decide, the opportunity to choose had long passed.

The sooner we get some pragmatism in our foreign policy (by which I DO NOT mean a war with Russia) that sees soft power and hard power as both legitimate alternatives depending on the context of the problem, the sooner we can start actually start cooking a medium rare steak, rather than whining that all we got is well done junk (as an aside - well done steak is silly).

Outlaw 09

Wed, 03/25/2015 - 9:28am

We would do well to go back and intently look at the military and civilian leadership decisions made starting in 1994 to virtually withdraw all ground force combat power and AF power out of Europe-the recent in 2012/2013 withdrawal of two combat BCTs was also questioned when they occurred--but the response was "we need to save money and they are no longer needed"--both fatal comments/decisions when we look back at them.

Deterrence is expensive but half as expensive as playing catchup and being forced literally into a reactive mode with little or no other options.

Then we need to relook the concept of "soft power" that is being envisioned as the way forward for the US especially in light of the fact that sometimes "hard power" gets the perceived aggressors attention in a hurry.

When the Crimea events started everyone jumped on the concept of sanctions and diplomacy and basically neither has slowed down the Russian aggression inside eastern Ukraine.

AND this is exactly now what is happening--anything the West does is being declared by Russia and Putin as "an escalation" and they threaten everything from a possible outbreak of war all the way tactical nuclear strike threats and thus we see the brakes being applied by the US and NATO which then is being interpreted by Russia as "weakness".

Thanks to Putin, NATO now faces a clear threat to European security. But the question of how the alliance should respond is fuzzy, and it needs much more discussion. A frozen conflict can become as dangerous as a hot one

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