The possibility of a confrontation between NATO and Russia is in the air. On top of all this, it is believed that NATO embarked on an impossible mission since NATO is outnumbered, outranged, and outgunned by Russia.
When asked two weeks ago in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee whether the Army was “outranged” by any adversary, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley said:
“Yes … the ones in Europe, really Russia. We don’t like it, we don’t want it, but yes, technically [we are] outranged, outgunned on the ground.”
Nearly two years of extensive war gaming and analysis shows that if Russia were to conduct a short-warning attack against the Baltic States, Moscow’s forces could roll to the outskirts of the Estonian capital of Tallinn and the Latvian capital of Riga in 36 to 60 hours.
In such a scenario, the United States and its allies would not only be outranged and outgunned, but also outnumbered.
Outnumbered? While the Russian army is a fraction of the size of its Soviet predecessor and is maintained at a level of imperfect readiness, we found that it could — in 10 days or so — generate a force of as many as 27 fully ready battalions (30–50,000 soliders in their maneuver formations, depending on precisely how they were organized) for an attack on the Baltics while maintaining its ongoing coercive campaign against Ukraine.
All these Russian units would be equipped with armored vehicles — tanks, infantry fighting vehicles (IFVs), and so forth. NATO, meanwhile, would be able to respond largely with only light, unarmored, or lightly armored forces. These would consist of the forces of the Baltic republics themselves and those that the United States and its partners could rush to the scene in the few days of warning that would likely be available.
Counting the “Very High Readiness Joint Task Force” (VJTF), NATO could optimistically deploy elements from three airborne infantry brigades, one Stryker brigade, and one U.S. armor brigade. Russia would achieve initial advantages in tanks (7:1), infantry fighting vehicles (5:1), attack helicopters (5:1), cannon artillery (4:1), long-range rocket artillery (16:1), short-range air defense (24:1), and long-range air defense (17:1).
Outranged? But the problem is not just numbers. The Russians field cannon and rocket artillery with significantly longer ranges than their U.S. counterparts. Existing Army tube artillery can generally fire at targets 14 to 24 kilometers (9 to 15 miles) away. Unfortunately, the most common Russian self-propelled howitzer NATO forces would encounter in the Baltics has a range of 29 kilometers (or 19 miles). On the battlefield, these differences matter.
Moreover, at the moment, the United States has no Multiple-Launch Rocket System units deployed in Europe, but even if it were, and the range of its primary rocket is only 40–70 kilometers (25–44 miles) depending on payload. Meanwhile, Russian forces are richly equipped with two rocket artillery systems with ranges up to 90 kilometers (56 miles).
Outgunned? Here the evidence is somewhat less clear, but the situation is certainly far less favorable to the United States than it is accustomed to. While Russia’s tanks and IFVs in some cases share the same designations as those that U.S. forces encountered in Iraq in 1991 and 2003, those weapons have little in common besides the name. They have much more advanced armor, weapons, and sensors, and in some areas — such as active protection systems to defend against anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs) — are superior to their Western counterparts.
If a fight broke out today in the Baltics, Russian attack helicopters, IFVs, and even some tanks could employ ATGMs with an effective range that could penetrate the armor of most if not all NATO combat vehicles, including the U.S. M1 tank. The M1s might maintain a slight advantage in the close-in fight, if they survived to get there. But given the current U.S. posture, there would at best be only a few dozen on the field, compared to about 450 Russian. The Baltic states themselves have no heavy armor, and our analysis indicates that no other European heavy forces could make it to the frontlines in time to influence the outcome of a short-warning Russian assault.
Beyond the disadvantages of being outnumbered, outranged, and outgunned, a slew of other issues compounds the problem. First, NATO allies and the U.S. military would be of limited immediate help offsetting these disadvantages. European allies followed the American lead by cutting armor and optimizing their remaining forces for “out-of-area” missions like Afghanistan. Thus, Great Britain is continuing with plans to withdraw its last troops from Germany, while Germany has reduced its army from a Cold War level of 10 heavy divisions to the equivalent of two.
But it’s not just the numbers here that matter. The United States and its partners have also steadily reduced the infrastructure necessary to support any kind of substantial deterrent or defensive effort in Europe. Today, there are no U.S. division or corps headquarters forward-based on the continent, nor any Army aviation, engineer, and associated logistics brigades. Our analysis — which assumed brigades could be received, moved to the front, and then commanded, controlled, and supported once there — may have ignored significant shortfalls in all these dimensions. Deploying brigades is not enough. Without a plan, without adequate logistics, without robust command and control, a better-prepared adversary would still overwhelm NATO.
Second, airpower has long been the U.S. trump card, and the Army relies on it to deliver fire support and protect its units from enemy air attack. This reliance has reduced the amount of artillery it deploys with its maneuver forces and, for all intents and purposes, has stripped them of organic air defenses.
While these choices were entirely sound in facing the Taliban and Iraq’s air force and integrated air defenses, Russia is an entirely different story. Russia fields perhaps the most formidable array of surface-to-air missile (SAM) defenses in the world. Operating from locations within Russian territory, these SAMs far outrange existing defense-suppression weapons and present a credible threat to U.S. and allied airpower that would be costly and time-consuming to counter. Unlike recent American wars, getting air support will not be as easy as making a call and waiting. Especially in the crucial early days of any conflict, allied ground forces may find air support available only in narrow windows of time and space.
And third, the Russians possess a credible air force of their own. Our analysis shows that Moscow could commit hundreds of fighter, attack, and bomber aircraft to an assault on the Baltic states. While such forces are ultimately qualitatively and quantitatively inferior to the alliance’s airpower, when teamed with Russia’s surface-to-air defenses, such forces could present a threat to U.S. and allied ground forces moving to reinforce or counterattack. Without ground-based air defenses of their own, and with limited overhead cover from NATO air forces, U.S. Army formations could suffer serious attrition from enemy air attack for the first time since World War II.
On top of all these issues, geography is a harsh mistress in this scenario. It’s about 130 miles from the Russian border to Riga, a distance that modern armored forces can traverse in a matter of hours. Even against fierce opposition from airpower, our analysis shows that there is simply not enough time to inflict sufficient damage to halt a Russian attack, absent sufficient NATO ground forces to slow their movement and force invaders to operate in ways that make them more vulnerable to air attack. This is intrinsically a joint fight, not one that can be won on the ground or from the skies alone.
Add in the fact that the Bush administration decided — and the Obama administration affirmed — that, beginning in 2019, U.S. forces will no longer use cluster weapons that leave more than one percent of their ordnance unexploded on the ground. While admirable on humanitarian grounds, this decision — for which there is no parallel on the Russian side — will significantly reduce the effectiveness of U.S. artillery and air fire against Russian artillery, air defense, and mechanized targets. Given the weakness of NATO’s overall posture, this is no trivial concession.
Today NATO is indeed outnumbered, outranged, and outgunned by Russia in Europe and beset by a number of compounding factors that make the situation worse. Having said that, it is possible to begin restoring a more robust deterrent posture and to do so at a price tag that appears affordable in the context of an alliance with an aggregate GDP of $35 trillion. The enlarged European Reassurance Initiative announced by the administration is a step in the right direction, though not a complete solution. Also, NATO’s European members must begin making the necessary investments to fulfill their commitments to the alliance’s collective defense; this is not just America’s problem.
It seems unlikely that Vladimir Putin intends to turn his guns on NATO any time soon. However, the consequences should he decide to do so are severe. Probably the best outcome — if the phrase has any meaning in this context — would be something like a new Cold War, with all the implications that bears. A war with Russia would be fraught with escalatory potential from the moment the first shot was fired; and generations born outside the shadow of nuclear Armageddon would suddenly be reintroduced to fears thought long dead and buried.
A situation 20 years in the making will not be solved overnight, nor will solving it be politically simple or non-controversial for an alliance consisting of 29 members with different priorities and perceptions. Nonetheless, the potential consequences of failing to do so are so dire that prudent investments — in improved posture and thoughtful, targeted modernization of the joint force — to stave them off are warranted to assure allies living next to a belligerent Russia and to provide an insurance policy against the risks of a potential catastrophe.