Using Joint Force the Baltic States can be successfully defended. Though during the recent testimony before Congress, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley said that: “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.” This makes it appear that the US Army would not be able to repel possible Russian aggression against Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. The statement also appears to be backed up by the Rand Corporation Wargame Studies which concludes that the Russian military would conquer the three Baltic NATO States in a matter of days. The study estimates that 60 hours is the time required for the 450 Russian tanks and accompanying troops to enter three capitals and win the war. However, the study does not address air operations as they would happen in the real world.
As JP 3-0 publication, Joint Operations, 11 August 2011 states: Although individual Services may accomplish tasks and missions in support of Department of Defense (DOD) objectives, the primary way DOD employs two or more Services (from two Military Departments) in a single operation, particularly in combat, is through joint operations. US Army would not operate alone in such scenario. Both US Air Force and US Navy would be there to support operations and contribute to the fight. Unlike the study’s assumption, the Air War between US and Russia would not be a drawn out equally neutral conflict, but rather a decisive US victory as it has been the case in every air campaign for the past 25 years. Following which, combined arms employment with emphasis on air power can stop any Russian military aggression in its tracks.
In order to assess the possible Russian moves against the Baltic States and the ability of US military and NATO to defend against them, several possible courses of action need to be examined. There are two different ways the Russian aggression could unfold. First course of action is an operation similar to the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014; the second is a war similar to the invasion of Georgia in 2008.
An operation similar to the annexation of Crimea is unlikely to succeed against a state willing to defend its territory. It should be assumed that the Baltic States will do so if threatened by Russia. The reason for Russian success in 2014 was not that they figured out some kind of never before seen brilliant tactic and strategy that baffled the Ukrainians. The reason for their success was that Ukraine gave up Crimea without a fight. That same strategy, called “hybrid warfare” involves combining kinetic operations with subversive efforts, was also attempted in Eastern Ukraine, only at that time the Ukrainians finally decided to fight. Their resistance led to initial setbacks for the Russian backed forces. Only massive Russian material support and commitment of Russian combat units prevented separatist defeat and provided some measure of Russian success. The lesson there is self-evident; in order for any state to survive in face of aggression, it has to have the will to fight.
While initially, the same “hybrid warfare” could be used by Russia in the Baltic States, the solution to the uniformed soldiers without insignia suddenly appearing in country is simple; fight them. No government could allow its monopoly on force to be challenged by foreign or domestic enemies and still maintain legitimacy in the eyes of its people. As such, should troops in Russian uniforms without insignia suddenly appear in the Baltics, the right way to deal with them is through force. However, NATO needs to be ready; as the force used against disguised Russian troops could lead directly to a full scale Russian invasion, similar to what happened in Ukraine.
According to previously mentioned Rand study, the following are the parameters of such invasion. The US would have a week of warning. The air war would be indecisive and the US and allied forces would be defeated in 60 hours. The study devotes just a few paragraphs to combined arms operations, and focuses mostly on how the US Army could win if it had more ground forces at its disposal. Therein lays the problem. Without US air superiority, how would these additional troops be able to fight effectively? Without air superiority how would they be supplied? The US Army has not faced an adversary air attack in more than 50 years. While the Russian Air Force is not the world’s premier, it has recently demonstrated some capability in Syria against ground forces lacking air defenses. It is fallacy to think that the US armored and mechanized formations could operate in face of adversary air superiority. The way to victory on the ground is control of the air above.
Given one week’s worth of warning, the US and allies, according to Rand, would have 18 squadrons of combat aircraft in theater against an estimated 27 Russian combat squadrons. The study also concludes that given the Russian Surface to Air Missiles (SAM) combined with the Russian squadrons, the US and allies would be incapable of establishing air superiority. Nothing is further from the reality. The absolute number of airplanes means very little. It would matter a lot if unthinking robots flew those airplanes, but not when people are involved. What matters then are unit training, skills, experience, and the will to fight and win. Even the numerically outnumber 18 Allied squadrons mentioned in the study would be able to neutralize the 27 Russian squadrons in very short order and while at the same time suppressing the Russian SAMs. US Air Force is designed exactly for this kind of fight.
The ability to create an effective integrated air defense by the Russian Air Force is also doubtful. More likely the Russians would lose a lot of their airplanes to friendly fire if they attempted to employ aircraft and SAM systems to contest the same piece of airspace. Even the US military lost more fighters to friendly ground fire during the invasion of Iraq and it had complete control of the air during the invasion.
With the Russian Air and Surface defenses eliminated, Russian armored columns would be defenseless. US and allied bomber and fighter aircraft would then find and destroy every Russian military vehicle moving inside the Baltic States. As the Rand study mentions the Baltic region has good roads, but the off-road capability is difficult. As such, the Russian armored columns, restricted to roads, would be an ideal target for US and allied air power. Once stripped of their air defenses, the Russian armored forces would be quickly rendered non-combat effective, similar to what happened to the Iraqi army on “the highway of death” during the First Gulf War. That result was accomplished with a 1980s air force, not a modern air force outfitted with precision weapons. Today, precision fighter and bomber strikes against enemy ground forces traveling along predictable routes have only one possible outcome, complete destruction. A more recent example of that effect was during Operation Odyssey Dawn in 2011 which shows exactly what happens to an armored ground force attacked by aircraft. With Russian armor destroyed, the 12 allied battalions, estimated to be present at the start of hostilities including indigenous Baltic infantry battalions, could round up the disorganized Russian troops and stop the invasion.
Despite the recent pronouncements, the Baltics can be defended. If the US wants to make an even clearer point to the Russians that it is ready to repel any aggressive move against the three Baltic members of NATO, then more fighter squadrons permanently located in Europe is the answer. However, the Baltic States can be defended with the current force structure. The US Army could be theoretically outgunned if it operated in the world where US Air Force does not exist and has no ability to establish air superiority/supremacy. Then again, it would be extremely difficult for the US Army to be combat effective if it had to fight in the face of established enemy air superiority. To win against a near peer adversary such as Russia, air power is the decisive factor. US Army will not be outgunned if called to defend the Baltic States because the US Air Force and US Navy will be there to contribute and shape the battlefield as part of a Joint Force as codified in the Joint Doctrine.