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The Cold Front: how strategic competition between NATO and Russia is shaping Europe

31 July 2018 Jane's Editorial Staff

By Dr Dylan Lehrke, Senior Analyst Military Capabilities, Jane's by IHS Markit

The US European Reassurance / Deterrence Initiative

The US European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) was announced in June 2014 in response to Russian military activism in the Ukraine. Since then, the ERI has been rechristened the European Deterrence Initiative (EDI) and funding has increased significantly, from USD985 million in FY15 to a proposed USD6.5 billion in FY19.

The initiative includes a range of measures that increase US military presence in Europe, expand training and multinational exercises, grow the stocks of prepositioned equipment, improve infrastructure, and build partner capacity. The purpose of these efforts is to convince both Europe and Russia that the US is committed to the security and territorial integrity of their NATO allies.

ERI/EDI funding: building power projection capability

ERI/EDI spending is intended for two main purposes. The first is to increase rotational presence of US military forces and the second is to build up the stockpile of permanent prepositioned equipment in Europe.

The funding has enabled the continuous presence of a US-based Armored Brigade Combat Team in Europe, commencing in early 2017.

This creates a permanent armored brigade presence and thus brings the total US Army footprint in Europe up to three brigades - the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Italy, the 2nd Cavalry Regiment in Germany, and the rotational armored brigade.

The rotational brigade deploys primarily to the Baltic Republics and Poland, but also to Bulgaria and Romania.

Practically speaking, the posture of permanent rotation has at least two advantages for US forces.

First, it gives a large number of US Army units experience with their eastern allies.

Second, since each rotational brigade brings all of its own equipment, the US Army is building up experience in rapidly deploying a heavy brigade to and within Europe.

However, the rotational postures take numerically more soldiers and equipment since there must always be forces deployed, as well as other forces getting ready to deploy and those recovering from deployment.

Given that the US Army currently has only ten armoured brigades and already has rotational commitments in South Korea and Kuwait, it could find itself stretched thin over the next few years.

In addition to the three fully manned brigades, as of the end of 2017, the US Army has enough prepositioned combat-ready equipment in Europe to outfit another armoured brigade.

The goal is to build this up into a division-size set of equipment, enough for two armoured brigades and two artillery brigades, as well as air defence, engineer, and other support units.

The rotational presence and prepositioning, as well as the exercises and infrastructure projects funded by the ERI/EDI, are building a system that allows the US to rapidly increase the size of its forces in Europe.

NATO's rotational Enhanced Forward Presence

There have been many small-scale deployments of non-US NATO land, air, and naval forces to Eastern Europe since the Crimea crisis. However, from 2014 through 2016 these were largely ad hoc and intermittent.

Now, as part of its Enhanced Forward Presence mission, NATO has placed a four multinational battalion-size battlegroups in Eastern Europe: in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.

The battlegroups were put in place at the start of 2017, although it took a good part of the year for many to build up to full strength.

These battlegroups are led by the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and the United States respectively. Almost every NATO country has rotated in troops to the battlegroups since they were stood up, with 18 NATO members contributing as of mid-2018.

At the core of each battlegroup is a mechanised infantry battalion with armoured fighting vehicles (provided by the lead nation). This battalion is reinforced with tank, artillery, air defence, and other combat support and service support units (from the lead and supporting nations).

This composition means that the battlegroups essentially form a NATO mechanised infantry brigade spread across Poland and the Baltics.

Importantly, the battlegroups have extensive training opportunities. This is allowing NATO forces to focus on rebuilding their high-intensity conventional warfare skills.

Baltic Republics military build-up limited compared to adversaries but part of greater whole

All three of the Baltic Republics are undertaking procurement programmes to build up their land warfare capability.

These are significant enhancement of military capabilities in the Baltic Republics, but they are only significant relative to the resources and current capabilities of these countries. They are not alone significant when compared to possible adversaries.

  • Estonia is purchasing 44 used CV90s to improve manoeuvrability and provide organic fire support for infantry units. Half of these have been delivered and the remainder are due by the end of 2018.
  • Estonia is also buying 12 K9 Thunder 155 mm self-propelled howitzers. Deliveries are expected in 2021.
  • Latvia is buying 123 CVR(T)s from the UK, some armed with 30 mm cannons and Spike missiles. Around 81 vehicles have been delivered and the last is expected in 2020.
  • Lithuania is buying 84 Boxer IFVs. Deliveries of operational vehicles are expected to run from 2019 to 2021.
  • Lithuania is also procuring 21 PzH 2000 155 mm self-propelled howitzers.

While limited in comparison to the land inventories of larger NATO countries, these procurement programmes will enable the Baltic Republics to carry out modern combined arms manoeuvre warfare. This is a step change in warfighting capability.

In short, they will finally be fully integrated into NATO's warfighting model and contribute to the combat power of the NATO battlegroups and the alliance as whole.

Are the current NATO efforts enough to deter Russia from military adventurism?

It is generally accepted that the risks of conflict are low, despite current political tensions.

But despite the low risks at the moment, the question of who has the advantage is still important.

The majority of analysts do not believe there are enough US forces in Europe or sufficient capability within other NATO countries to deter or defeat Russia.

Russia has more brigades and if it so desired, it could, for example, simply overrun the Baltic Republics.

However, conclusions cannot be based solely on numbers and force ratios since war is not a direct meeting of two adversaries on a featureless field.

Victory in war is not achieved by meeting the enemy directly but by being able to respond and act where one's opponent cannot, be it on a flank, in a certain place, at a certain time, or in a certain domain.

This is what the US EDI is building - an increased capacity to act in a variety of ways which Russia cannot block unless it overran all of Europe with total surprise.

In sum, the EDI is giving the US an 'army in being' in Europe that must be accounted for by Moscow and this reduces Russia's flexibility and freedom of action in the military realm. This, combined with other NATO efforts, provides an adequate deterrent in light of current risks.

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