Donald Trump’s recent whirlwind world tour began with him signing a series of arms sale agreements with the Saudi government totaling some $110 billion, a move interpreted by the American president as proof positive of Riyadh’s commitment to fighting terrorism and containing Iran. In short, Saudi Arabia, in Donald Trump’s view, put its money where its mouth was.
It ended with Trump dedicating a memorial celebrating the transatlantic bonds between Europe and the United States at the new headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Brussels. The memorial commemorated the terror attack of 9/11 and NATO’s response, manifesting the foundational premise underpinning NATO, set forth in Article 5 of the NATO Charter, that an attack against one member was an attack against all.
It was widely expected that President Trump would give remarks appropriate to the occasion, praising the alliance and reinforcing its unifying principle of collective security. Instead, America’s NATO allies where chastised for their collective failure to comply with a target level of defense spending equivalent to two percent of each member’s gross national product.
“Twenty-three of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they’re supposed to be paying for their defense,” Trump scolded the assembled leaders of NATO. “If all NATO members had spent just 2 percent of their GDP on defense last year, we would have had another $119 billion for our collective defense and for the financing of additional NATO reserves.”
While he mentioned the terror attack of 9/11, Donald Trump did not raise the issue of Article 5, even indirectly. From Donald Trump’s transactional world view, when it comes to collective defense, you have to pay to play; Europe was in arrears, and the president was not about to reward them for that fact.
For a national defense neophyte like Donald Trump, military prowess is measured in dollars allocated to the task, something that can be measured on a spreadsheet for accountants to pore over. For anyone acquainted with the reality of war, however, these numbers translate into blood and steel. By any standard, blood and steel, circa 2017, is prohibitively expensive. In 1980, the annual cost of maintaining an American soldier hovered around $30,000; today that cost is $170,000 and growing. The M-1 Abrams main battle tank, which entered service in 1980, cost $4.3 million each. The cost of refurbishing an M-1 tank to the new M-1A2 standard needed to fight and survive on the modern battlefield is between $8-10 million. When combined together into an armored brigade combat team, the 4,700 soldiers, 87 M-1 main battle tanks, and hundreds of other armored fighting vehicles costs a staggering $2.6 billion per year to operate and maintain in a peacetime environment; combat operations and/or realistic training deployments increase that cost by at least another billion dollars.
For a national defense neophyte like Donald Trump, military prowess is measured in dollars.
These costs are prohibitively high, which is why only five of the U.S. Army’s 15 armored brigade combat teams are maintained at full readiness levels. The Heritage Foundation has estimated that the U.S. Army would need at least 21 Brigade Combat Team (BCT) equivalents to fight and prevail in a ground war in Europe; it currently maintains three BCTs in Europe, including one on permanent rotation. Effective European-based deterrence would require an additional three to four American BCTs, at a cost of more than $15 billion in annual operation and maintenance costs, and hundreds of millions in basing and support expenses.
Blood and steel for our NATO allies is no less expensive; the cost of a German soldier hovers at just over $100,000 per year, while the cost of a German Leopard 2 main battle tank built the new 2A7V standard costs around $10 million; Germany plans on bringing over 100 Leopard 2 tanks back into service between 2019 and 2023 (enough to equip two armored battalions) and increasing the Bundeswehr’s inventory to some 320 tanks. Germany would need to double this amount at a minimum to possess a realistic deterrent capability, an option mooted by the fact that the German Army has trouble keeping 30 percent of the armored forces it currently possesses operational. The associated expenses and relative operational readiness status for the French and British militaries are about the same as Germany; neither country is even remotely prepared to fight, let alone prevail, in a major ground war in Europe against a Russian foe.
The Fulda Gap
While modern war is fought using a multitude of weaponry, when it comes to the kind of large-scale fighting one could expect in a general European war, the dominant weapon on the battlefield is the main battle tank. The main battle tank has been a part of the European military landscape for more than 100 years; for nearly 70 years since the end of the Second World War, the main battle tank had underpinned the American military presence in post-war Europe. While the total numbers of deployed tanks fluctuated over time, the armored units fielded by the United States served as the backbone of the military capability of NATO, an alliance entered into in 1954 between the United States, the United Kingdom, France, West Germany and twelve other European nations in response to fears of Soviet aggression.
Fulda was a small city in the German State of Hesse that, had it not been for the Cold War, few people outside of its immediate environs would ever have cause to hear of. Instead, the combined accidents of history and geography turned this quiet rural city into ground zero for a Third World War. The end of the Second World War found American troops situated well to the east of Fulda, having occupied all of Thuringia and western Saxony; both of these territories were subsequently added to the Soviet post-war zone of occupation, bringing the line of demarcation right to the foothills of the Thuringian highlands that dominate the eastern approaches to Fulda.
West of Fulda the hills turn into fertile plains that form a natural corridor – the so-called “Fulda Gap” – leading straight to Frankfurt, some 60 miles (95 kilometers) to the southwest, and the Rhine River beyond. These were not vast distances. 5,000 men of the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment and a screening force of around 150 tanks patrolled the Fulda frontier. Further west, along the approaches to Frankfurt, were the three armored brigades of the 3rd Armored Division, comprising another 15,000 men and 350 tanks. Some 30 miles southwest of Frankfurt, on the west bank of the Mainz River, were another 15,000 men of the 8th Mechanized Infantry Division and their 300 tanks. 35,000 men, 800 tanks, and thousands of other armored vehicles, artillery pieces and trucks – this was all that stood between the Soviet Army and the Rhine River.
Facing off against this concentration of American combat power were two sizable Soviet formations. The first, the 8th Guards Army, consisting of an armored division and three motorized infantry divisions, comprising some 50,000 men and 1,200 tanks, was responsible for blasting a hole in the American defenses; behind it would come the 1st Guards Tank Army, another 35,000 men and 1,000 tanks whose mission was pursuit and exploitation of a defeated enemy to depths of up to 120 miles after the front was ruptured by initial assault force. A 1979 Soviet exercise allocated seven days for Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops to defeat American and NATO forces and reach the Rhine River; American plans for reinforcing Germany required ten days. Any conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States along the Fulda front would have been, from the outset, a race against time.
Fortunately, for Europe and the World, that race was never run. In 1990, as the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union came to a close, nearly 14,000 American main battle tanks were deployed on European soil, along with over 300,000 military personnel; another 250,000 American troops were ready to be flown in on short notice to marry up with pre-deployed equipment, including tanks, stored in various European depots. A decade later that number had been reduced to a few thousand tanks and 117,000 troops; by 2015 the number was zero tanks and 65,000 soldiers. The United States went from a posture of imminent preparedness for a war in Europe in 1990, to a situation where major ground conflict in Europe no longer factored in American military planning.
The Iron Brigade
The 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team (BCT) of the 4th Infantry Division (the “Iron Brigade”) is one of the premier combat units in the United States Army today. One of 15 Armored BCTs in the army today, the “Iron Brigade’s” five maneuver battalions (two armor, one cavalry, one mechanized infantry and one artillery), comprising some 4,700 soldiers, 90 main battle tanks, 150 armored fighting vehicles, and 18 self-propelled artillery pieces, represent the greatest concentration of lethal firepower in an organized combat unit in the American military. In January 2017, this formidable fighting force was deployed from its home base in Fort Carson, Colorado, to Europe as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve.
Atlantic Resolve is an ongoing initiative on the part of the United States intended to reassure NATO that America’s commitment to collective security in Europe has not diminished in the face of Russian actions in the Ukraine since 2014, including Moscow’s annexation of the Crimea, an act that violates the principle of European national inviolability that has underpinned European security since 1945. Since 2015, the United States has conducted a series of military deployments and maneuvers designed to demonstrate America’s ability to back this commitment with meaningful military power. The deployment of the “Iron Brigade” represents the latest manifestation of this commitment, which involves a continued rotation of an armored BCT into Europe every nine months, creating a permanent American armored presence in Europe.
The officers of the “Iron Brigade” exude confidence in their mission. “We are here to deter,” the Brigade Commander, Colonel Christopher Norrie, told western media shortly after his arrival in Europe in January 2017. “If I were looking at it through the eyes of a potential aggressor, I would say it’s an exceptionally capable deterrent.” His subordinate commanders echoed Colonel Norrie’s words, and confidence. “We have been training for this mission for the last year,” Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Capehart, the commander of an armor battalion, the 1/68 “Silver Lions,” observed. “I think it shows the agility of an armored brigade that can be able to push combat power forward, build it and get it out here firing within ten days.”
The 10-day benchmark cited by Lieutenant Colonel Capehart, however, is misleading. On order to get its vehicles and equipment to Europe, the “Iron Brigade” had first to transfer this material by rail from Fort Carson, Colorado to Beaumont, Texas, where it was loaded into ships that then transported the combat material to the German port city of Bremerhaven, where it was off-loaded and “pushed forward” to bases in Poland. The reality is that the time needed to deploy the “Iron Brigade” to Europe was not 10 days, but more than two months.
The armored BCT is a self-sufficient combat unit, designed by intent to operate independent of higher echelons of command and combat support. This is in sharp contrast to the American combat brigades of the Cold War, which were designed to function as part of a larger unit, usually a division or corps. This current organizational structure is reflective of the posture taken by the United States over the course of the past quarter century that holds that large-scale ground combat in Europe was no longer a primary mission for the American military. Contemporary conflict scenarios contemplated fighting non-state and failed state opponents where the combat power of the armored BCT would prove to be overwhelming; the most proficient enemy force the armored BCT trained to confront was what was a “near peer” opponent whose equipment and training was inferior to that of the Americans.
As part of their preparation for their European deployment, the “Iron Brigade” participated in a two-week exercise, “Decisive Action Rotation 16-09,” at the National Training Center (NTC) in Fort Irwin, California, between August 26 and September 9, 2016. During this training, the “Iron Brigade” engaged in realistic simulated combat operations against an opposition force (OPFOR) configured for both low-intensity and “near peer” conflict. The presence of “near peer” OPFOR represents a return, in part, to the Cold War-era style training that the U.S. Army conducted at the NTC in the 1980s (after 9/11, the NTC had been largely reconfigured to prepare Army units for their deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, where low-intensity combat training was the priority.)
In the 1980s, the OPFOR at the NTC were elite troops trained and equipped to replicate the combat power of a Soviet Motorized Rifle Regiment; American battalions facing off against the OPFOR were confronted with the spectacle of more than 150 Soviet-style armored vehicles bearing down on them in mass attack, a phenomenon few battalions were able to prevail against (they also faced massed artillery attack, and vigorous electronic warfare conditions, where their communications were actively jammed.) The realism of the NTC training evolutions in the 1980s played a significant role in preparing the U.S. Army for large-scale ground combat against a Soviet-style threat, and has been cited as being a central factor for the stellar performance of the U.S. military against Iraq in 1991.
Renewed Russian Strength
Deterrence – the action of discouraging an action or event through instilling doubt or fear of the consequences – is a military mission, and constitutes one of the stated objectives of the deployment of the “Iron Brigade” to Europe. The intended target of the deterrence mission of the “Iron Brigade” is, by design, Russia. In the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, the Russian military underwent a significant reduction in force and capability that transformed it into a shell of its former Soviet-era glory. Both the 8th Guards Army and 1st Guards Tank Army were disbanded, their component units either suffering a similar fate or reorganized into smaller brigade-sized elements reflecting the reality that Russia, like the United States, believed large-scale ground combat in Europe to be a thing of the past; casting the Russian Army circa 2008 as a “near peer” opponent would not have been a flawed assumption on the part of the American military.
This status changed in the aftermath of the Russian-Georgian war of August 2008. While the Russian military prevailed in that conflict, against a much smaller and weaker opponent, the poor performance by many Russian units led the Russian high command to realize that fundamental change was needed if Russia were to be able to field a world-class military. Russia closely examined the performance of western militaries, with a focus on the United States and NATO, and undertook a massive program of reorganization and modernization, with an emphasis on increased professionalism and operational preparedness. The Russian military that intervened in Crimea in 2014 was orders of magnitude better than the one that faced off against Georgia in 2008, with modern communications, new equipment, and well-trained professional soldiers led by highly skilled officers.
The Soviet soldier of the 1980s was a three-year conscript, whose training limitations mandated simple but functional equipment, and tactics that stressed mass over finesse. Today, the Russian soldier is a contracted professional, a volunteer who is paid a salary for service over a period of enlistment, usually around five to six years in length. The new Russian soldier doesn’t come cheap, although at a cost of $65,000 per year, he is nearly a third less expensive than his NATO and American counterpart. A new T-14 Armata main battle tank costs the Russian government around $3.7 million; again, about one third the expense of a NATO and American tank. The newest model T-72/T-80 main battle tank retrofitted with reactive armor and other upgrades is even less expensive. Conventional wisdom has held that the inherent superiority of NATO and American equipment and training would offset the numerical advantages Russia could accrue due to cheaper overhead and operational costs; the experience of the United States in Iraq, where M-1 main battle tanks cut through Iraqi T-72 tanks like a hot knife through butter only reinforced this perception. However, the Iraqis made use of inferior export versions of the T-72; the Russian army uses a different model, with modern reactive armor and associated defensive systems that are designed to defeat the latest American and NATO anti-armor weapons.
NATO and American anti-armor weapons continue to play catch up to new innovations being fielded by the Russians.
After evaluating Russian capabilities in the aftermath of the Cold War, American intelligence determined that the notion of American qualitative superiority was a myth; had there been a war in Europe, the tanks of the then-Soviet Army would have been nearly impervious to the weapons then available to NATO and American forces. Today, the NATO and American anti-armor weapons continue to play catch up to new innovations being fielded by the Russians. The Americans like to quantify the Russian Army as being “near peer” in terms of its capabilities; the fact of the matter is that it is the U.S. and NATO armored forces that are “near peer” to their Russian counterparts, and there are many more Russian tanks in Europe today than there are NATO and American.
Since 2001 the U.S. Army has been singularly focused on fighting the Taliban, Iraqi insurgents, and ISIS. The Russians, on the other hand, have oriented their military preparation toward countering the threat posed by NATO and the United States. Following the harsh reaction of NATO in response to Russian military action in Crimea and the Donbas, the Russian military took their preparations one step further, reconstituting the 1st Guards Tank Army along organizational lines mirroring those of Soviet times, during the Cold War. This army, comprising a tank division, two motorized rifle divisions, and two separate brigades (one tank and one motorized), consists of more than 50,000 men and over 800 tanks, and is deployed facing Poland and the Baltics. If the 3rd Armored BCT were to confront any Russian threat during its deterrence mission in Europe, it would be the 1st Guards Tank Army.
A Losing Proposition
It is hard to imagine any scenario that has 90 tanks (the number deployed by the 3rd Armored BCT) deterring a force of 800 tanks (the number deployed by the 1st Guards Tank Army.) Of even greater concern is the mismatch in artillery; the 18 self-propelled artillery pieces in the 3rd Armored BCT would be facing off against more than 700 distinct artillery and artillery rocket weapons. The Russian military has traditionally incorporated artillery fires into its operations to a degree far greater than that of any other military, including the United States. The Russians routinely train in large-scale combined arms – i.e., incorporating supporting artillery and air power with maneuver – operations, something the United States stopped doing after 9/11. The simple fact of the matter is that of the two major ground combat forces in Europe today – the Russian military and NATO – only the Russians are prepared to fight and win a general war in Europe.
A similar mismatch in military capacity and capability exists with the four 1,500-man “battlegroups” deployed by NATO in Poland and the Baltics. Each “battlegroup” is formed around a battalion-sized formation provided by NATO members; there is no viable plan in place to reinforce these units in a timely fashion, meaning that casualties among men and equipment could not be replaced, allowing for the rapid reduction of combat capability under conditions of the kind of heavy combat a ground war in Europe against Russian forces would entail. If either the 3rd Armored BCT or any of the NATO “battlegroups” were to engage the 1st Guards Tank Army, it is very likely most of their units would be rendered combat ineffective by massed artillery fires before they even had a chance to engage the hundreds of Russian tanks bearing down on them.
Moreover, Russian electronic warfare capabilities are so advanced that the ability of the subordinate units of the NATO “battlegroups” and/or the 3rd Armored BCT to communicate with one another would be severely degraded, further diminishing combat effectiveness. American reinforcements, aboard ships and aircraft transiting the Atlantic, would be vulnerable to interdiction by Russian naval and air power. Once in Europe, these forces would assemble in ports and airfields known to the Russians and vulnerable to attack. Both American and NATO reinforcements would need to travel on rail lines similarly susceptible to interdiction. Russian logistical lines of communications would be relatively short; those of the United States would stretch back thousands of miles. Warfare under these conditions would be madness.
The U.S. Army has prepositioned an additional Armored BCT’s worth of equipment in warehouses in Poland; there are plans afoot to increase this capability to a full armored division. But under any scenario, it would take the Army ten days to fall in on this equipment and bring it up to full operational capability. The most optimistic scenarios have the 1st Guards Tank Army occupying Riga, the capitol of Latvia, within 60 hours of the start of any Russian-NATO conflict.
Of even greater concern is the modern-day equivalent of the Cold War’s Fulda Gap, known as the “Suwalki Gap.” The Suwalki Gap is named for a Polish town that sits astride the narrow corridor of land that connects Lithuania with Poland. NATO planners are concerned about any Russian attack here, as it would effectively cut off the Baltics from Poland and the rest of Europe – and as things currently stand, there is nothing the 3rdArmored BCT, or any other combination of U.S., Polish and NATO forces, could do to stop the Russians.
The United States has spent billions of dollars funding the deployment of units such as the 3rd Armored BCT to Europe, and preparing for the deployment of even more force. But this is very much a losing proposition; Russia has assembled overwhelming force, and would be able to easily match or exceed any buildup the United States and NATO may embark on. The last thing Europe and the United States needs is an expensive new Cold War in Europe, especially when the underlying causes for such could be resolved with deft diplomacy.
Stumbling Towards De-escalation
Donald Trump’s alienation of NATO may actually turn out to be the best action the United States could take in regard to the continued viability of NATO, exposing the hypocritical reality that Europe is, on its own, incapable of defending either Poland or the Baltics from a Russian attack, and unwilling and/or unable to pay the price such a defense would require. Europe’s three principle powers – the United Kingdom, France and Germany – lack both the political will and economic resources required to rebuild their militaries to the levels needed to effectively deter Russia in Eastern Europe, where the reality on the ground is that the paltry NATO “battlegroups” deployed to Poland and the Baltics, together with the 3rd Armored BCT, represent little more than a symbolic tripwire that would be swept aside by any concerted Russian attack. Neither NATO nor the United States currently have the ability to reinforce and sustain these forces in combat in a timely fashion, virtually assuring their piecemeal destruction at the hands of Russian formations purpose-built to destroy them.
The fact is that both NATO and the United States have allowed their national security to be hijacked by Poland and three Baltic nations whose collective hatred of all things Russian creates an inherent tension that the deployment of NATO “tripwire” forces can only exacerbate, and never deter. Neither London, Paris, Berlin nor Washington, D.C. should permit their larger national security interests to be held hostage by a historical enmity toward Russia that exists in Poland and the Baltics, whether justified or not. NATO’s original mission was to keep the Russians from reaching the Rhine, not fight and die in the same forests and fields surrounding the Masurian Lakes district where Russian and German soldiers died by the hundreds of thousands in 1914 and 1945. Allowing the decision for a general war in Europe between NATO and Russia in 2017 to be made in Warsaw, Riga, Vilnius or Tallin is the modern day equivalent of placing the fate of 1914 Europe in the hands of a radical Serbian nationalist in Sarajevo, with potentially similarly tragic results.
Contrary to popular belief, Article 5 of the NATO Charter is not a suicide pact. While the language of the text holds that “the Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all,” it notes that each Party “will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.” The key to the viability of Article 5, however, is Article 3 of the NATO Charter, which states that “[i]n order more effectively to achieve the objectives of this Treaty, the Parties, separately and jointly, by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”
There is no debating the point that the European nations of NATO have collectively failed to live up to their obligations under Article 3; as such, it is only logical that the United States, under President Trump, may opt not to respond with armed force against any Russian move on the Baltics, especially when such a move may be prompted by provocations by either the Baltic states or Poland operating under the false bravado that a broad-based reading of Article 5 might promote. Whether intentionally or not, the fallout from Donald Trump’s refusal to single out Article 5 as the cornerstone of America’s commitment to NATO, and instead indirectly highlight Europe’s collective shortcomings vis-à-vis Article 3, may actually inject a sobering dose of reality into the evolving military situation in Poland and the Baltics. A recognition by all parties that America will not automatically fill the gap left by a miserly European defense establishment unwilling to match its harsh anti-Russian rhetoric with blood and steel may actually help ratchet down NATO-Russian tensions before the build-up of military forces along the Suwalki Gap, and elsewhere, reaches the point of no return, triggering a self-fulfilling prophesy of war in Europe no one wants, and no one could win.
Whether Donald Trump has actually factored in the price of blood and steel when making his pronouncements about NATO’s need to meet its financial obligations requiring military spending is unknown at this time; certainly none of his statements have indicated that the president is even aware of the linkage between Article 3 and Article 5. The president’s childish glee at all things military, and his gratuitous embrace of the real sacrifice such service entails, is symptomatic of someone who never served (or, in Trump’s case, is compensating for having pointedly avoided service during the Vietnam era). The president has no clue what jammed communications are, or how it feels to be under sustained indirect artillery fire, or what the effects of precision fire can achieve on blood and steel alike; yes, he has surrounded himself with men who do understand these realities, but has not, to date, exhibited any indication that these advisors have done anything more than stoke the president’s unrealistic infatuation with the theory of sacrifice (solemn gatherings, headstones laid out with copasetic, parade-like precision, and grieving relatives who look on in mournful adulation as the president exploits their suffering for his personal political gain) as opposed to its ugly reality (the harsh sound of agonal respirations as a comrade takes his or her last breath, the lingering smell of blood and human bodily fluids that only violent death or severe injury brings, and the lifetime of haunting reflection that comes when ones actions have resulted in the loss of human life.)
The president does, however, understand business, and NATO as it is currently configured and focused is the epitome of bad business – pouring money into an investment whose only yield is death and destruction. NATO is a deterrence-based alliance, whose collective defensive posture is by design intended to thwart aggression targeting its members. This cohesion falls apart when NATO seeks to become a regional police force enforcing standards of conduct that, while embraced by NATO members, are not widely adhered to or even agreed upon outside the NATO umbrella. NATO involvement in Kosovo, against Serbia, Afghanistan and Libya has been a mixed bag of sub-standard performance and unmet objectives that have exposed the harsh reality that NATO cannot operate on any meaningful scale independent of American leadership, blood and steel.
While Donald Trump has oscillated on the issue of NATO’s obsolescence, his gut reaction to NATO’s unwillingness to underwrite the cost of either confronting Islamic extremism or containing Russia is spot on – either pay up, or shut up. Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron and Theresa May can wax philosophically all they want about “going it alone,” but the economies of Germany, France and the United Kingdom, individually and collectively, are incapable of underwriting the kind of military expansion and modernization that would be required to make up for decades of American hand-holding; it would be political suicide for any of these leaders to attempt to put money where their mouths are.
Donald Trump has made it clear that under his watch, America is not willing to pay a price in blood and steel to confront Russia on the issue of the Ukraine; nor is he prepared to do the same for misguided NATO muscle flexing in Eastern Europe. Whatever the genesis of this mindset may be, it is in the end a sound decision that both Americans and Europeans will grow to appreciate in the decades to come, unencumbered as they will be by the horrific consequences of a European war that does not need to be fought and, if Donald Trump has his way, will not be fought.
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