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The US Army Doesn't Seem Real Sure It Could Stop a Russian Invasion of Europe

The US has been neglecting its traditional warfare capability for decades. Now, with Russia seemingly emboldened and slightly loopy, that neglect has the potential to bite America in the ass.
US Army M1A2 Abrams tanks in Germany. (Photo via US Army Europe)

According to four US Army three-star generals, the US Army is in deep shit. Or at least, very close to it.

As generals Michael Williamson, H. R. McMaster, Joseph Anderson, and John Murray told a Senate hearing on Army modernization this week, the Army has barely enough forces to meet a baseline planning scenario. That baseline is the ability to fight two major conflicts at the same time, winning in one theater while denying the enemy victory in the other theater, the assumption being that once the first fight is won, forces from it could be moved to finish the second fight. This is called a "deny/defeat" scenario.


During testimony, Anderson implied that the scenario keeping them all up at night is one in which there are simultaneous conflicts with Russia and North Korea. (It's worth noting that, per directives from the White House, there are no operational plans involving a conflict with China because if word got out about US war-planning against China, the Chinese would probably pitch a fit.) But one can be pretty certain that despite North Korea's saber rattling, it is not what's keeping the Army up at night. The North Korean force, while immense, isn't that well equipped, and in the case of a conflict, South Korea would be expected to account for most of the soldiers fighting the Hermit Kingdom.

Thus, the issue confronting the US Army is that it isn't confident it's going to have enough forces to prevent the Russians from having their way with Europe if it's tied up battling hordes of North Koreans too.

From an institutional point of view, the problem is, as always, a matter of funding. There are three basic categories of spending for the Army: "Near-term readiness, manpower and structure, and modernization plus capital investments," according to Murray's testimony.

Or, to put it another way, these are the three things an army should figure out before a war starts if it doesn't want to get its ass kicked. An army can train people and keep all their gear in tip-top shape — that's readiness. An army can have many divisions of soldiers and several mountains of guns — that's manpower and structure. And, finally, an army can make sure it has the shiniest high-tech killamajigs and training facilities — that's modernization and capital investments.


Now, an army might need to skimp on one of those three things to make sure the other two are taken care of — for instance, delaying a weapons upgrade program in order to keep more people in uniform today and ensure that they're trained and ready to fight.

Between the budget cuts the US Army has been facing for five or six years now and reductions in the size of the Army after pulling out of Iraq and Afghanistan, things aren't looking great. On one hand, the Army is continuing to reduce its ranks; per instructions issued in 2014, it's supposed to get down to 450,000 active-duty soldiers, which would be the smallest the Army has been since before World War II. The Army is also cutting the hell out of its budget for research, development, and new equipment: the current modernization budget is down 74 percent from its 2008 level. The silver lining to all this is that between having fewer soldiers and keeping older gear, the Army has been able to maintain a high readiness level. So while there may be too-few soldiers with too-old gear, they're still the most competent in the world at killing.

Related: Can the US Army Still Fight as a Heavyweight?

These trends in size and modernization are exacerbated by a few things. A lot of the technological edge the US had over opponents a few decades ago — GPS, night-vision gear, laser target designators — can now be delivered to the doorstep of just about any Joe Schmo. In addition, the US Army has had its hands full fighting a very different kind of war for the last couple decades. Planners probably haven't really figured on fighting a big conventional war, with tanks against tanks and whatnot, against a peer or near-peer — read: competent — opponent for maybe 25 years.


Third, while the US has been keeping itself busy with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and counterinsurgency operations, the other guys have been working on upping their game. And if my reading of the tea leaves is correct, what the Army has seen the Russians doing in eastern Ukraine has got it pretty spooked about Russia's military modernization and current capabilities.

In general, the problem is referred to as "overmatch loss." Since the end of WWII, the US has assumed that any enemy would vastly outnumber the Americans. Back in the 1950s and 1960s, the US expected to get around that problem with a combination of quality, technology, and possible use of nuclear weapons. By the time the 1980s rolled around, the US was trying to see if it could actually hold the line against a Soviet invasion of Western Europe without nuking the other guys and triggering a full-scale, civilization-ending nuclear war. This edge in quality, technology, and training is sometimes called overmatch. But if, all of a sudden, the other guys have gear, technology, and training that is as good as or better than yours, then their advantage in numbers is impossible to beat… without nuking the hell out of everything.

The concern is that now, prospective opponents like Russia or China are getting more effective and more deadly faster than the US can keep up with. McMaster flat out said that "… the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and the Abrams tank will soon be obsolete but will remain in the Army inventory for the next 50 to 70 years."


There are four particular areas in which Russia is getting so good that it's causing the Army indigestion:

  • Evading sensors and long-range reconnaissance. Without the ability to spot the enemy at great distance, it's pretty hard to carry out long-range strikes, which has been a centerpiece of US strategy for decades.
  • Disrupting communications and computer networks. The Russians have put a lot of money, time, and effort into cyber attacks, jamming electronic signals, and the like.
  • Air defense capabilities. For the last 15 years or so, the US has assumed air supremacy (meaning that any bad guy that flies, dies) because of its top-notch fighter jets. But the Russians have established air supremacy from the ground by being able to shoot down just about anything.
  • Drones. There's not a lot of easy ways to counter drones, and the Army needs to not only counter current drones but future swarms of attacking drones.

At an operational level, one of the ways that the US was able to cut the size of its army from Cold War levels was to make each unit more capable, so a handful of guys could control a lot of terrain. Collectively, developments in Russian military technology have changed this equation.

Added to this is the concern that the Russians have longer-range and more powerful artillery than the US. The US used to labor under the impression that shortcoming in artillery could be managed by use of airpower and long-range strikes, but in the face of Russian military developments, the ability to use airpower and missiles can no longer be assumed.


Granted, this is what the Army guys have to say, and they are of course self-interested. Imagine the headline: "BREAKING: Large Government Agency Says It Needs More Money."

So does the Army have a legitimate problem? To start, the so-called baseline scenario is tricky. If an Army planner is wearing a belt to keep his pants up, he'll ask for suspenders just to be on the safe side. After a while, these new requirements start to drive future planning, and a level that was once just precautionary will eventually become mandatory. Left unchecked, this eventually turns into a feedback cycle, and the amount of force the military thinks it really ought to have can spiral out of control.

Watch VICE News' The Russians Are Coming: NATO's Frontier

That said, the Army has been in a tight situation in terms of budget for five or six years now, and some important things have happened in that time. As you may have noticed, Russia has annexed Crimea and is busy being a holy terror in eastern Ukraine. More recently, the US Air Force has been making noises about both preparing for "high-volume" operations in Europe and developing the ability to set up a lot more temporary airfields in Eastern Europe in the event of war. Meanwhile, the Army (in a move that has riled up and confused a lot of people) has turned 180 degrees on its normal operational security practices and has announced, to anyone who will listen, that it just completed its largest movement of ammunition to Europe in a decade.


These are all consistent with a Department of Defense that doesn't want Russia to get any ideas about invading NATO member states.

I've been on the sidelines of a couple war games and simulations of a Russian attack into the Baltics — Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, all three NATO members. I've also looked at the reports from the RAND Corporation simulating the same thing. Finally, the Center for a New American Security has been running some similar war games, though they have kept the results very hush-hush. While the available results differ dramatically on specifics, like how long it would take Russian forces to reach a particular goal, they are all in unanimous agreement that there's no way the US or NATO can get enough tanks or anti-tank weapons in place fast enough to stop the Russians from gobbling up part or all of the Baltics. And the fact that all these folks are asking the same question tells you it's an issue on a lot of minds.

Think back to this summer, when the Army held Operation Dragon Spear, a big airborne assault exercise, and went to great lengths to publicize it. Then-Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno told VICE News outright then that he knew the Russians were up to something but didn't know where it was going to land. In retrospect, the preparations that the US spotted were probably a precursor to the Russian deployment to Syria, but the fact that the Pentagon was hell bent on putting the spotlight on the exercise says a lot about the kind of deterrent message that the US wanted to send Russia: If you invade the Baltics, don't think for a minute that US soldiers won't be on the ground with a quickness, fighting back.


Related: The US Army's Top General Points a Spear at Russia

All of these activities, in combination with this week's testimony, suggest that the Army is trying its best to deter Russia from attacking the Baltics. It might be a little counterintuitive, but the main job of an army, or really any military, is not to fight wars. Its main job is to be ready and able to fight wars, so that when an enemy sees how ready and able it is, the enemy decides to keep its guns holstered. That's deterrence.

But there is deterrence by denial and deterrence by punishment. Deterrence by denial means the enemy knows there's no point. It's like me worrying about what clothes I'm going to wear when President Barack Obama invites me over for some brewskis. There's no reason for me to even start thinking about it, because it's never, ever going to happen. I have been deterred from considering my sartorial options regarding knocking down some presidential suds because I know I will be denied an opportunity for it to matter.

Deterrence by punishment is familiar to anyone who's ever heard the phrase, "I'm gonna make you wish you'd never been born." Sure, you might be able to pull off whatever stunt you had in mind, but the reckoning will be so swift, so certain, and so severe that you had better think twice before pulling it off.

The first and biggest problem with deterrence by punishment is that it assumes war is going to happen. But there's a second, more insidious problem with deterrence by punishment: It can also create a break in the fighting, which means a do-gooder can come in and gin up a cease-fire agreement before the enemy can be evicted from his ill-gotten gains.


Take a hypothetical scenario for the Baltics. By way of background, the US is planning on sending at least a brigade (thousands of soldiers and hundreds of vehicles) to Europe next February, which will make it harder for Russia to make a land grab. Furthermore, the Baltics are kind of hard to get around and don't have great roads, so there's a big incentive to invade in winter, when the rivers are frozen and can be used to get around.

Let's say that Russian President Vladimir Putin gets gutsy this winter and invades the Baltic countries in December. The war games and simulations I've seen thus far suggest that Russia could probably lock down its gains in a matter of days. That's well before the US would be able to ship significant numbers of heavy forces (like tanks) to the area.

Related: The US Continues to Boost Troop Rotations and Equipment in Europe, Two Years After the Last Tanks Left

It's probably safe to assume Obama wouldn't choose to illustrate his objections by nuking Moscow right off the bat. So the US would have to build up forces in Europe and get them ready for the campaign to take the Baltics back from Russia. During that downtime, diplomats, isolationists, and anti-war sorts would make lots of noise about settlements, cease-fire agreements, and so on. (And perhaps certain members of Congress would insist on "letting the American people decide" whether to counter Russia.)


Meanwhile, Putin would move to make some or all of the conquered territory officially part of Russia, like he did with Crimea, while reaffirming his already-stated commitment to use nuclear weapons to defend Russian soil.

Obama's hands would be tied, and we would roll into the new administration of President Nincompoop, and that person may decide that discretion is the better part of valor. After all, this isn't his or her fault, it was the fault of the last guy. Besides, who wants to end up with "Starting global thermonuclear war" as the main accomplishment of their first 100 days in office?

Voila, fait accompli, the war ends before the punishment arrives, and Russia walks away with a clear victory: annexing NATO countries (or at least parts of them), demonstrating that the US is impotent, and presenting NATO and the European Union with some major existential crises.

I'm not saying this will happen. But if the Army thinks that deterrence by denial is a no-go, and there's a possibility that deterrence by punishment won't work, then the Army would be absolutely right to be more than a bit panicky about their ability to meet potential demands.

Recall, however, that it's not really necessary for the US to have enough forces to deny/defeat two opponents, per the overall defense planning guidance. All that's strictly necessary is to be able to pour enough cannon fodder into the fight to prolong it until you can mobilize new forces. Or, to be more precise, to be able to keep the fight going indefinitely while preventing it from escalating into an exchange of nuclear weapons. Not a pretty scenario, but a serviceable one.

The US Army is not blowing smoke; it is almost certainly deadly serious about its concern. Whether or not it would really win or lose a fight is another question — and one that countries have wars to figure out. And keep in mind, none of this current concern even contemplates a dust-up with China; in that case, all bets are off.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

Photo via Flickr