Rapid Reaction? | UniverWork

Rapid Reaction?

In recent weeks, NATO has been trumpeting the creation of its new “Very High Readiness Joint Task Force,” aimed (in part) at deterring future aggression from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

At first glance, the task force appears to be well-conceived–at least on paper.  Here’s a description of the unit (and its capabilities) from a NATO fact sheet:  

“As a part of restructuring the NRF, NATO is also establishing a Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF) which can deploy within days.  It will be comprised of a multinational brigade (approximately 5,000 troops), with up to five battalions, supported by air, maritime and special forces. Some elements will be ready to move within two to three days.  The force will be available to move at the first warnings and indicators of potential threats, before a crisis begins, to act as a potential deterrent to further escalation.  The rapid arrival of this small but capable military unit would send a very clear message to any potential aggressor: “any attempt to violate the sovereignty of one NATO nation will result in a decisive military engagement with all 28 allied nations”.  The VJTF’s rapid response times are what set it apart from other components of the NATO Response Force.

As Tom Rogan of National Review observes, the devil (once again) is in the military details.  By NATO’s own admission, only portions of the VJTF will be able to move within two or three days; the rest will need more time to mobilize and deploy.  

And of course, their movement is contingent on several factors, including the availability of U.S. strategic airlift to move NATO troops to a regional hotspot; a “permissive” air environment that allows $200 million C-17 transports to land, off-load troops and equipment and depart with minimal risk; and the willingness of member nations to provide the funding, troops and training required by the VJTF.  

We’ll begin with the airlift requirement.  NATO has long been dependent on the USAF (and its Air Mobility Command) to provide the bulk of the transports and crews needed to more personnel and supplies to the war zone.  That dependence has lessened a bit in recent years, with Great Britain and Canada purchasing four C-17s each, and NATO acquiring three more for its strategic airlift unit, based in Hungary.  However, that pales in comparison to the 222 Globemaster III’s in the American inventory and it underscores NATO’s continuing reliance on the U.S. to move most of the assets needed to respond to a regional contingency.  

But air planners won’t send C-17s into an environment where they are easy pickings for enemy fighters, or face significant threats from ground-based air defense systems.  Protecting the air bridge into a region like the Baltics would require scores of fighter aircraft, with support from AWACS, RC-135s, air tankers, EF-18s and other platforms.  Did we mention that the number of fighter squadrons in the USAF have been reduced by two-thirds over the last 20 years?  Or that many of NATO’s smaller members can provide only token support for that type of operation?  Suddenly, the job of getting VJTF personnel and supplies to the Baltics has grown infinitely more complex. 

Additionally, the alliance faces the added challenges of long logistics lines and the complete lack of defensive depth.  While NATO is making a great show of pre-positioning tanks, artillery and other “heavy” weaponry in the Baltic States and Poland, sustaining those weapons–and the troops that operate them–would post a significant supply challenge.  Put another way: the same challenges associated with getting the troops into the region would persist as NATO conducts operations and tries to keep them supplied.  

Meanwhile, the Russians don’t have those problems. As Tom Rogan notes, NATO depots near the Estonian capital (Tallinn) are only 130 miles from Russia’s western border–and Moscow already has significant military forces in the Kaliningrad exclave (between Lithuania and Poland) and its territory bordering the Baltic States.  That would allow Moscow to rapidly encircle the NATO force, before all elements of the VJTF arrive on the scene.

Some have likened the new task force (and its potential employment in the Baltics) as the latter-day equivalent of the “Fulda Gap” speed bump–forces designed to blunt a Warsaw Pact invasion through that corridor.  But such comparisons are faulty (and that’s being charitable).  For starters, we had much more than pre-positioned equipment guarding the Gap, and those front-line units were backed by NATO reserves and vast airpower assets.  Additionally, there was enough strategic depth to ensure that supply lines between the CONUS and Europe would remain open.  And there was always the nuclear option to keep the Soviets at bay–and the willingness to use it.

More than 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the VJTF looks more like a Bridge Too Far, a token force that could be easily over-whelmed at the end of long logistics and communications lines in the Baltics.  Indeed, with Russia’s new model for proxy wars on its borders, it’s possible that Moscow could use fifth column “volunteers” among the local populace to engage local defense forces and seize NATO assets–before our troops arrive.

This is not to say that Russia is once again a military juggernaut.  Earlier this year, independent Russian analyst Pavel Felgegauer declared that Putin’s armed is “unprepared for modern war” against large NATO formations.  But Russian capabilities are improving, and Moscow would enjoy key advantages in any conflict in the Baltics–advantages the VJTF cannot overcome.