As I watch the posturing of the Obama administration on the Russia-Ukraine issue, I wonder what the picture is in other Americans’ heads of the state of our military forces in Europe. Do people imagine the forces of yesteryear? The tens of thousands of ground troops, the tank brigades, the many dozens of strike-fighter aircraft, the dominant sea services with aircraft carriers and lurking submarines, agile destroyers and enormous “gator-freighters” full of Marines?
Or do enough of us understand that there is hardly any of that old concentration of forces left in Europe? I don’t know. Nor do I know what audience Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel imagined he was addressing, when he told the media a couple of days ago that the U.S. might consider stationing an additional Army brigade in Europe as a way of “countering Russia.”
It couldn’t have been Russia he was making a point with. Russia knows perfectly well that one brigade, with 4-5,000 soldiers in it, is hardly a deterrent, in a theater where Moscow has recently – on multiple occasions – mustered troop formations in the tens of thousands.
This is especially the case given that U.S. Army troop strength in Europe has been reduced by two brigade combat teams in the last two years: the 170th Infantry Brigade, which was inactivated in 2012, and the 172nd Infantry Brigade, inactivated in 2013. In fact, there are no longer any U.S. brigades with a conventional infantry mission in Europe. The combat brigades remaining there now are the 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade (3,300-strong and headquartered in Vicenza, Italy); the 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment (4,000-strong, headquartered in Germany); and the 12th Combat Aviation Brigade, headquartered in Germany.
These units are not available for combat ops in their full, mission-organized strength, however, because many of their assets are deployed at any given time, mainly to Afghanistan, but also, in recent years, to Africa. As unthinkable as it would be to send these units up against the much larger Russian formations menacing Ukraine (or potentially other frontiers of Eastern Europe), even that is more than we can actually do. The units aren’t intact and available for doctrinal, full-scale operations in Europe.
Russia knows that, and so do the military leaders of our NATO allies. Russia and NATO also know that the U.S. has no A-10 Warthogs left in Europe, and has only a small number of M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles there; 29 and 33, respectively, being maintained for NATO training purposes at Grafenwoehr, Germany.
These numbers are hilariously insufficient as a “counter” to Russia. Estimates of the number of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border have varied from 40,000 to 80,000 in the last three weeks; just before the 16 March referendum in Crimea, a British estimate put the number of tanks deployed at 270, armored infantry vehicles at 180, and fixed-wing aircraft at 140. Against a force of this size, adding a single brigade, with a mission to lurk elsewhere in Europe, is at most a gesture of indecision: a signal that we’d like to have a shot at postponing the inevitable, if we decide to try.
Of course, a NATO “counter” to Russia would not be based solely on U.S. forces. But to be credible, it would have to be sufficient to actually pose a realistic combat problem for Russia. For NATO to muster such a presentation of force, the alliance would have to agree on a strategy, adopt a plan, and identify the allied forces that would be used to implement it (which presumably would include mobilized U.S. forces, falling in on prepositioned equipment which could be activated in a matter of weeks). There has been no such decision, nor even a carefully-timed hint of one.
Nor is the United States communicating anything that would make token gestures more credible. One brigade isn’t much of a downpayment on allied determination, in and of itself, but if America signaled a change in national priorities, including a will to bolster our military instead of continuing to dismantle it, the threat of bringing a brigade back to Europe might have more teeth.
That isn’t happening either. Throughout the Ukrainian crisis, and the sea change in relative posture between Russia and NATO, the Obama administration and U.S. lawmakers have continued to plan drastic cuts to the American military, as if nothing else is going on. The two brigades that disappeared from Europe in 2012 and 2013 don’t exist anymore; the Army, which last year proposed a huge cut in the number of its brigades by 2017, floated a proposal in late February to take an even bigger whack by 2019. The Army proposes, moreover, to have fewer brigades overall and less combat capability available in the National Guard.
These deliberations do the opposite of give credibility to token gestures or threats of escalation. The Western media and most of the Western public may be ignorant about the basis for military credibility. But Russia isn’t.
Vladimir Putin is already looking beyond the present crisis to his next opportunity. He sees what complacent Westerners do not: that everything has already changed, and the West no longer has the favorable “correlation of forces” necessary for exercising deterrence with small gestures.
We could still exercise deterrence in the Ukrainian situation with bigger ones, such as arming Ukraine and changing direction in our military planning. Our present situation is not hopeless because of static realities, like the forces in place, but because of dynamic ones: will, wit, and intention.
When an opponent covets territory and is engaged in territorial acquisition, it matters whether our response is reasonably connected to the dimensions of that problem. So far, the American and NATO response has not had that quality. We have concentrated instead on sending abstract, disembodied signals which have only the virtue of being affordable on the same budget and plan we started with, before everything changed. It borders on insanity to think that measures of this kind will change Putin’s mind. But the media and the public seem content to accept irrational answers from our leaders – like the discussion of whether one extra American brigade will somehow make a difference to the deterrent value of NATO’s posture.
Then again, we are preoccupying ourselves with worrying about whether grooming regulations in the Army are fair to minorities. Maybe we already are crazy.