Forward Basing NATO Airpower in the Baltics Is A Bad Idea

April 18, 2016

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The Russian invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea in early 2014 set in motion a sequence of profound changes in planning NATO force posture, some with negative consequences that may not yet be fully appreciated. Much of what has changed in the last two years involves the alliance’s land and naval components. Yet NATO airpower is the most directly involved in ongoing contact with the Russian military. It is also the most vulnerable to planning missteps made now that would become highly problematic in the event of hostilities against the Russian Federation. Unfortunately, the influence of politics within NATO may be pushing planners toward a disastrous course; namely, shifting some portion of the alliance’s airpower resources into bases in the Baltics or eastern Poland that would be highly vulnerable in any conflict with Russia.

In thinking about how a conflict with Russia might look, I concur fully with Michael Kofman’s assertion in War on the Rocks that “High-end warfare, not hybrid warfare, is where America’s and NATO’s problem truly lies in dealing with Russia.” The challenges involved in taking on a peer or near-peer adversary such as Russia in an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD, i.e., high threat) environment are very significant in the airpower realm. This is a crucial point given the need for NATO (mainly U.S.) air forces to “kick down the door,” gain air superiority, and conduct interdiction against advancing enemy forces prior to deploying friendly ground units.

NATO’s Geopolitical Imperative

Compounding this already difficult undertaking is the influence that geopolitics has on NATO’s current thinking about a possible conflict with Russia. In an earlier article in Air and Space Power Journal, I suggested that the Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) express the most earnest concern over perceived Russian aggression. This angst has its roots first in the historical trauma that the region experienced mostly (but not exclusively) at the hands of Russia, both in its Imperial and Soviet eras. Second, much of the higher operational tempo exhibited lately by the Russian Air Force occurs in Baltic region airspace: NATO’s longstanding Baltic Air Policing (BAP) mission, which maintains a quick-reaction alert capability, responds frequently to Russian air activity in the area. Finally, large-scale Russian joint force military exercises have been conducted regularly in areas adjacent to the Baltic states.

The cumulative result of the above is a high level of anxiety in the Baltic countries that permeates NATO’s political leadership, dramatically evident in the NATO Summit meeting in Wales in September 2014. This anxiety in turn exerts pressure on commanders to demonstrate resolve by ramping up military activity of all kinds in eastern Europe to reassure nervous allies, especially the highly vulnerable and insecure Baltics. In the run-up to the July 2016 NATO Summit in Warsaw, there are serious proposals to essentially renew the alliance’s vows and ratchet up the intensity of efforts to deter Russian aggression by undertaking wide-ranging upgrades to NATO’s defensive capabilities. The paramount U.S. role in this effort is evidenced by the Obama administration’s European Reassurance Initiative (ERI), announced by the President in Warsaw in June 2014 and supported by rapidly expanding supplementary funding in the defense budget since 2015. Although there are of course expenditures that sustain the U.S. military in Europe through normal defense budgeting, that force had been drawing down since the collapse of the Soviet Union and more recently as a result of the “rebalance” to Asia. ERI funding is intended as a small corrective in light of the changing strategic situation in Europe.

Location, Location, Location

Given NATO’s imperative to reassure the Baltics and deter Russia, the next task is to evaluate the alliance’s prospects against a determined Russian attack.   Unsurprisingly, given the respective orders of battle and realities of military geography, that assessment demonstrates that the Baltic region is essentially un-defendable, at least in the early stages of a war (although some contest that point). This is the result of the region’s very small size (roughly the area of Missouri), its location immediately adjacent to Russia proper, and — of particular import — Russia’s heavily defended Kaliningrad exclave along the Baltic Sea littoral between NATO members Poland and Lithuania. To bring the problem of defending the Baltics further into focus, add into this calculation the fact that most of the region is within range of Russian mobile surface-to-air, surface-to-surface, and air attack threats launched from inside Russian territory. Finally, pro-Moscow Belarus, which borders Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, is a wild card which could significantly complicate NATO’s defense of its eastern flank should it side with Russia in a conflict.

With that geographic reality in mind, a crucial question is where NATO ought to base its high-value airpower assets that are such an important part of its deterrent impact and its actual combat power. The United States and NATO attempt to dodge the charge that they are provoking the Russians by basing forces in the Baltics by couching this forward presence as “rotational” or “persistent.” But beneath the rhetoric is a pattern of spending within the ERI budget that suggests otherwise and raises some concerns about the military efficacy of the entire venture, at least insofar as it relates to the role of airpower in the Baltic region.

Show Me the Money

These concerns stem from a reading of line items in the ERI component of the defense budget, which provides insights into the administration’s thinking about where and for what purpose these supplementary funds ought to go, which in turn tells us about their strategic planning for a possible conflict with Russia in eastern Europe. The U.S. Army garnered the lion’s share of the ERI budget for building up an armored brigade combat team and other forces. The U.S. Air Force’s 17% share of ERI funding contains several elements that make good sense. Particularly wise investments include the retention of a squadron of F-15C air superiority fighters in the United Kingdom that had been scheduled for drawdown (about a third of the Air Force ERI budget) and the planned upgrade of facilities at a base in western Germany to accommodate F-22 air superiority fighters. Exercises that stress interoperability with allied air forces and other components provide good training opportunities, and those should be continued apace. Prepositioning of airfield support equipment at existing bases is also a good idea, but the financial support provided for this to date is clearly inadequate at a mere 7 percent of the Air Force’s 2017 ERI funding.

A Better Idea

Part of the Air Force’s infrastructure investment tied to NATO’s northern flank has been slated for air bases in the Baltics and eastern Poland, all of which are highly exposed to Russian threats. For example, Ämari air base in Estonia, although useful as a base for a small fighter detachment for the air policing mission, is only about 150 miles from the Russian border. Flying at speed and low altitude to avoid radar detection, a Russian Air Force fighter-bomber would be overhead Ämari just 10 minutes after crossing the Russo-Estonian border. Yet U.S. Air Force deployments to this base included A-10 close air support aircraft, accompanied by considerable fanfare. Such deployments makes one wonder if the Air Force is really thinking about sending the Warthog into the teeth of the Russian military’s lethal air defenses from a base that would almost certainly be destroyed in the opening hours of a war. Or is this just for show?

What would make better sense in terms of spending the Air Force’s ERI funding? The answer is to fund greater capacity (including much more prepositioned munitions and fuel) to operate from permanent or temporary air bases in places further removed from the Russian threat, such as in the United Kingdom, western Germany, Denmark, and the Netherlands. These bases would receive active, Guard, and Reserve squadrons deploying from the United States to provide the mix of aircraft needed for this fight. From these arriving assets, U.S. Air Forces Europe could generate air superiority, suppression of enemy air defenses, and interdiction missions dedicated to a counter-attack against invading Russian forces in the Baltics, together with air refueling, electronic warfare, and airborne surveillance support from the relative safety of hardened rear area bases. Dozens of other airfields in relatively secure areas could be pressed into service through the Air Force’s innovative Forward Arming and Refueling Points concept. It has always been the case that there is a tradeoff between sortie generation (flying longer missions reduces the sortie rate) and the protection of one’s assets. When the choice is made about from where to fight, one ought to err on the side of caution; zero sorties can be generated from aircraft destroyed on their bases. In the present circumstances on NATO’s northeastern flank, to push airpower basing too far forward to satisfy political requirements is an unnecessarily risky move.


Maj. Gen. Ralph S. Clem (ret.) is Emeritus Professor of Geography at Florida International University, and is a retired Air Force Reserve intelligence officer.


Photo credit: Tech. Sgt. Jason Robertson, U.S. Air Force

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8 thoughts on “Forward Basing NATO Airpower in the Baltics Is A Bad Idea

  1. MG Clem is right on both military and political grounds. Having unwisely extended its Article V guarantee to states that Clem rightly describes as initially “undefendable,” NATO now is obliged to honor that commitment. But doing that doesn’t require a basing decision that effectively would put at risk its very capacity to do so – a decision, moreover, that would only increase preemptive incentives in a crisis. Bad idea all around.

  2. Forward basing also places US aircraft on the ground at risk of attack with Hybrid warfare. You can have a Baltic Pearl Harbor that Russia could use as pretext to move in to “Protect Russians from retribution raids by NATO forces”.

    The Baltics don’t need armor and aircraft, they need to be bristling with NATO missiles and advanced communications gear. How about inviting RT to the “Estonian Turkey Shoot”, where they have various Baltic defence forces demonstrate how quickly they can set up and destroy an armored column. Not just one, all of the forces get to shoot. Everyone gets to fire a TOW! There are plenty to go around! Show trucks backing up overloaded with crates.
    Next year it will be in Latvia, where everyone gets to shoot helicopters and surplus SU-24 with Stingers… HOORAAY!!!

    That would be much cheaper and useful deterrent than forward staging and potential loss of an air wing or an armoured column.

  3. Good comments on forward basing, mainly that any forward basing of American forces act as targets. Unless there was some guarantee of high attrition rates, we would just be supporting the consumption of Russia missiles with real aircraft. (Maybe that’s the ply for the A-10’s?)

    I like the comment about making the Baltic Republics AA/AD platforms, heavily armed to shoot down Russia aircraft and take out the tank battalions and artillery regiments. Sometime you have to play defense first.

    As to the ERI, that’s a way for the Pentagon to NOT give back all the Iraq/Afghanistan funding and instead subsidize our NATO allies who should be paying us, not us subsidizing them!

    Anyway, think about the possibility the author raises if Belarus is NOT engaged in hostilities! Or the Ukriane! Then a Russian action would simply be targeted at the Baltics. Closing off the Russian right flank, after which they can really shut down the Baltic Sea itself. Makes a lot of sense. Feeling the Americans breathing down their neck after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, Russia pushes back, then, with a Baltic, Belarus, Ukraine buffer, waits it out for another decade before making another move somewhere completely different.

    1. Bryce: You may be the only reader we have who thinks this is a website that favors neoconservatives. Your comment was deleted because you engaged in personal attacks, which are not permitted. Express your opinions, fine, but do not engage in personal attacks.

  4. The Baltics should have a small detachment for policing, the A-10’s in a hybrid war would be devastating so not a bad idea (regardless having pilots rotated in area real world flying the landscape would be a very valuable ability in the event of peer war were they would probably fly in from outside).

    As far as peer conventional war prep the US should
    1. demand all West Europe increase military budgets to 2% or pay the difference into the kitty.
    2. East Europe, the Baltics, Ukraine, Georgia all should be pushed to increase their military capabilities and add anti air PAC3 or more.
    3. The US should push NATO to make a agreement that if conflict comes it will not be restricted to the Baltics and will be fought to full reconstitution of lost NATO territory while all NATO or NATO allies territory conquest will not be offered in kind.

    Russia could probably capture the Baltics or part therof but they could not defend it long term against a determined NATO advance and Russia has much to lose while NATO could rather easily cheaply spread the Russians out in non-winnable actions if supported by NATO/US air/weapons, Transnista/Moldova, Ukraine/Novorossa, Georgia, Chechnyia, Japan/Kurils, Kalininigrad/GermanyPoland. Such a statement by NATO maybe bluster or it may not.

    All those fields could not be defended by todays Russia. If the Russian gen pop woke up to the announcement of Russians troops capturing Baltic cities pushing for the coast then woke up to German troops in massive NATO/US air power shooting down tens to hundreds of Russian aircraft daily while denying air support to Russian Troops on multiple fronts from the Pacific to the Black Sea and all between being attacked by locals backed by US air and weapons it may be a interesting week for Putin.

    Bottom line Putin is not stupid the only reason this is even a possible thought for Putin is the very weak US leadership currently. Weak US leadership enforces weak ally resolve and emboldens our enemies to take stupid risk. History is full of such instances causing miscalculations that cause horrible needless avoidable wars.

  5. Sure, deploying some A-10s or other easily destroyed assets to the Baltics makes no tactical sense. But strategically?

    Maybe the idea wouldn’t be for the A-10s to actually provide any realistic defense. Maybe they’d be there to get destroyed publicly and graphically in any conventional Russian attack (and in a much more immediate and obvious manner than ground units). So publicly and graphically destroyed that the American public would demand righteous payback.

    Strategically, they might serve as a tripwire, putting American skin front and center in the game, and thus serve as a clear deterrent. Sitting ducks in any Russian surprise attack, or the first step toward MAD? The Russians might think twice about making such a blatant move as taking them out in the onset of any conflict…