war on the rocks

Forward Basing NATO Airpower in the Baltics Is A Bad Idea

April 18, 2016

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