I agree with those who have noted that the Baltic States can by defended against both an overt or covert invasion by present Russian forces, but I disagree that the present local and NATO posture can achieve this.
The first key issue is sea control of the Baltic Sea from the island of Bornholm to the Aland Islands. As when the Baltic littoral was defended the last time against a Russian offensive – by Nazi Germany during the last year of the Second World War – everything depends on the ability to defend and use the chosen sea-lines-of communication.
During the Cold War the NATO mission was limited to the far less demanding task of denying the Warsaw Treaty Organisation navies free use of the sea routes in the southern part of the Baltic Sea for the support the offensive operations of the Coastal Front and Soviet Red Flag Baltic Navy. In the hope to defeat the threat, to succeed in this limited mission, the involved NATO states developed large, modern and capable specialised naval and naval air units. They were thereafter scrapped in the later focus on Blue Water capabilities.
The ability to defend sea routes cannot be decided by a simple comparison of available NATO and Russian local naval forces. Both are rather weak. We have to analyse whether NATO can protect the shipping generally or at least high priority convoys. The transport shipping has to be effectively protected from mines, submarine, air and missile attack. The task has always been difficult in the Baltic Sea due to the temperature and salt layered character of the sea, and the development of mine and torpedo technology since 1945 has made task ever more difficult. In 1944-45 the Germans could count on the cover of winter darkness and cloudy weather as well as on the indifferent quality of Soviet Naval Aviation to shield the transports from effective air attack. Now long-range detection systems coupled with full all-weather attack capability by both aircraft and long-range air and surface launched anti-shipping missiles will make the protection of shipping extremely difficult and demanding. The task becomes even more difficult during a crisis period before and the first phases of hostilities where strikes against the potential source of attacks will be ruled-out to avert escalation.
The Baltic States have four capable terminal ports at relatively safe distance from Russian territory: Liepaja, Ventspils, Riga and the port facilities in and east of Tallinn. However, all have approaches vulnerable to the most discreet “hybrid” warfare anti-shipping weapon: the mine. The main Lithuanian port of Klaipeda lies too close to Russian territory to be considered available. As the mine-warfare expertise and capability of the NATO-navies have withered together with the anti-submarine and air-defence capabilities and the general coastal warfare capabilities, it is doubtful whether NATO can muster a credible sea control MCM posture for the Baltic Sea. Any fishing or merchant ship now has the ability to carry out accurate covert mining operations in support of hybrid warfare.
The missile threat is also serious and even if probably only urgent after the start of hostilities. The reduced Russian Baltic Navy light surface units and naval aviation presently in the Baltic area mean that there exists a very significant latent missile threat against shipping everywhere in the Baltic. Nothing can prevent Russia from reinforcing their forces from the other fleets prior to and during a crisis and to start employing harassment of Western shipping and naval units as sometimes during the Cold War.
If NATO tries to establish protected sea lines, the effort will be heavily dependent on general and specialist naval air power. It should be employed in the protection of convoys that use the less directly exposed sea routes (away from the Russian Kaliningrad Oblast) across the central Baltic Sea from Swedish the territorial waters of Gotland to the four safest Baltic harbours listed above. In order to have maximum time in the area the aircraft should operate from East-German, Polish or – far best – central Swedish bases. The credibility of the whole sea control operation to support the defence of the Baltic States may depend on the availability of the Swedish bases that the country secretly planned to make available to the USAF during the Cold War.
The lesser capable alternatives to sea transport are air transport and over-land transport via the narrow Polish-Lithuanian land corridor between the Russian Kaliningrad Oblast and Belorussia. These options will be sufficient for any initial limited deterrent deployment of light reaction forces, but will not have the capability to support the larger NATO-forces of army formations and logistics needed for a minimum defensive deployment.
Of the main airfields, Vilnius Airport and the Palanga Airfield are too close to Belorussia and Kaliningrad Oblast to be safely usable, and support of Lithuania will have to use Karmeleva at Kaunas and the large military airfield Zokniai near Siauliai. Air transport to Latvia depends on the use of Riga Airport with the military airfield at Lielvarde as a reserve, in Estonia Tallinn Airport has Ämari military airfield and the local airfields at Tartu and Pärnu as reserves – the latter a former Soviet air base west of the city centre and harbour. All Baltic airfields are difficult and demanding in troops to guard against Special Forces due to built-up or wooded areas in close proximity. To work effectively as air bases in a hybrid warfare phase they need the deployment of a full set of local defence and security forces and logistics elements. If considered for later defence operation in spite of operating within the range of Russian long-range air defence missile systems, the bases need area and close air defence systems as well as EOD and rapid runway repair elements. None of these capabilities can be supplied by the Baltic Host Nations, and the lack of this operational requirement during the last two decades, few, if any, remains in the European NATO forces.
The main problem, however, is that none of the Baltic States have the forces available to create a minimum cohesive, initial forward territorial defence of their territory, and because of this a symbolic employment of U.S. subunits to the capitals as a “trip-wire” as suggested recently by Zbigniew Brzezinski signal weakness by offering hostages rather than a step that ensures later timely deployment of robust deterrent forces. Such follow-on forces that were previously available no longer exist, as they were irrelevant after “history had ended”.
No exposed forward state was ever capable of creating an effective initial territorial defence and deterrent force posture without the use of conscription, and fortunately the last decades of communications and individual or pair served weapon system development have created equipment far easier to handle than those 40-50 years ago. Only some complex crew served weapons such as tanks and command cadre functions still benefit from a long service regulars’ routine. However, fashion, ideology and lack of personal experience with training and use of national servicemen still seems to block Western peace-time realization of the essential benefits of access to the draft to supplement regulars. It is the only way to generate quantity without real loss of flexibility and quality. Historical cases indicate that local initial defence capabilities are not only essential for gaining time and keeping space for receiving assistance, the demonstrated will to defend themselves and handle hybrid challenges without having to resort to serious suppression eases the political decision among allies to fight for another country.
It was been the a-historical NATO policy to pretend – recently under the “smart defence” buzz-heading – that there exists an immediate and pre-programmed political willingness in all member states to contribute forces to fight for an ally no matter what situation and what the host state contributes. Of course it is dim-witted nonsense. It is time to realize that the bluff has been called and act accordingly.
To protect the Baltic States, NATO needs protected airfields for initial deployment, a local cohesive territorial defence of borders and capitals as well as safe sea-lines-of communication. To meet and deter the Russian challenge takes the development of credible and sizable national defence forces – standing and reserves. Flimsy make-believe diplomatic constructions pretending solidarity by all to all hypothetical but undefined challenges is making Putin’s project simple.