On Friday, the U.S. Army announced in increase in American troops in Germany, the latest step deeper into the new Cold War taking root in Europe. This increase is more than a gesture; the hardware involved speaks to the way the U.S. and NATO would respond to a fight against Russia’s modernized military.
“We are working to create a combat-credible posture in Europe that will underpin our deterrence,” Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the U.S. Army head at European Command, said . “We are updating our operational plans to provide military response options to defend our European allies against Russian aggression.”
By 2020, about 1500 additional soldiers will deploy to bases in Germany, one of the largest such increases in Europe since the Berlin Wall came down. The new gear and troops heading to Germany comes in two flavors: short-range anti-aircraft units and rocket artillery. Although each represents the re-adoption of 1970s battlefield skills, they are also responses to lessons learned from recent Russian military action.
Short range missile gap
What’s old is new again when it comes to short-range air defense systems in Europe. During the Cold War, small shoulder-fired missiles and those mounted on vehicles served as vital defenses against Russian helicopters that could destroy NATO tanks and armored personnel carriers. Larger systems brought radar and higher-flying, guided AA missiles to the frontlines in an effort to deny enemy warplanes the ability to fly over battlefields. After the Soviet Union dissolved, the Army’s emphasis on short range air defense waned.
These days, short-range air defense is back in vogue. This year, soldiers in Europe on shoulder fired, FIM-92 Stingers for the first time in 15 years. This April, a National Guard air defense brigade from South Carolina began rotating deployments to Germany. On Friday, the Pentagon made the effort more permanent by forming a short-range air defense battalion at an Army garrison in Ansbach.
These units are not just aiming at Russian helos and warplanes anymore. Defenses these days have to intercept rocket attacks that can come from 60 km away but land with little advanced warning. That makes a defensive system that can move a protective umbrella of radar and chain guns with advancing or retreating troops extremely valuable and practically indispensable. The Army also has a plan to mount anti-aircraft missiles on Stryker armored vehicles by 2020 to keep defenses maneuverable.
And rockets aren't the only new target. Ukraine has showcased another battle tactic that Russia has also successfully employed: using drones to aim their artillery. These small, unmanned aerial vehicles can bring about outsized advantage on the battlefield and are much harder to find and kill than a helicopter. The Army has been focusing on counter UAV technology, including mobile radar that can spot them overhead. A burst of gunfire or a shoulder-fired AA missile can destroy the drone, making those short range systems that much more valuable.
But Stingers won’t protect against one an emerging threat — cruise missiles, which can fly low to beat radar and dash to a target, often from unexpected directions and in a swarm. The U.S. has watched as Tu-95MS bombers fired volleys of cruise missiles at targets in Syria from thousands of kilometers away. Such long-range precision weaponry could create chaos on the frontline or reach behind the lines to strike vital transportation lines in Europe.
The Multi-Mission Launcher that is supposed to shoot down these threats, using larger vehicles, a slew of new interceptors and specialized radar targeting, has been beset with delays and won’t be deployed until 2022, soonest. In the meantime, yes, we have systems like AEGIS and the Terminal High Altitude Area Air Defense, but those are optimized to beat ballistic missiles on their long, predictable flights. These medium range defenses are important, but do nothing to fill the short-range gap the U.S. is contending with.
Rockets in flight, afternoon ignite
In 2006 there was only one U.S. Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) in all of Europe. The troops called it “Alabama” and had so much ammunition . That was then, this is now. On Friday, the Army said it is forming two new MLRS battalions, bringing some heavy firepower to Europe that is squarely aimed at Russia.
MLRS rockets travel dozens of miles to drop precise high explosives or a spread of bomblets across the terrain below. The modern battlefield is blanketed with sensors—mobile ground radar, acoustic surveillance equipment at observation posts, satellite imagery, and camera feeds from drones—that can be used to help guide MLRS shots. This enables heavy explosive support without putting pilots in range of Russian anti-aircraft missiles.
The Army has rediscovered the utility of MLRS systems, and the use them places like Iraq against concentrations of ISIS troops. But the real advantage they have is mobility. A future conflict with Russia could give rise to scrambling artillery duels between rocket vehicles, with the victor being whichever crews can shoot and move faster.
But don’t think that this heavy artillery will replace the need for warplanes over Europe. Scaparrotti has been clear that a permanent U.S. Air Force is part of his vision of a deterrent against Russia.
“USEUCOM requires additional combat and aviation support air assets, to include prepositioned assets, airfield infrastructure improvements, and dispersed basing,” his posture review says, saying that the 2018 and 2019 budgets are being tailored to fund “investments that enable the rapid reception of fourth and fifth generation fighters, close air support, bombers, and air mobility aircraft in a contingency.”
That word “contingency” could mean something like a large scale fight started by Russian Russian proxies, as happened in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. Or it could mean a border incursion in the Baltics. Many scenarios escalate to what sounds a lot like World War III. The pieces are being positioned now. Whether they will deter such a conflict or see action during one remains to be seen.