This piece originally appeared on Real Clear Defense on May 10, 2017.
Jim Mattis will visit the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius this week, marking his first ever visit to the Baltics in his new capacity as U.S. Secretary of Defense. Joining Mattis in Lithuania will be the Defense Ministers of all three Baltic states who will converge on the Lithuanian capital for a highly symbolic two-day meeting. The Mattis visit underscores the importance of the region to U.S. and NATO security interests and reaffirms U.S. support for Baltic security. It will also go a long way in calming the nerves of the leaders of the Baltic states and reassure our Baltic allies over U.S. defense commitments to their security.
Since 2014, NATO has become more cognizant about the weakness of its ability to defend the Baltics and has been taking steps to bolster its capacity to defend the region. To some critics, NATO’s feeble efforts to deter a Russian attack in the Baltic have remained modest and could very well be another Dunkirk in the making. Last year the RAND Corporation concluded in an assessment that U.S. and NATO forces in the Baltics were severely outnumbered, outranged and outgunned. In the neighboring Russia Cold War enclave of Kaliningrad, for example, there are over 30,000 Russian forces, which is larger than the military forces of all three Baltic states combined. Next door to Latvia, the Russian base in Pskov can field 30,000 Russian men with two days notice. To counter this threat, the U.S. military in Europe has a grand total of only 50,000 American ground forces to defend NATO’s widely exposed eastern flank that extends from the Baltic to the Black Sea.
NATO has tried to fill the gap in the Baltic by asking Germany, Canada, and the United Kingdom to deploy brigade-sized forces of 1,000 men to Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia on a rotational basis as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence, or EFP. NATO’s use of rotational forces rather than permanently basing troops in the Baltic is related to the Russia-NATO Founding Act, which prevents the long-term deployment of NATO forces in Eastern Europe. The addition of these NATO brigades will augment the existing U.S. company sized units of 150 men currently stationed in each Baltic capital. Together these forces will serve as a form of Baltic tripwire force similar to the Cold War grouping based in Berlin known as the “Berlin Brigade.”
Earlier this year the U.S. went a step further by using money from the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) to deploy an additional 4,000 men from the 3rd armored brigade of the 4thinfantry division to Zagan, Poland to further reinforce its eastern presence. This deployment, however, masks the major logistical challenges the United States faces in meeting the Russian threat in the Baltic. Pre-positioned supplies for NATO forces are 1,600 kilometers from the front lines in the Baltics. During the Cold War NATO, pre-positioned supplies were only 300 kilometers from the front lines of the Fulda Gap. Recently, it took the U.S. 4th infantry division over 62 days just to get from the German port of Bremerhaven to its new base in Poland.
From Poland to the Baltic states, the U.S. has another major geographical challenge to overcome that is known as the Suwalki Gap, a narrow 60-mile sliver of territory that is the only overland link between NATO member state Poland and the Baltics. The Suwalki Gap today is what the Fulda Gap was to NATO during the Cold War, a narrow gap and future attack route for Russian tank forces into Poland and the Baltic. Russia-leaning Belarus is only 32 kilometers from the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius and any loss of control over Suwalki to the Russians would sever Lithuania and the rest of the Baltic states from NATO member Poland and force NATO to fight its way into the Baltic by sea past the A2/AD bastion in Kaliningrad.
Referred to as Russia’s “Gibraltar” of the Baltic, Kaliningrad, is the anchor of Moscow’s strategy in the region known in Pentagon language as A2/AD or Anti-Access/Air Denial whereby layers of anti-air and coastal defense missiles create an impenetrable defense corridor to prevent NATO in accessing the Baltic. A veritable gauntlet of weaponry is deployed in Kaliningrad, including the S-400 ground to air missiles, Bastion land-based batteries equipped with supersonic Yakhonts anti-shipping missiles and nuclear-capable Iskander missiles.
Before becoming Secretary of Defense Mattis used to say: “I do not write policy, I just execute the last 600 meters of it”. Secretary Mattis now finds himself in the position of being able to write that strategy for American and NATO policy planners. Foremost on his agenda in Vilnius will be deciding how NATO and the U.S. should react to or even counter the large-scale Zapad 2017 Russian military exercises in neighboring Belarus in September that will involve over 75,000 men and the elite Russian tank force known as the Tamanskaia Division. One means at Mattis’ disposal would be to consider a test deployment of NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF). Created during the 2014 Wales summit, NATO decided to enhance the already existing NATO Response Force by creating a spearhead force known as the VJTF that consists of a multi-national brigade of 5,000 men. At the disposal of the NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) General Curtis Scaparrotti, this force has never been tested or forward deployed to the Baltic.
With the Zapad 2017 military exercises on the horizon for September, neighboring Belarus will be high on the minds of the leaders of the Baltic states when they meet with Mattis in Vilnius. It is high time for NATO to consider changing its existing strategy of enhanced forward presence in the Baltic to one of enhanced deterrence. Deploying NATO’s VJTF to the Baltic for the first time in reaction to Zapad 2017 could demonstrate to Moscow that NATO is prepared to move beyond the modest notion of tripwire forces to a more enhanced and credible form of deterrence.
Glen E. Howard is the President of The Jamestown Foundation.