The U.S. Army and its soldiers should question whether the Biden administration’s signaled shift to the Asia-Pacific region leaves the U.S. prepared to deal with a resurgent Russia. As Pentagon budgets draw down, Pentagon and political leaders are tailoring the military for China. America followed this path in 2014 with disastrous results for U.S. interests at home and in Europe, because a China-centric strategy lacked the capabilities to address Russia’s unique threats. The same problem exists today, only Russia is more motivated to risk war.
If that happens, the Army and its soldiers will bear the brunt of the bill. U.S. strategy must accept that deterring Moscow requires a modern Army prepared to lead a joint and combined fight today.
Despite the rhetoric, a war in the Pacific or Europe seems unlikely due to the risks of nuclear escalation or defeat. However, if the U.S. is concerned about armed conflict, Russia seems far more likely to go to war. Its invasion of Ukraine, operations to save a murderous regime in Syria and aggression in the Black Sea and the Arctic demonstrate that, absent a credible military deterrent, Moscow will redefine European and Middle East security through force. Russia has resorted to war for over a decade, and it will continue to do so.
The reasoning is simple: Russian leaders view NATO expansion and the advancement of democracy as an existential threat. Russian security specialists and leaders argue in military journals that the West seeks regime change by meddling in Russia’s internal politics, which would then spark a revolt and justify a Western invasion.
Moscow’s ongoing war against Ukraine—an area Russian leaders see as an essential security buffer—demonstrates the costs Russia will endure when threatened. Subsequent military actions, assassinations and other violent actions suggest Russian activities in Ukraine are not unique.
Additionally, if a war occurs in the Pacific, Russia could see an opportunity to defeat NATO in Europe while the U.S. fights China. The Kremlin fears for its survival, making it highly motivated to reshape the security environment through force.
Furthermore, Russian leaders have developed the means to challenge the West. They believe that because conflicts in Eastern Europe lie on their border, they have more at stake than the West. Unfortunately, this strategy may be reasonable. Polling for the last several years has shown reluctance among some Western NATO populations to defend their Eastern European allies.
Therefore, Moscow envisions employing nonmilitary means, such as information warfare, to set conditions for a limited ground action in Europe. Russia would then threaten nuclear escalation if the West attempts to reverse its actions militarily. Moscow possesses the motivation and means to wage a limited war against NATO.
Internal instability that threatens Kremlin leaders is the most likely trigger for war. Moscow likely would believe instability is the first step in a NATO invasion and conclude Russia must secure its enclave of Kaliningrad with a preemptive attack. Kaliningrad is separated from Russia by the Baltic States, with Poland to the south. Moscow would set conditions with information warfare, demonizing Poland and the Baltic States as the source of its problems, to separate them from the West.
Kremlin leaders also would likely approve cyberattacks on critical infrastructure to demonstrate potential costs to the West. These nonmilitary activities would have two goals: prevent the NATO alliance from activating Article 5, in which the NATO allies agree to collective defense, and inhibiting NATO preparations for war.
Once Russian nonmilitary actions, such as information warfare, set conditions, Russian forces could then seize portions of Lithuania and Poland to secure Kaliningrad. Russian leaders would likely claim they are protecting Russian minorities in those countries as a pretext. Kremlin leaders would then threaten nuclear escalation to prevent a NATO response.
Unfortunately, America’s traditional approach to warfare risks rapid escalation to a nuclear exchange. The U.S. military has perfected rolling back an adversary’s air defense network and then disrupting their command and control, rendering their military ineffective.
Russian strategists have studied American operations and identify noncontact warfare, their term for U.S. air and naval precision warfare, as the greatest threat to Russian survival. They reason that if the U.S. gains superiority in the aerospace domain, it will destroy Russian military capacity, including their nuclear arsenal, rendering Russia defenseless.
Some Russian strategists argue that once Moscow loses aerospace parity, Russia should immediately resort to nuclear weapons. Russia’s security doctrine states that Moscow will employ nuclear weapons when survival is at risk. So, waves of aircraft and precision conventional missiles will likely convince Kremlin leaders that they face a use-or-lose situation with nuclear weapons, and if they do not use them, the regime will fall.
Faced with that risk, U.S. political leaders will severely limit strikes into Russia. In 1950, American leaders facing a similar problem in Korea concluded that a costly ground war was preferable to the risks of nuclear escalation after striking targets in China. In a limited war in Europe, American leaders will almost certainly come to similar conclusions.
More to Lose
It is easy to imagine Russian leaders employing nuclear weapons after NATO has devastated their national-level aerospace defenses. However, the Kremlin would have more to lose if Russia used nuclear weapons following a successful NATO counteroffensive to recover NATO territory. While that conflict will be a joint fight, ground-centric operations provide options to evict Russian military units from NATO territory without the risk of nuclear escalation.
In that fight, the U.S. Army will have several important roles to ensure success. Foremost, it must provide the command and control infrastructure for a combined ground force that is likely predominantly Eastern European. The network, one of the Army’s modernization priorities, must be simple enough to support large-scale combat operations with Poland, Romania and Bulgaria.
If NATO ground forces can talk to each other and their subordinates, and connect to U.S. joint fires for tactical and operational targets, Moscow has serious problems.
The Russian military understands this and has invested heavily in capabilities to disrupt warfighting networks. Over the past five years, Russia has demonstrated cyber ability and electronic warfare capabilities in Ukraine, Syria and the Baltics. The U.S. Army’s network has to be able to operate in the face of Russian attacks.
Equally important, U.S. Army logisticians will have to lead the joint and combined efforts to get combat power and resources to the fight. American operations since the First Gulf War make it crystal clear that the U.S.’ ability to project combat power and resources into a theater is the second key to America’s way of war. The May attack on the Colonial Pipeline showed that criminal organizations can disrupt critical infrastructure.
If Moscow risks war with NATO, Russian leaders undoubtedly would unleash their intelligence services’ more formidable hackers against U.S. infrastructure, such as undersea cables and industrial control systems for military and civilian infrastructure.
While the Army has spent a lot of effort thinking through contested logistics in theater, the initial decisive effort will be the U.S. Army Materiel Command and the U.S. Army Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command moving the force to theater and sustaining it. If Russia wins this fight, Europe is likely lost.
Alternatively, if the logistics community delivers III Corps to Warsaw, Poland, with fuel, food and ammunition, Moscow has problems.
Army investments in Future Vertical Lift and long-range precision fires are equally critical for fighting a successful limited war. While joint fires will play an essential role, it has two drawbacks. First, as air advocates have noted, the Air Force is efficient at delivering precision strikes to strategic depth by attacking multiple targets with a single aircraft. Unfortunately, as discussed above, this “shock and awe” efficiency risks nuclear escalation. Alternatively, Army aviation has proven its effectiveness at operational depth but does not threaten Russian strategic targets.
Moreover, the joint force needs Army precision strike capability to free joint resources for strategic purposes. Future Vertical Lift and Army precision fires capability could handle most of the targets in the area of operations so the joint force can manage escalation and continue deterring China.
One role would be holding strategic targets in Russia at risk, preventing Kremlin leaders from believing they can escalate. Political leaders would have a clear message for Moscow: Ground fires are dealing with the conflict you started. The larger joint fires community will finish the conflict if you escalate. Army precision strike also allows the Navy and Air Force to maintain a significant deterrent capability in the Pacific, ensuring China does not take advantage of a conflict in Europe.
Finally, Army precision strike capability provides the deterrent against Russia during a war in the Pacific.
The final critical piece the Army will bring to the fight is serving as the lynchpin for the air and missile defense fight in the area of operations. While air and missile defense will be a priority across Europe and the U.S., the risk of triggering a more extensive war should restrain Moscow from conducting wide-ranging attacks across Europe and America. However, within the area of operations, NATO should expect Russian precision strikes, particularly against critical, immobile nodes such as command and control, air and seaports, logistics hubs and supply depots.
Given Russian investment in precision strike, the Army’s air and missile defense modernization priority faces a daunting task: figuring out how to marshal U.S. and allied resources and ensure the survivability of these mission-essential sites.
As discussed earlier, Russia will likely attempt to paint any military action as a peacekeeping effort to protect the Russian people. In areas occupied by Russian troops, NATO will face a tricky conflict across the information, ground and cyber domains. U.S. Army special operators possess the skill sets to build resistance to Russian occupation while simultaneously fighting the information war to discredit Moscow’s propaganda. The conventional Army can bring the tools to win the traditional fight. Its special operators ensure Moscow cannot employ its own version of Multi-Domain Operations to change the narrative of the battle.
Budget pressures are winnowing the conversation down to one adversary: China. Adm. Philip Davidson, former commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command who retired in April, was right to sound the alarm about trends suggesting the Chinese Communist Party may attempt to reunite Taiwan forcibly with mainland China. However, war today risks a defeat that likely leads to regime collapse, while patience and time may favor Chinese interests.
On the other hand, survival rather than opportunity motivates Moscow. Russia’s leadership faces threats to its survival that are only increasing, creating immense pressure to secure itself by any means possible. Moreover, a war in the Pacific invites Russian aggression if the U.S. lacks a credible plan to deter it while fighting China. The Western Pacific is worrisome, but one spark can ignite the explosive mix of Russian fear and militarization into a European war.
The best insurance against a misstep by Moscow is preparing the U.S. Army for the war Russia plans to fight. U.S. Army modernization priorities allow the joint force to reverse Russian aggression without causing Kremlin leaders to escalate to nuclear weapons. We forget that great-power competition in the 21st century risks war with China and Russia at our peril.
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Col. Scott Gerber, U.S. Army retired, retired in July after a 30-year career with the Army during which he worked extensively on security issues related to Russia and China. His final assignment was founding director of the Army Strategy Board, the Pentagon. He holds a doctorate in political science specializing in deterrence failure from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore.