Combat Readiness And The U.S. Army’s “Identity Crisis”

Servicemen of the U.S. Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team (standing) train Ukrainian National Guard members during a joint military exercise called “Fearless Guardian 2015,” at the International Peacekeeping and Security Center near the western village of Starychy, Ukraine, on May 7, 2015. [Newsweek]

Last week, Wesley Morgan reported in POLITICO about an internal readiness study recently conducted by the U.S. Army 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade Combat Team. As U.S. European Command’s only airborne unit, the 173rd Airborne Brigade has been participating in exercises in the Baltic States and the Ukraine since 2014 to demonstrate the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) resolve to counter potential Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.

The experience the brigade gained working with Baltic and particularly Ukrainian military units that had engaged with Russian and Russian-backed Ukrainian Separatist forces has been sobering. Colonel Gregory Anderson, the 173rd Airborne Brigade commander, commissioned the study as a result. “The lessons we learned from our Ukrainian partners were substantial. It was a real eye-opener on the absolute need to look at ourselves critically,” he told POLITICO.

The study candidly assessed that the 173rd Airborne Brigade currently lacked “essential capabilities needed to accomplish its mission effectively and with decisive speed” against near-peer adversaries or sophisticated non-state actors. Among the capability gaps the study cited were

  • The lack of air defense and electronic warfare units and over-reliance on satellite communications and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) navigation systems;
  • simple countermeasures such as camouflage nets to hide vehicles from enemy helicopters or drones are “hard-to-find luxuries for tactical units”;
  • the urgent need to replace up-armored Humvees with the forthcoming Ground Mobility Vehicle, a much lighter-weight, more mobile truck; and
  • the likewise urgent need to field the projected Mobile Protected Firepower armored vehicle companies the U.S. Army is planning to add to each infantry brigade combat team.

The report also stressed the vulnerability of the brigade to demonstrated Russian electronic warfare capabilities, which would likely deprive it of GPS navigation and targeting and satellite communications in combat. While the brigade has been purchasing electronic warfare gear of its own from over-the-counter suppliers, it would need additional specialized personnel to use the equipment.

As analyst Adrian Bonenberger commented, “The report is framed as being about the 173rd, but it’s really about more than the 173rd. It’s about what the Army needs to do… If Russia uses electronic warfare to jam the brigade’s artillery, and its anti-tank weapons can’t penetrate any of the Russian armor, and they’re able to confuse and disrupt and quickly overwhelm those paratroopers, we could be in for a long war.”

While the report is a wake-up call with regard to the combat readiness in the short-term, it also pointedly demonstrates the complexity of the strategic “identity crisis” that faces the U.S. Army in general. Many of the 173rd Airborne Brigade’s current challenges can be traced directly to the previous decade and a half of deployments conducting wide area security missions during counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The brigade’s perceived shortcomings for combined arms maneuver missions are either logical adaptations to the demands of counterinsurgency warfare or capabilities that atrophied through disuse.

The Army’s specific lack of readiness to wage combined arms maneuver warfare against potential peer or near-peer opponents in Europe can be remedied given time and resourcing in the short-term. This will not solve the long-term strategic conundrum the Army faces in needing to be prepared to fight conventional and irregular conflicts at the same time, however. Unless the U.S. is willing to 1) increase defense spending to balance force structure to the demands of foreign and military policy objectives, or 2) realign foreign and military policy goals with the available force structure, it will have to resort to patching up short-term readiness issues as best as possible and continue to muddle through. Given the current state of U.S. domestic politics, muddling through will likely be the default option unless or until the consequences of doing so force a change.

Is The Fulda Gap Rhyming or Echoing?

Probable Axes of Attack of Warsaw Pact. Taken from Graham H. Turbiville, "Invasion in Europe--A Scenario," Army, November 1976, p. 19.

Probable Axes of Attack of Warsaw Pact. Taken from Graham H. Turbiville, “Invasion in Europe–A Scenario,” Army, November 1976, p. 19.

One of the great historical “what if’s” of recent memory was the imagined clash between the military forces of the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact in West Germany. This scenario – particularly a highly anticipated massive tank battle in the Fulda Gap on the north German plains – dominated the imaginations of U.S. military members, politicians, academics, strategic theorists, think tankers, and wargame nerds from the 1950s through the 1980s. Endless amounts of attention and effort were spent examining, debating, and thinking through a hypothetical war that seemed terribly real and imminent to so many at the time, but which also abruptly evaporated from the popular consciousness with the end of the Cold War in 1991. For many who came of age in the 1970s and 80s, however, merely mentioning the Fulda Gap evokes a collective nostalgic recollection of the prospect of a handful of plucky and resourceful NATO divisions battling it out with hordes of Soviet tank armies under the specter of global thermonuclear annihilation.

With this in mind, it has been rather fascinating to watch the unfolding debate over what is becoming an imagined clash between the military forces of the U.S.-led NATO and a resurgent Russia in Eastern Europe. Strategic analysts, doing what strategic analysts do, wargamed a hypothetical scenario involving a Russian invasion of the Baltic States and a NATO military intervention. The results of the wargame suggested that the current balance of forces highly favors the Russians.

So, what should we make of this? Well, the designers of the Baltic scenario wargame don’t want to scare anyone, but

It seems unlikely that Vladimir Putin intends to turn his guns on NATO any time soon. However, the consequences should he decide to do so are severe. Probably the best outcome — if the phrase has any meaning in this context — would be something like a new Cold War, with all the implications that bears. A war with Russia would be fraught with escalatory potential from the moment the first shot was fired; and generations born outside the shadow of nuclear Armageddon would suddenly be reintroduced to fears thought long dead and buried.

Wait, a new Cold War? Are you sure? Well, for some, the logic certainly points in a specific direction:

This means that the United States and its NATO allies need to be prepared for such an eventuality — and, better yet, prepared to such a degree that Moscow will recognize that pushing on the alliance will be too costly and risky to be worth trying. The U.S. defense budget request for next year (and accompanying commitments to further deployments in Europe), which is currently being used by the relevant House and Senate committees to inform their markups of the Fiscal Year 2017 defense authorization and appropriations bills, represents a major step forward in achieving this goal. It appropriately concentrates on the threat to U.S. and allied security posed by “great power” potential adversaries. It plusses up investments in key next-generation technologies in areas like space, unmanned systems, and cyber, while also preserving funding for the modernization of the nation’s nuclear deterrent. And it allocates $3.4 billion for the European Reassurance Initiative, while committing to reestablishing the permanent presence of an armored brigade combat team in Europe to strengthen the American posture there in the face of the most serious near-term threat to U.S. and allied interests — a resurgent and revisionist Russia.

For those of us old enough to remember, Baltic States is starting to sound an awful lot like Fulda Gap.

Series of Tubes


RAND has published a report on its analysis of “NATO’s Eastern Flank” (meaning the three Baltic states). The PDF can be obtained here:  Of particular interest to us is Appendix A: Methodology and Data (page 12).

RAND is using a hex board game with counters that appears to have strength and movement factors on them. This is Tactics II…Avalon Hill…..SPI. RAND does have their own combat model, JICM (Joint Integrated Contingency Model), so why are they using a hex board game? According to their article:

RAND developed this map-based tabletop exercise because existing models were ill-suited to represent the many unknowns and uncertainties surrounding a conventional military campaign in the Baltics, where low force-to-space ratios and relatively open terrain meant that maneuver between dispersed forces—rather than pushing and shoving between opposing units arrayed along a linear front—would likely be the dominant mode of combat.

The problem is that JICM does movement down to having a series of “places” that are connected by “links.“ These links are tubes of variable width, connecting between each “place”. So for example, there might be a tube between St. Petersburg and Talinin. All combat would occur up and down this tube, but there could be no real movement out of the tube. This is a limited and somewhat inflexible movement system that has been used in a few other models (SOTACA comes to mind).

Now, I gather RAND has the whole map of the world set up for JICM as a “series of tubes.” According a 1995 report, there were nearly 1000 “places” and 2000 “links” for the entire world. This does not give a lot of fidelity, as the map of Korea shows at the top of the post. I suspect the fidelity is such that there are few tubes in an area as small as Estonia.

Estonia is small. It is 17,505 square miles. This is smaller than West Virginia (24,038 sq. miles), and it is a lot flatter. But, somehow, they have managed to maintain an independent language of over a million speakers (1.2 million actually). This language has managed to survive for over a thousand years! I am always impressed by that. Their capital is only about 100 miles from several points along the Russian border. This is about the distance between Washington DC and Richmond. Now granted, it took several years to cover that distance during the American Civil War, but there was a significant Confederate Army in the path. Therefore, to examine scenarios, I suspect they needed a map of considerably more fidelity than JICM and its “series of tubes.”

Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics

RAND Wargame

Source: David A. Shlapak and Michael Johnson. Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO’s Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016.

RAND has published a new report by analysts David A. Shlapak and Michael Johnson detailing their assessment of the threat to the Baltic republics of conventional invasion by Russian military forces. The conclusions of the study are sobering — that NATO could do little to prevent Russian military forces from effectively overrunning Latvia and Estonia in as few as 60 hours. Their analysis should provide plenty of food for thought.

Just as interesting, however, is that Shlapak and Johnson used old-style paper wargaming techniques to facilitate their analysis. The image above of their home-designed wargame above should warm the cockles of any Avalon Hill or SPI board wargame enthusiast of a certain age. As to why they chose this approach, they stated:

RAND developed this map-based tabletop exercise because existing models were ill-suited to represent the many unknowns and uncertainties surrounding a conventional military campaign in the Baltics, where low force-to-space ratios and relatively open terrain meant that maneuver between dispersed forces—rather than pushing and shoving between opposing units arrayed along a linear front—would likely be the dominant mode of combat.

While they did state that they used rules and tables governing movement and combat based on “offline modeling,” it is very curious that they did not find any of the many sophisticated Defense Department computer models and simulations available to be suitable for their task. They outline their methodology in an appendix, but promise to provide a fuller report at a later date.