Russia Has Been Building Up its Conventional Forces All Along
By Jennifer Walters, PhD
When examining the conventional balance of power between NATO and Russian forces, the numbers alone are not sufficient. To better understand this balance power, it is necessary to inspect not just the sheer number of conventional forces (ground troops, tanks, and aircraft), but where these forces are located, the damage they can inflict, and the capability to reconstitute quickly in the opening salvo of a conflict. Despite a precipitous drop in total conventional force since the end of the Cold War, with these factors in mind, the balance of power tips to Russia.
At the outset, the opposite might seem true when comparing the defense budget spending of NATO versus Russia. In 2015, NATO dedicated $895 billion to defense spending while Russia committed just over five percent of that amount — $52 billion (Boston, 2018). Similarly, although not to the same extent, NATO’s ground personnel exceed that of Russia.
However, when we focus on the likely fronts of potential conflict the aperture narrows to specific geographic areas (Schlapak, 2016). More specifically, Russia possesses significant strategic advantages across its conventional spectrum of capabilities in the Western Military District (WMD). The WMD borders the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, all of which have very small conventional forces. These states can field a limited number of light armored vehicles, but they do not have main battle tanks. And unlike the Cold War, NATO does not have the conventional capabilities pre-positioned in that area to mount a contiguous line defense. With scant conventional offensive and defensive capabilities, this front along the WMD is a soft underbelly vulnerable to a large-scale mechanized assault.
Russia’s ability to launch that assault and inflict serious damage continues to grow from experience and intentional decisions about the type of conflict for which they are preparing. The Russian military, which is also enjoying an increase in volunteer forces and relying less on conscription, has learned valuable lessons in simulated and real environments. Through ambitious large-scale exercises and experiential trial-and-error in Ukraine and Syria, Russia is molding its forces for the conventional battles it assesses it will face (as opposed to cultivating readiness for a wider range of potential conflict scenarios that go beyond the conventional realm).
New equipment, advancement in heavy armor, upgraded tanks, and enhancement in training for large packages of troops differentiate the Russian conventional forces from that of NATO, which has favored the more diffuse brigade-centric model fitted to years of counter-insurgency operations. In many ways, Russia is readying itself to be able to mount something similar to Germany’s World War II-era blitzkrieg as it amasses substantial conventional forces along select, narrow fronts. Today’s worsening situation along the Ukrainian border aligns exactly with this technique.
Buttressing their outsized conventional capabilities, Russia has established a rich network of reinforcement lines that would enable them to achieve strategic objectives with little initial resistance. In the scenario where Russia marshals additional troops to the WMD front, they could concentrate nearly 50 percent more troops than it currently has stationed in the area within mere weeks. Simultaneously, direct U.S. support to NATO would take much more time — in the range of 1-2 months (Boston, 2018). Key NATO partners France, Germany, and Britain would require similar amounts of time to mobilize. Furthermore, if Russia establishes a fighting front along the WMD, they would exercise uncontested control of their resupply lines that are safely embedded within their own territory.
Finally, although Russia is at a significant disadvantage in fifth-generation fighter and stealth aircraft, NATO’s probable delay to respond conventionally en masse will place Russia in a position to degrade NATO air power. Russia has sophisticated integrated air defense systems they will use to both defend their conventional fighting front and attack encroaching NATO aircraft. The timeline to achieving air superiority could be substantially protracted if Russia has uncontested control of the ground. While U.S. air assets are highly skilled in achieving air superiority and would reasonably achieve this goal in time, the loss of human life could be catastrophically high as we engage in air-to-air and air-to-ground kinetic exchanges.
Ultimately, the conventional balance of power requires that we pay attention to both quantity and quality of weaponry and designs on how to implement that weaponry. Through strategic placement and implementation of its increasingly sophisticated conventional forces, Russia is more than making do. Russia, in fact, is ready to outperform NATO pound for pound in a conventional war because it can impose immense first-strike costs. NATO’s ability to launch a timely conventional counter-attack is dubious at best; already wounded, they will have to fight and win in a style of conflict they have not practiced in two continuous decades. However, the longer tensions simmer, NATO will have time to prepare, posture, and undercut the first-strike injury Russia can inflict.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not
necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government. Assumptions made within the analysis are not reflective of the position of any U.S. government entity.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.
Boston, Scott, Michael Johnson, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, and Yvonne K. Crane, Assessing the Conventional Force Imbalance in Europe: Implications for Countering Russian Local Superiority. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2018. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR2402.html.
Shlapak, David A. and Michael Johnson, Reinforcing Deterrence on NATO's Eastern Flank: Wargaming the Defense of the Baltics. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2016. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1253.html.