Lithuania’s key role in countering Russian A2/AD challenge to Baltics

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Concepts of military strategy and doctrine have long influenced the political and military geography of the Baltic region.
Russian military exercise in Kaliningrad
Russian military exercise in Kaliningrad
© RIA/Scanpix

In 1918 it was the German General Oskar von Hutier who tested and implemented German military tactics in the Baltic in the World War One offensive that retook Riga from the Russians that became known as the “Hutier tactics.”

These tactics used in the Baltic campaign were later used by the German General Ludendorff in his spring offensive of 1918 that became known as the “Stormtrooper” tactics used on the western front that nearly knocked the allied armies out of the war.

In 1939 Germany once again changed the nature of warfare by introducing the concept of Blitzkrieg into German armored tactics in its invasion of Poland.

In February 2014, Putin recaptured Ukrainian Crimea using “the little green men” in his first tactical display of nonlinear war, or what we call hybrid warfare. Several months later these same tactics were used in eastern Ukraine in yet another demonstration of how military tactics and strategy are once again reshaping the face of warfare in Europe.

For these reasons understanding military strategy is important to civilian policymakers in both the United States and in the Baltics as it affects how two important allies interact, plan and cooperate. Lithuania is a special case in western efforts to deter Russia because of its military base in Kaliningrad where an estimated 30,000 Russian combat forces are located.

Kaliningrad in many ways has become the Russian “Gibraltar” of the Baltic wedged between Poland and Lithuania as the size of Russian forces there are greater than the entire combined forces of all three Baltic States.

One of the centerpieces of Russian weaponry in Kaliningrad is the S-400 missile, which has the ability to target aircraft 250 miles away. Moscow also has stockpiled Tochka missiles, as well as Putin’s favorite – the short-range Iskander missile. Equipped with either a conventional or a nuclear capable warhead the Iskander has a range of 300 miles (500 kilometers) and can reach either Warsaw or Berlin.

Russian defense strategy in the Baltic is guided by the concept of A2/AD or Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD). The common western definition of A2/AD is: “enemy actions which inhibit military movement into a theater of operations. Area-Denial operations are: activities that seek to deny freedom of action within areas under the enemy’s control.”

The unique geography of the Baltic Sea is particularly suited to this type of warfare, particularly because of its shallowness. The average depth of the Baltic is 53 meters (150 feet), which limits naval operations by large naval vessels groupings, particularly a U.S. navy carrier task force. Any effort by NATO to ward off a Russian attack or resupply the Baltic States by air, land or sea would require getting past Kaliningrad - the Baltic bastion of Russia’s A2/AD corridor.

One of the greatest security challenges Lithuania faces in the current Baltic security environment is its ability to delay or impede a Russian ground force from seizing the country from either neighboring Kaliningrad or neighboring Belarus, the most likely springboard for a Russian attack. Pentagon officials estimate the United States would need up to 72 hours to bring the 82nd airborne to reinforce the Baltic.

The other option is the newly created Very High Joint Readiness Task Force (VHJTF), better known as the NATO Spearhead Division (which consists of 5,000 men). The VHJTF would be the best response but the biggest problem is the political will inside NATO to deploy the force to the Baltic, especially Germany’s deep reluctance to antagonize Putin. Any intervention by NATO or the US has to deal with the twin issues of NATO’s political will and overcoming the Russian A2/AD challenge in Kaliningrad.

For this reason the issue of time and space are two of the most important strategic factors that face NATO defense planners in calculating the security needs of the Baltic, which is measured not in weeks but hours. For example, the US-based RAND corporation recently conducted a war game on the region that predicted the Baltic states would be rapidly overrun by Russian forces in a matter of 36 hours.

RAND’s conclusion is not particularly reassuring to either US or NATO policymakers. In order to test the political will of the Atlantic Alliance the United States and Lithuania should publicly and privately call for a deployment of the Spearhead Division to the Baltic to demonstrate NATO’s political will to counter Russia’s repeated use of snap military exercises in the region that intimidate NATO’s partners. Snap deployment of the Spearhead Division would not only demonstrate NATO’s resolve to deter Russia but would force its allies to recognize NATO’s determination to defend its allies.

Lithuania and NATO need to shore up the northern side of the A2/AD corridor. The Achilles heel of our regional defense is the small size of the Lithuanian ground forces. Lithuania barely has enough men capable of withstanding a Russian invasion from either Kaliningrad, or from neighboring Belarus.

Lithuania has a standing army of less than 10,000 men and a tiny active military reserve of approximately 4,500 men. It is barely capable of deterring a potential overland Russian attack. During its 2013 Zapad military exercises Russia amassed 75,000 men in neighboring Belarus, Kaliningrad, and the rest of the Baltic region for a simulated attack that would seize the strategic “Suwalki Gap” and sever NATO’s only land corridor link to the Baltic.

One of the major reasons why tiny Finland with a population of 3.7 million in 1939 withstood an invasion by the Soviet Union was its large reserve forces. It is no wonder that Moscow has never tried to invade Finland again since the 1939 Winter War. By comparison to Lithuania, Finland today has a population of 5 million and a standing army of 35,000. However, it has a massive reserve of 355,000 men that by itself is a major deterrent.

In order to field a force similar to Finland, Lithuania with a population of 3 million should field a standing army of at least 20,000 and create a 200,000-man reserve. Abolished in 2008, Lithuania recently revived conscription. It has a manpower base of nearly a million men between the age of 18-55 and certainly has the potential to develop the ground forces for a national reserve army that could bloody Putin’s nose the same way that the Finns did Stalin in 1939.

Moreover, the existence of a 200,000-man, or even a 100,000-man reserve army would also signal to Moscow as well as officials in NATO that Vilnius would not fall within 36 hours, as RAND calculated in its recent war game.

With a massive reserve force in place Lithuania would be well suited to defend the northern side of the Kaliningrad A2/AD bastion. The concept of A2/AD warfare is increasingly becoming a new buzzword used by NATO policymakers to describe NATO’s challenges in the Baltic and has been a key part of China’s strategy against Taiwan for over a decade. Recently NATO Deputy Secretary General Sandy Vershbow identified four major A2/AD bastions of the world in an interview with the publication Defense News.

During that interview Vershbow noted:

"The things that worry us the most are their anti-access/area-denial [A2/AD] capacity — the Bastion defense system capability that they are building up in the high north in Murmansk, the Kola Peninsula, in Kaliningrad and in the Black Sea, and potentially now in the eastern Mediterranean — as potentially impeding and complicating NATO reinforcements and other NATO operations. We have both strategies and means to counter that but it may require additional investments on NATO’s part.” (Defense News, February 13)

According to Vershbow, NATO future’s defense posture will be taking Russia’s A2/AD challenge into account. Lithuania should as well. Neighboring Poland is the southern anchor for containing Russia’s A2/AD bastion in Kaliningrad and Warsaw has been investing heavily in preparing to meet this threat.

The weakest link in NATO’s chain of defense against Kaliningrad is Lithuania. As part of Lithuania’s national debate over defense, Lithuania’s leaders should take into consideration the threat posed by Russia’s A2/AD challenge and understand what it means for its security and ensure the United States is there to help it obtain the resources required to help NATO bolster the northern side of its counter A2/AD strategy.

Recently the United States announced $3.4 billion in spending for the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) that will soon see a sizable expansion in the American military presence in Europe. The Armed Services Committee of the United States Congress will play an important role in determining how this money is spent by the US military in its future defense posture in Europe and the Baltic.

Lithuania must step up its efforts to make its own financial investments in its military more than just reintroducing conscription. It needs to invest in and develop a national defense strategy that can contribute to NATO’s ability to defend the Baltics and give it time to resist a Russian attack.

Investing in a larger reserve force and developing the military infrastructure to help NATO burst Putin’s A2AD corridor in the Baltic should be the first step toward realizing that goal. Obtaining financial assistance from NATO’s Infrastructure Committee to back up its defenses should be a part of that goal. Investing in simple things like modernizing Lithuania’s former Soviet airfields to give NATO forces the ability to land in Lithuania in multiple locations would greatly complicate Russian targeting and planning.

Lithuania also should press the United States to counter Putin’s Iskanders in Kaliningrad by temporarily deploying Patriot missile batteries to Lithuania to train the Lithuanian armed forces in how to use the missile defense system that would improve their capabilities and temporarily extend NATO’s missile defense shield to Lithuania.

Lithuania has no medium or long-range air defense system aside from its low altitude short range Stingers and the Polish made Grom man portable surface to air missiles. NATO and the United States should help provide Lithuania with medium to high range air defense weaponry like the Norwegian Advanced Surface to Air Missile (NASAM) missile system in order to strengthen the northern side of the A2/AD corridor and provide its ground forces with greater air defense capabilities.

More time and energy should be dedicated by Lithuanian policymakers to thinking about ways to work with NATO to find ways to meet Russia’s A2/AD challenge in the Baltic and also take immediate steps to create a large reserve army that would be capable of defending Lithuania long enough until the American 82nd airborne could safely arrive to protect this valuable NATO member in the event of a crisis.

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Glen E. Howard is the president of The Jamestown Foundation

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