How Would NATO Fare on the Battlefield with Russia?

On February 24, President Vladimir Putin of Russia ordered an invasion of Ukraine.  Russian forces attacked on multiple fronts, only to meet fierce resistance.  In response, the Russian Army has shifted gears.  It is now advancing slowly and methodically, executing a war of attrition against the Ukrainian Army.  The outlook for Ukraine is grim.  Russia seems certain to achieve victory, albeit with heavy losses and with massive damage to Ukraine's infrastructure and population.  

Meanwhile, the West has not been idle.  Russia is now the most sanctioned country on earth.  Ukrainian troops are training in NATO facilities in Germany.  America regularly passes on intelligence to the Ukrainian military.  There are persistent rumors of NATO advisers operating with Ukrainian troops in combat.  The Biden administration has also provided billions of dollars in military assistance, culminating in a $40-billion aid package.

Even so, NATO support is unlikely to prevent a Russian victory.  As a result, there is mounting pressure for an American-led intervention.  Numerous elected officials, academics, and former military officers across the Western world have called for the imposition of a no-fly zone or for the deployment of troops to Ukraine.  The initiation of hostilities between Russia and NATO is now a real possibility.

There is just one problem with this proposal.  A successful NATO intervention in Ukraine is a military impossibility.  War would result in catastrophic damage to NATO infrastructure across Europe and the deaths of thousands of allied soldiers.  Washington would quickly be faced with the temptation to use nuclear weapons to restore the situation in its favor.

Although this reading of the military situation may seem apocalyptic, it is supported by the facts on the ground.  The balance of forces in Eastern Europe overwhelmingly favors the Kremlin, despite months of fighting in Ukraine.  NATO ground troops are not postured to intervene.  While in theory there are around 100,000 American soldiers in Europe, they are scattered across 19 countries from Portugal to Lithuania.  A large fraction is lightly armed paratroopers, support personnel, or motorized infantry who could do little in the face of Russia's huge army.  In any case, it would take months to reposition them for war.  On paper, our NATO allies possess thousands of troops, tanks, and artillery, but their professionalism in many cases is questionable.  Moreover, the necessary large-scale joint training has not occurred in decades.  NATO officers commanding huge formations of allied troops would be forced to improvise their operational procedures — a recipe for disaster under any circumstances, let alone in a great power conflict. 

It would take years to build up NATO's arsenal to the point at which it could successfully challenge Russia on its own terrain.  Even then, victory would not be assured.  It is doubtful that NATO could achieve air superiority over Eastern Europe.  The combat record of older Soviet-era air defenses against Western cruise missiles in Syria has been impressive.  More recently, the S400 air defense system has been successfully employed in Ukraine to destroy aircraft at ranges in excess of 100 miles.  Russia's top-line S550 has successfully destroyed targets at ranges up to 300 miles in testing and is allegedly capable of intercepting intercontinental ballistic missiles. 

Russia, therefore, possesses the capacity to interdict the air space over a vast swath of Eastern Europe.  Any aerial campaign over Ukraine would turn into a bloodbath for allied pilots.  Lacking air superiority, NATO would be forced to achieve victory against the Russian Army in ground combat.  That would involve sending tens of thousands of soldiers into a meat grinder in which the odds favor the Kremlin.  It is uncertain how allied troops would perform in an environment without air superiority, a situation that the United States has not faced since the early days of the Korean War.  In any case, at each echelon from the battalion upwards, the Russian Army possesses complete tactical superiority over its allied equivalents in military assets, from electronic warfare to signals to mechanization to fires, especially howitzers and rocket artillery.

Russia's superiority over NATO in fires is worth remarking on.  Artillery plays a defining role in Russian military doctrine.  Each Battalion Tactical Group (BTG) — the Russian Army's basic maneuver unit, roughly equivalent to a reduced-size mechanized infantry brigade in the U.S. Army — possesses a battery of howitzers.  (Around 80 BTGs are currently fighting in Ukraine, compared to just three American brigades permanently stationed across the entire European continent.)  The Russian Army maintains entire divisions of rocket artillery along its frontier, dwarfing the assets available to any combination of NATO forces in Europe.  At every echelon, the sheer quantity of artillery available to Russian commanders greatly exceeds that available to their NATO counterparts. 

Nor does Russia possess the advantage in quantity alone.  The quality of Russian artillery in training, integration with ground forces, and weapons performance also vastly exceeds that of NATO, according to a 2017 RAND report.  Russian artillery in every class far outranges its American equivalents, across all classes of howitzers and rocket artillery.  Meanwhile, the United States Army has never conducted the kind of integrated campaign with rocket artillery that the Russian Army is successfully executing in Ukraine.  American rocket artillery assets in Europe consist of a few batteries falling under a division that exists purely on paper.  The U.S. Army in Europe possesses a few dozen MLRS systems compared to several thousand in the Russian Army.  Nor is there any indication that the Pentagon has conducted any kind of preparation to counter Russian tactical superiority in fires.  The assets to do so simply do not exist, placing allied troops at a serious disadvantage if war breaks out. 

NATO is courting disaster by considering a military intervention under these conditions, let alone escalating tensions by pouring weapons and money into a doomed cause.  This is not to say that NATO's arsenal is worthless.  The Ukrainians alone have inflicted thousands of casualties.  Yet Western officials must recognize that the enemy has a vote.  The Russian response to hostilities will be devastating.  We can expect them to target NATO infrastructure across the world — almost certainly including the American homeland — with their arsenal of hypersonic missiles.  The loss of life will be immense.  The damage to allied military assets and decision-making centers would take years to repair. 

Meanwhile, even if NATO brigades and divisions managed to reach the front lines, they would face the real prospect of annihilation at the hands of the Russian Army.  We simply do not know how Western governments will react to the loss of thousands of soldiers.  Political instability in the United States, Germany, Great Britain, and Italy, among many other places, does not bode well for the outbreak of war.  Under these circumstances, the possibility that the White House would choose to reverse any initial setbacks by using nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out. 

Russia and NATO stand at the precipice of an existential trap.  A NATO victory in any kind of war with Russia in Europe is unlikely without recourse to nuclear weapons.  Total defeat for the alliance at the hands of the Russians is highly probable.  The United States must do everything it can to avoid this possibility by disavowing any intention of engaging in hostilities, desisting from arming Ukraine, and encouraging both sides to negotiate a peace deal. 

Jesus said, "Agree with thine adversary quickly."  We are running out of time to forestall the worst crisis in human history since the Second World War.

Image via U.S. Army.

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