Saturday, 18 June 2016 19:53


Julian E. Barnes, The Wall Street Journal, 17.06.2016


The most vulnerable spot in the Western alliance is a 64-mile slice of the Polish border that extends from the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad to Belarus, according to allied officials.

Known as the Suwalki Gap, the narrow land route between Poland and Lithuania has become a growing focus of U.S. military planning, U.S. and allied officials say.

Military officers worry that in the event of a conflict with Moscow, the Russian military could use its forces in Kaliningrad, home to numerous military bases and bristling with advanced missiles, to effectively cut off the Suwalki Gap and sever the Baltic states from the rest of the alliance, they said. U.S. war planners believe the allies could have as little as 72 hours to reinforce the Suwalki Gap before Moscow would be able to effectively block access.

This week, as more than 30,000 U.S., Polish and allied forces rehearsed the defense of the Baltic region, North Atlantic Treaty Organization defense ministers approved a deterrent force on the alliance’s eastern flank that likely includes an American battalion positioned in or near the Suwalki Gap.

In response, Russian President Vladimir Putin called for large snap exercises to last through Wednesday, a significant show of force which defense experts said was designed to demonstrate Moscow’s ability to move quickly in the Baltic region.

Demonstrating Western allies’ ability to move quickly and decisively has been a key focus of the multinational exercises this month in the area, according to officials.

German and British army forces practiced making an amphibious military bridge in Chelmno, Poland, last week. The U.S. 2nd Cavalry Regiment rolled its Stryker armored vehicles over the bridge in a long convoy and then proceeded some 300 miles, first to the Polish city of Torun and then on to the Suwalki Gap and Lithuania.

The U.S. Army also dropped some 550 paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division into the Polish countryside outside Torun, to practice securing the route for the 2nd Cavalry. Flying from Fort Bragg, N.C., the airborne operation was designed to illustrate to both allies and Russia the ability of U.S. forces to deploy its forces halfway around the world in less than 24 hours.

“Frankly, it is about demonstrating resolve and demonstrating capability for rapid response in the event it was ever required,” said Gen. Mark Milley, the U.S. Army chief of staff said.

Gen. Milley visited Poland last week for the opening of Anakonda-16, one of several large military operations that the U.S. and its allies are undertaking in the region in the name of strengthening their ability to move faster, work together more seamlessly and show a united front against what the allies see as Russian aggression.

“For the U.S. Army, it is very important we have the ability to deliver ground combat forces to wherever the president orders them in a rapid and timely manner,” Gen. Milley said.

In all, some 31,000 allied troops have assembled in Poland for Anakonda and related exercises. And 43 naval ships are in the Baltic Sea for a large maritime exercise known as “Baltops.”

While the Polish Defense MinisterAntoni Macierewiczsaid the Anakonda exercise was purely defensive, Russian officials dismissed those claims.

Alexander Grushko,the Russian ambassador to NATO, said Moscow was casting a wary eye on the stepped up exercises, the alliance deployments and the additional American military presence in Eastern Europe. “We are responding to all of this negatively because these measures significantly impair regional security, in fact, turning Eastern Europe into an arena of military confrontation,” Mr. Grushko said. “None of this is necessary.”

During the Cold War, military leaders focused much of their training on the Fulda Gap, an area of the border between East and West Germany where war planners thought a massive tank-on-tank battle would take place were tensions between the Soviet Union and the West to rise to a full conflict.

Today, the Suwalki Gap—or SK Gap in American military parlance—has replaced the Fulda Gap as the focus for the current generation of Army officers.

U.S. and allied officials emphasize that the current tensions with Russia aren’t a new Cold War. But any potential conflict, if it should ever come to Suwalki, could be a major tank-on-tank battle or dominated by guided-missile salvos, according to defense officials.

In addition to the NATO force of 4,000 troops approved this week, the U.S. will position a heavy brigade of 3,500 troops that will work in both the Baltic region and in Bulgaria and Romania, where a key base is being expanded for U.S. use as a training center.

War plans call for that force to quickly come together and converge on a trouble spot, officials said.

Lt. Gen.Ben Hodges,the commander of U.S. Army forces in Europe, said the U.S. and its allies have improved their “ability to move and assemble.”

“All of these exercises by the nations of NATO are an indication that we are willing to do what is necessary to improve responsiveness,” he said.

The problem, said Gen. Hodges, is that Russia has boosted its forces as well. Russia has built up its medium-and longer-range air-defense systems in Kaliningrad over the last two years, giving Moscow the power to threaten ground, naval and air forces with precision guided missiles and other air defenses.

“The Russian capability in Kaliningrad has only gotten stronger,” he said.

A number of war games run by American think tanks have indicated that Russia could quickly take over the Baltic states, overwhelming those countries’ small military forces easily, should it decide to mount an overt conventional attack.

U.S. war planning for Europe is focused on what military officers call “phase zero”—the days before a crisis escalates into a conflict—and are looking for ways to quickly and safely reinforce the Baltic region, officials said.

“The presence of NATO forces in front-line forces can raise the threshold for a Russian act of aggression, and those forces could be first responders if a crisis did break out,” said Mark Gunzinger, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Affairs in Washington. “Time is not in the favor of NATO when you are talking about the Baltic states and Poland.”

The U.S. has also been prodding allies to do more.

Vaidotas Urbelis, the defense-policy director for the Lithuanian ministry of defense, says Lithuania has created a rapid-reaction force that can move within hours to try to keep the Suwalki Gap open.

But, he said, Lithuania wants as many NATO forces in the region as possible before a crisis erupts.

“Speed, in terms of military action and decision making, is critical,” he said.

NATO has been developing a rapid-reaction spearhead force, but only a small portion of that force, about 150 soldiers, can move within three days, according to allied and U.S. officials. As a result, U.S. war planners are planning on supplementing those forces with the 82nd Airborne, which can be ready to deploy in as little as 18 hours.

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