By Dr Tamir Libel and Emily Boulter
With eyes pinned on Europe´s eastern frontier, it has never been more critical to have the means to reduce tensions between key NATO allies and Russia. Are there ways to help lessen costs that come with such an undertaking?
According to reports, Russian aerial platforms increasingly violate the airspace of its western neighbours, which is generating considerable unease. While NATO is responding routinely by intercepting the invading aeroplanes and increasing the presence of its combat troops on its eastern flank (four battalions stretching from Poland to the Baltic), a question has arisen over whether or not it is possible to beef up defences in Eastern Europe, while de-escalating tensions. Russian officials consistently say that NATO was responsible for openly displaying its anti-Russian intentions by deploying forces in Poland and the Baltic States.
However, NATO’s recent creation of a new Atlantic command and logistics command, with additional reports showing that since the end of the Cold War the alliance has never actually prepared for the deployment of combat troops on its eastern flank, is thus an implicit admission that NATO is not in a position to deploy large-scale forces the way Russia can. In particular, Russia is paying close attention to the defence of its airspace and has made plans to increase its air defence capabilities, to prevent violations. Meanwhile, NATO lacks both combat aircraft and short-range air defences. According to a report issued by the RAND Corporation, If Mr Putin opts to launch a land grab against the Baltic States, his forces could occupy at least two Baltic capitals within 60 hours.
Although the utmost effort should be taken to de-escalate and resolve the current crisis, preparations are necessary to maintain a state of deterrence against Russia, while also reassuring ‘front-line’ members, i.e. Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Deploying squadrons of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) provide several key benefits: They offer credible ISTAR (information, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance) and strike capabilities, which help maintain a level of deterrence, but will not pose a threat or spark offensive actions by the Russians.
Drawing upon a study that examined among other things, the rapid expansion of Israeli Air Force (IAF) squadrons in response to unforeseen needs following the outbreak of the Second Intifada, a committed effort by NATO to amass six to eight armed UAV squadrons (each with 20-24 platforms) over a period of two years should be both feasible and more cost-effective than deploying conventional forces. The recent difficulties in mobilising and deploying a mere 4,500 troops to NATO’s eastern flank indicates that the alliance has a shortage of both combat troops and political capital to enhance recruitment among member states.
In contrast, turning to unmanned, increasingly autonomous platforms as the first line of defence could not only (at least in the first instance) rely on existing infrastructure (e.g. air force bases, communication infrastructure etc.) but would also sit better with electorates reluctant to send troops to allies in Eastern Europe. Politically, member states probably would be far more willing to finance the acquisition and maintenance of UAVs squadrons by local teams. This would also help solve the issue of mobilisation as was demonstrated with NATO’s brigades. UAVs can help realistically build deterrence and even if there are failures, or even if half of the squadrons are destroyed, no lives, i.e. aircrews, would be lost.
Relations between Russia and the West are in a poor state, and tensions continue to escalate. Those member states who oppose the increased deployment of combat troops and the build-up of more offensive capabilities (e.g. tanks or jet fighters), could be more receptive to opting for cheaper solutions, which negates the need to deploy military personnel. The fact remains that Europe needs better deterrence in the face of Russian aggression. Therefore investing in unmanned autonomous systems, would go some way in providing, the security and surveillance that will be crucial in the years to come.
Emily Boulter is a writer based in Switzerland. She is the creator of the current affairs blog ‘From Brussels to Beirut.’ From 2010 to 2014 she worked as an assistant to the Vice-chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the European Parliament. She is a frequent contributor to Global Risk Insights.
Dr Tamir Libel has just finished a two-year Marie Curie COFUND fellowship at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI). In early 2018 he will join the German Institute of Area and Global Studies (GIGA) as an associate fellow. He is the author of European Military Culture and Security Governance: Soldiers, Scholars and National Defence Universities (Routledge, 2016). He can be found at Twitter @drtamirlibel.
Header Image: A Russian SU-27 Flanker aircraft banks away with an RAF Typhoon in the background, 17 June 2014. (Source: Defence Imagery MoD)