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Red Atlantic: Russia Could Choke Air, Sea Lanes To Europe

Posted by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. on


Navy graphic

Russia’s most advanced attack submarine, the Severodvinsk class. (Navy graphic)

NATIONAL HARBOR: Russia could hinder US reinforcements headed to Europe in the event of a major war, warned the recently retired Supreme Allied Commander, Gen. Philip Breedlove. It’s well known Russian radars, missiles, and strike planes — “Anti-Access/Area Denial” systems — threaten ships and aircraft across wide swathes of the Black Sea, Eastern Europe, and the Baltic. But Gen. Breedlove’s worries are on a wider scale: He’s anxious about the Atlantic.

Gen. Philip Breedlove

Gen. Philip Breedlove before his retirement

“If we are in a shooting war with a big nation to the east, do you believe you will cross the Atlantic uncontested, either in the air or on the sea?” Breedlove asked rhetorically at the Air Force Association conference here.

“The unobstructed crossing of the Atlantic to fight a war on the land mass in Europe, I think, is a thing of the past,” Breedlove told me and a reporter from Russian agency RIA after his AFA remarks. “We need to think about our ability to defend our capability to reinforce Europe.”

“As I’ve said before, our opponent is not ten foot tall–maybe six and a half or seven,” Breedlove said. Russian forces can’t be everywhere at once any more than ours can. “But, I think, in a time and space of their choosing, they can make things very tough for us, and we need to be able to ensure our ability to operate in those commons.”

Breedlove’s scenario brings to mind the submarine campaigns of the two World Wars, which nearly choked Britain’s economy, but this new battle of the Atlantic would also involve airpower, cyber warfare, and even space.

Both air and sea reinforcements flowing from the US to Europe will be “contested… from the East Coast across,” Breedlove warned the audience at AFA. (Given Russian cyber skills and the vulnerability of US transportation infrastructure to hacking, there may be problems as soon as troops drive off base). Reinforcing the Baltic States — close as they are to Russia — may not be even possible in the opening days of a major war, Breedlove said.

So NATO’s European members need to improve their readiness so they can move in a crisis, preferably before the shooting starts, so they can at best deter a war and at worst get in position to fight before Russian A2/AD shuts down the flow of reinforcements. NATO intelligence needs to improve — European Command gets just about five percent of US Intelligence, Surveillance, & Reconnaissance assets — so it can rebuild the Cold War “warnings and indicators” system to detect a Soviet offensive before it happened.

If the nightmare scenario occurs, however, and the new iron curtain of Russian A2/AD clamps down over Eastern Europe, we’ll have to find ways to break through. Too many Air Force officers have oversimplified this as an exercise in Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses (SEAD), something we’ve gotten very good at, Breedlove said. But the problem is far bigger than SEAD, he warned, and the solution is far bigger than the Air Force.

“This is a joint proposition. It has a naval component, it has a land component,” Breedlove said.

The Air Force must work hand-in-hand with the Navy and the Army to win the A2/AD battle, Breedlove said. The former F-16 pilot harked back fondly to his own days as a forward air controller in an Army unit in Germany: Initially he was so angry at being assigned a non-flying job he wanted to quit the service, he said, but became one of the greatest learning experiences of his life. More young Air Force officers need to spend time with the Army, Marines, and Navy early and often throughout their careers, Breedlove said.

The Army already plays a leading role in air and missile defense, which would be crucial to keeping Russian (or Chinese) long-range strikes from hammering NATO bases. But, asked audience members, would it be useful for the Army to field long-range conventional missiles of its own? “Yes,” Breedlove said without hesitation.

“We are held hostage by our opponents’ long-range strike capability: our airfields, our ports, are all held hostage,” Breedlove said. We need to revive our own long-range strike, which is in the “DNA” of the US Air Force, he said — but it’s not necessarily a job for the Air Force alone.

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula was a bit more blunt in his endorsement of an Army long-range missile force. “It’s one of the cheapest and easiest ways to counter the asymmetric advantage they’re throwing at us,” he told me. “Throw it back at them.”

What do you think?