Home inFocus Defense: Rising Challenges and Changing Strategies (Fall 2020) A NATO Urban Delaying Strategy for the Baltic States

A NATO Urban Delaying Strategy for the Baltic States

Col. Gary Anderson USMC (Ret.) Fall 2020
Joint Terminal Attack Controllers from the Latvian National Armed Forces conduct close air support training with U.S. Air Force. (Photo: Master Sgt. Scott Thompson)

Eastern Europe was once the bulwark of the old Soviet Union but it has become NATO’s first line of defense against a resurgent Russia. The NATO alliance now faces the same problem that the French-British coalition faced at the dawn of World War II. Great Britain and France had assured Poland that they would come to its aid in the event that it was attacked, but when the Germans crossed the Polish border in 1939, there was no way that the allies could move quickly enough to assist their eastern partner. A 2016 Rand Corporation war game showed that while the situation is better today it will be hard to quickly reinforce Eastern Europe in time to prevent the Russians from overrunning the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

The game would tend to vindicate critics who believe that NATO’s eastern expansion was ill-advised, but that is now water under the bridge. U.S. military planners have been trying to come up with non-traditional ways to deter the Russians from adventurism in Poland and the Baltics for several years. One of their schemes has been to turn the Russians’ use of hybrid warfare against them in the form of non-uniformed and uniformed partisans in the event of a Russian invasion.

In an article for the The National Interest, David Axe quotes an Army Times article by Kyle Rempfer noting, “This summer, [troops from] Latvia and Poland traveled to West Virginia for the program. Both nations have newly invigorated homeland defense forces capable of pushing back against an invading force and opposing a potential occupation.”

Rempfer continues: “The units are trained to provide response during the early stages of a hybrid conflict. Their tasks could include slowing the advancing units of an aggressor nation by destroying key transportation infrastructure such as bridges, attacking enemy forces at chokepoints, and potentially serving as forward observers for NATO aircraft responding with air strikes.”

While this approach might give NATO some tactical force multipliers, as a meaningful strategic deterrent it is probably a minor stumbling block for the Russians. This is true for two reasons. First, the Baltics are relatively flat and do not have the mountains and dense forests that are conducive to guerrilla warfare. Second, the brutal Russian approach to counterinsurgency would see any tactical gains outweighed by the cost of reprisals to the civilian population. Simply stated, the threat of irregular warfare in the open against tank-heavy Russian forces would not provide a realistic deterrent. This does not mean that such an idea is totally without merit. Placing irregular warfare in an urban context holds real promise.

Urban “Festung” Approach  

Any successful Russian thrust into one or more of the Baltic states depends on the calculus of speed. Russians need to make the action a fait accompli before NATO reinforcement can arrive. The previously mentioned 2016 Rand war game indicated that current NATO capabilities cannot properly offset the Russian 6-1 armor advantage in the Baltics in a timely manner. However, if key Baltic urban areas can be turned into potential urban fortresses, the equation changes radically.

Hitler’s concept of turning German cities into fortresses [festungs] at the end of World War II has been justifiably derided, but the Russian successes at Leningrad and Stalingrad were keys to Soviet victory on the Eastern Front in that conflict. The Germans also used urban fortress tactics as an operational tool effectively earlier in the war. The difference between the two was that the Soviets always had a viable plan for relieving the cities; by 1945, the Germans did not have that capability. The festungs were doomed to defeat in detail.

NATO has a plan for relieving the Baltics, but in its present state it is likely that it will be an attempt at liberation rather than relief. However, the credible threat of a Russian coup de main being held up by a series of urban strong points would give Moscow serious second thoughts about the viability of a lightning strike into the Baltics.

Strategic Deterrence

It is difficult to measure the efficacy of strategic deterrence except after the fact due to the difficulties of proving the negative case. But we do have some good evidence of what basic elements constitute credible deterrence. First, that the nation or alliance can demonstrate the will to fight if needed. During the Cold War in both Europe and Korea, a series of scheduled exercises demonstrated that will.

Second, a show of credible capability to back up the will to fight is also necessary. Capability exercises and technical demonstrations can do this although they always run the risk of giving the potential enemy information on friendly technological developments. One has to wonder whether clear demonstrations of the power of French machine guns and rapid firing artillery prior to World War I might have shown the Germans that the dependence on rapid strategic movement called for in the Von Schlieffen plan was misplaced.

The reality of deterrence in the Baltics would be in creating a mindset among Russian strategic and military planners that an adventure in that region would not be worth the risk. The ease with which the Russians retook Crimea may well have created hubris in Moscow. Disabusing the Russians of that mindset is critical in avoiding war by miscalculation.

Operational Readiness

Using unconventional delaying means in an urban context will require creating a coherent doctrine for urban defense in the Baltic region and training and equipping local forces to implement that doctrine. This requires the creation of a unified vision for a Baltic urban delaying strategy by the nations in question as well as creating a consensus that that this approach is feasible at the operational level of war. Each urban area is unique in culture and outlook, but a successful urban delaying effort must have key components:

Logistic Feasibility: A successful delaying urban action will mean that each urban area must be self-sustaining in a situation where it may be surrounded and isolated for up to a month while NATO forces deploy and organize a counterattack. This means that water, food, ammunition, and medical supplies must be stocked down to the neighborhood level.

Coordinated Fire Support: Urban areas provide natural choke points that can be exploited by fire and local maneuver with NATO proving precision firing? and a variety of assets providing the eyes on target. But to be effective, local observers must be trained in how to call-in fire correctly and recognize worthwhile targets among the clutter of urban combat. The plethora of security cameras that now dominate the urban landscape can integrate with and augment the human sensor-to-shooter grid, but it will require big data to separate the targeting wheat from the proverbial chaff.

Centralized Commander’s Intent-Decentralized Execution: The Russians almost certainly can disrupt any attempt by a city to exercise centralized command and control in its defense, so execution should be decentralized to the maximum extent possible, applying previously determined commander’s intent.

One thing the Marine Corps found early-on in its 1990s Urban Warrior experiments was that the Red Teams defending urban areas were inherently superior to the Blue attackers who were trying to execute predetermined experimental tactics. Having had time to familiarize themselves with the terrain and unconstrained by fixed doctrine, these Red Teams almost always had an innate advantage over Blue as they could improvise and use their imagination. NATO should exploit this advantage and allow neighborhood defense units the latitude to use maneuver warfare to adapt their tactics to the unique terrain in their individual and unique battle space.

A Neighborhood Watch on Steroids: A key tactic in recent Russian operations in Crimea and the Ukraine has been the use of Spetsnaz and irregular force to seize and/or disrupt key locations and communications in advance of regular forces. Any successful urban delaying action must defend effectively against such efforts in their early stages. Local residents must be trained to immediately report suspicious activity, and local police and paramilitary forces prepared to deal quickly with attempts at sabotage. The defensive urban campaign would be a disconnected series of neighborhood battles that may not be fully coordinated until NATO reinforcements arrive.  The Russians are adept at disrupting urban communications grids. The key to success will be creating an atmosphere of decentralized chaos that impacts the Russian attackers more seriously than the urban defenders.

Tactics, Techniques, and Technology: Weaponizing an urban delaying strategy in a way that will make it a credible deterrent will not be overly expensive, but it will require a new approach to tactics and training. Rand analysts suggest that NATO provide Baltic states unconventional forces with training and technology to include sniper and sabotage techniques, night vision equipment, and drones – presumably both armed and unarmed. Recent Army futures war games have examined this urban approach and found it promising.

Such an approach would also benefit from other elements designed to give an asymmetrical advantage to urban irregular troops augmenting regular forces:

Teleoperated Tanks: Any vehicle can be rigged for teleoperation. Older, obsolete tanks can be easily reinforced structurally and reconfigured as assault guns and placed around key infrastructure and choke points. They do not need to go far and can be concealed from aerial targeting in parking garages and other structures providing overhead cover. Due to Russian expertise with electronic warfare jamming, they should be fitted with both frequency hopping radio and fiber-optic controls. They would be useful against Russian armor as well as “little green men” if configured with both anti-tank and anti-personnel weapons.

Integrated Targeting: NATO has a tremendous capacity for precision targeting that would cause minimal urban collateral damage. To be most effective, it requires precision target acquisition. As mentioned earlier, a combination of civilian eyes on target and the network of security cameras now ubiquitous in almost all of the developed world’s major cities can give excellent coverage. However, such targeting sensors must be combined with big data. This will require integration with NATO’s fire support system. This will require much coordination and training, but it is feasible.

Low Impact Exercises: Coordinated defense of an urban area will require repetitive exercises to get everyone on the same sheet of music. A Russian attack will most likely depend on stealth and surprise in its initial stages and the speed with which the population and its defenders can react will be critical in defending against an urban coup de main. Such exercises need not be disruptive. Success will depend on getting key players into position to provide overwatch, protect critical infrastructure, and tie in with NATO. They have the advantage that they can be conducted quietly during normal working days and holidays without major disruptions to urban life. These should be augmented by tabletop neighborhood level war games that would allow irregular local defense forces to design improvisational tactics to anticipate various Russian approaches.

The Importance of Will

To be a credible deterrent, an urban delaying strategy must demonstrate the will of the populace to accept the damage and casualties that war will bring if deterrence fails. To be sure, not all of the populations of Baltic urban areas will buy in. 

All three Baltic states have residual Russian ethnic populations which might welcome a return of their brethren. The Soviet occupation ended three decades ago and many citizens – particularly millennials – never knew the thinly-disguised weight of oppressive Russian domination.

However – as in all civil societies – 20 percent of the people do most of the heavy lifting. It is the determination of that element that will be needed to deter Russian aggression.

Col. Gary Anderson, USMC (Ret.), is an adjunct faculty member at the Elliot School of International Relations, George Washington University. A version of this article originally appeared in  the Small Wars Journal and has been updated for inFOCUS Quarterly.