The common picture of our (NATO) position in non-nuclear defense affairs seems to be that we're a bunch of great industrialized countries with huge, quite undefeatable militaries. Russia might recover, but not to old USSR strength. China will likely become more powerful and finally challenge the U.S. before 2050.

Well, first of all, we (the NATO) don't own the vast majority of shipbuilding capacity anymore. That asset went away long ago towards East Asia, especially South Korea. The PR China expands its shipyard industry as well. That means if there will ever be an arms race or even mobilization on the seas, quantity production of modern ships could quickly change the balance. Remember what happened in World War 2 - the U.S. Navy multiplied its combat power with new ships in a couple of years ... wouldn't be possible anymore (well, not for NATO).
Other classical defense industries like chemical industry, metal industry (steel production ... can't do without if you want to produce ammunition), electric/electronics industry and automotive industry don't have their undisputed center in NATO nations anymore as well.

The record of our navies is a mixed one - they accomplished their missions in the past decades with overwhelming power, but often displayed interesting carelessness, as for example inadequate alertness to threats (sea-skimming missiles seem to exploit lack of alertness especially well). The reaction to new technologies is slow, and ships are kept in service without major upgrade long after they're obsolete. Anti-shipping firepower is almost limited to air power and submarine torpedoes because SSMs (ship-to-ship missiles) are installed only in small quantities (no, four or eight is most common) on our combat ships. Our surface combat ships (even destroyers and cruisers) wouldn't be able to sink a late 19th century battleship because they have only small calibre guns and SSMs as anti-ship weapons - large-calibre torpedoes are almost entirely limited to submarines in the NATO.

Our armies fail to stand up to their reputation every time when they face light infantry opponents. No matter whether these are insurgents or conventional troops (as was the case in Korea and Vietnam). The NATO armies have mobilized strengths that are much smaller than the active personnel strengths in the 1930's. Russia displayed that it still takes a lot of infantry to defeat light infantry opponents in restricted terrain and to keep control over a restricted terrain area. All NATO armies combined could defend only a small fraction of NATO's European land borders at the intensity that was displayed in Chechnya.
Our abilities to bombard with air power and artillery and to maneuver with heavy mechanized forces is of little value against militia-like light infantry forces with their very unconventional logistical system.
The most disturbing fact is that the Korean War showed that even large nation's armies can be largely light infantry forces, holding ground in conventional war and succeed even in offensive actions.

Our air forces depend on mostly decades-old designs for air combat, air attack and air defense. It takes barely effective countermeasures to only two specific types of missiles (AIM-9 and AIM-120) to shatter our air superiority. These have been around for a long time and potential adversaries had enough time to develop effective countermeasures in secrecy.

The worst that can happen to defense planners is to be satisfied and to trust the ability of our forces. Long periods of peace (with limited wars) erode every force's preparedness for the worst case - defense of sovereignty in major war.

Sven Ortmann

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