Defence policy thoughts for (very) small powers

An acquaintance suggested that I write about the defence of a small country facing a less than very friendly, much larger neighbour.

Most texts here were written because of a spontaneous idea of mine (that may have been old at the time of writing, though). I'm not sure how good a "by request" text may be, but I'll give it a try.

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The first idea is to obviously avoid conflict. The small nation should not only avoid violent conflict; it should also avoid political conflict, maybe even ally with the larger power.
Regrettably, this option is not available in his (Estonian) case.

To seek other, sufficiently powerful, allies is another option. Sadly, even a written alliance treaty may ultimately fail to deter. Nevertheless, such a treaty pretty much ends the political challenge.

Next, the small nation should decide what form of armed resistance it wants to be able to put up. It signed an alliance treaty, after all - and that's a two-way commitment unlike a unilateral guarantee of sovereignty. This means also that even a small ally is supposed to be ready to help others. The minimum commitment would in my opinion be a readiness to deploy rear security troops and troops for handling prisoners of war.

Next, let's think about the military defence strategy and the suitable force structure.
There's a "miniature military" trap; some small armed forces attempt to mimic large ones, with a full set of capabilities ranging from simple infantry to heavy artillery, armoured forces, multi-role fighters, air defences and naval forces.
Israel is probably the only example that really worked well. Many militaries that adopt such a course fail and cannot reach good quality and readiness.

A tailored approach to national defence - coupled with some thought about the potential contribution to alliance defence elsewhere - looks more promising.
The defence of a very small alliance member against a much superior potential invader is quite a challenge without very suitable terrain and without forward deployed allied forces.

The first problem is the budget. Both its likely small size and the necessity of very efficient spending pose some tough challenges. Compromises are necessary - even compromises that say "no" to certain standard capabilities of bigger militaries.
Cost-efficiency is extremely important and this forces the usage of older and used equipment for most purposes. Only very, very influential key equipment can justify high procurement and operating costs.
Examples of such key equipment could be encrypting jam-resisting radios, capable anti-tank missiles, (very) short range air defence systems and possibly also equipment that's necessary for key actions. The latter could for example be some equipment for the destruction of the tunnel that connects South Ossetia with Russia (in the case of Georgia).

The defence of a given area against numerically superior invaders is a tough job. It's especially tricky if no continuous front line can be established for a lack of forces. Even a fortified front line wouldn't hold indefinitely, though. An army needs no overall numerical superiority in order to achieve a local 3:1 or 6:1 superiority. A breakthrough attempt with such a local superiority tends to lead to mobile warfare (just as the case without a continuous front line).

Success in mechanised mobile warfare requires skills and equipment that's unlikely to be found in small armies. There's nevertheless a temptation to add an armour battalion, regiment or brigade to the army.

The biggest advantage of doing so is probably the training effect for those who're supposed to resist enemy armour.

What could an armour brigade be worth? It adds primarily some offensive striking power, gives some headaches to invasion planners.

Those invasion planners would have much more severe headaches in other scenario planning, though. A single armour Bde isn't exactly a large force even by modern standards. NATO has dozens and even Germany's shrunk army has five active armour and mechanised brigades.

The failure of such a expensive and high profile component of the defender's arm would furthermore risk to break all defenders' morale.

It's reasonable to expect that the potential invader will prepare properly and have at least one very good answer for every obvious challenge.
The not-so-obvious, unpredicted obstacles would have less political deterrence value (not that this would make a difference when you're already allied with great powers), but they would cause unanticipated problems for an invader. It would be a good idea to strengthen the defence with something that poses an unmitigated challenge to the invader. Strengths that he doesn't know about, doesn't understand, cannot counter due to his own restrictions or doesn't want to counter due to arrogance might work.

Let's face it; main battle tanks are the last thing that an invader is not prepared to defeat. The necessary air defences alone could furthermore easily double the costs of the tank force.

Air and naval forces are often a waste of budget money as well. A fighter squadron or fighter wing would not stop an invasion. It might be crushed or stuck in its own base - or be defeated by superior air power in the air. Taiwan's air force gets a good share of their national defence budget, but its position is quite hopeless against the only realistic threat, the mainland Chinese air force.
Navies - well, let's recall the utterly irrelevant role played by the Polish navy in September of 1939. Navies are sometimes mere toy ship collections. Some nations really should limit themselves to simply blocking their harbours with some demolition experts in order to prevent their usage by the enemy.

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A quite fine example of a successful defence against a powerful neighbour is the Vietnamese defence against the Red Chinese punitive invasion in 1979. Vietnam - then unified only for a few years - had decided to put an end to the excesses and border violations of the crazy Red Khmer and sent its field army into Cambodia. The PR China was not amused and invaded Vietnam. This invasion got stuck quickly even though it faced only second-rate defence forces.

Invasión de China sobre Vietnam, 1978 - 1979
(Fuente: Nam, Crónica de la guerra de Vietnam)

The Vietnamese did not use high-tech tools, expensive weapons, much ammunition and as far as I know they did not desperately open dams to flood the terrain.
They had instead a kind of militia defence with many local defence networks (including underground networks) and a partially war-experienced light infantry force. The Chinese army on the other hand stumbled in part because of incompetence and previously unknown training deficiencies.
I don't want to suppose that this kind of defence would work in many or most cases world-wide, of course.

Well, I'm not exactly an expert on this particular conflict, but I'd suggest to small army planners to look more closely at it.

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It could also make sense to look at the bigger picture. I consider Estonia to be indefensible against a Russian invasion if the latter is well-prepared. Russia would most likely not want to annex only Estonia, though. A complete grab of the three Baltic countries is a more likely scenario. Estonian defence planners could therefore ask themselves how to spoil such a bigger invasion instead of a small invasion of only their country. (No matter how unlikely the scenarios are; preparing is what they get paid for, after all.)

larger map

Time would be a critical component of any such invasion plan. They would need to create a strong signal that discourages invasion planners by indicating that a quick invasion is too difficult.
This might lead to consider the defence of the Southern neighbour and ally Latvia instead of the own defence. This may sound strange, but waging a war abroad instead of at home does make sense. The French learned this thoroughly during the first World War.
An Estonian readiness to defend Riga (the Latvian capital and traffic node) could improve its own national security more than greater efforts to secure its own border and capital. Just food for thought.

The speed of an invasion could also be hampered by small and large landscape-shaping and infrastructure projects. The terrain can be shaped to be more of a problem to an invader (although trees grow slowly, for example) and the road network could be modified to be more easily blocked along possible invasion routes.
Settlement projects could be located with the creation of defensible closed terrain along invasion routes in mind.

Intra-alliance politics could also be important. NATO could invest in much better road connections between the Baltic states and Poland (to enable a quicker reinforcement and thus cut the invader's time table even more).
The richer, bigger allies could also subsidise Baltic armies in order to create army strengths way beyond the capability of the small countries themselves. That's certainly cheaper than forward deployment of allied brigades.

I do usually prefer to think about peer, 1-on-1 conflicts because these provide the kind of ceteris paribus scenario that allows for rather clear thinking about how to gain advantages purely by military skill.
Nevertheless, the defence policy problems of small alliance partners or even non-allied, isolated countries offer much food for thought as well. It's a much more refreshing case than the budget-busting high technology orgy fantasies that often pass as military thought in the Western World.

There's the case of indefensible nations, though. These nations depend on others and no military skill will ever change that.



  1. Conventional defense is a waste of resources for a small power with an unfriendly bordering power.

    Either go Oppenheimer, get a bigger ally, or buy off your enemy. Finland may offer some useful lessons here.

  2. Finland 1939 or 1944? Yeah, what a waste-of Soviet resources...

  3. "The defence of a very small alliance member against a much superior potential invader is quite a challenge without very suitable terrain ..."

    Finland, Taiwan and South Korea (vs. PRC) are rather rare exceptions.
    Few small countries are gifted with an easily defensible geography.

  4. Finland post WWII offers important lessons on how to keep your independence next to a powerful and unfriendly neighbor.

  5. The best and easiest defensible terrain is pointless if you don't have the means and the will to defend it. The attacker will always try to avoid the best defenses of his opponent as the defender will always try to find his best natural defenses-and fight there. Those are basic principles in warfare.

  6. I´m bit confused in differences between ´´miniature military´´ & ´´miniature-Israel´´ concept you have written before.

    ´´MANPADS/ATGM at each home´´ do bring they´re own risks - too easy to fake an incident with these de-centralized systems (a´la Mainila incident), besides MANPADS-rich enviroment could mean no NATO air support (which is probably the one and only capability that can be arranged in quick.

    Heavy equipment a´la tanks are important morale boosters, i think this is bit difficult to understand for outsiders. :)

    BTW, teachings a´la look at Finland are a bit off IMO because they do not take into account that we´ve (Estonia) done the ´´best friends forever´´ thing before (1920-1939), did not change a thing back then.

  7. It helps not to do this:

  8. You forget the most obvious, nuclear weapons. Regardless of all other factors (alliances, terrain, force size), nuclear weapons remain the best guarantee of sovereignty.

    Some countries are blessed with riches, resources and terrain to defend themselves (Switzerland), others are not like Estonia. But nuclear weapons will achieve their purpose regardless of all these.

  9. @Bd1:
    "miniature armies" meant armies that cannot field a full corps or even a full division.
    NATO fixed wing air power avoids less than 10,000 ft if not less than 15,000 ft altitude in conventional war, friendly ManPADS don't restrict it.

    The Finns are among the few who ever defended successfully against a much bigger neighbour's invasion and are quite proficient in infantry and cold weather warfare. I wouldn't rate them as a useful ally, though.

    I disagree.
    (1) Extreme costs.
    (2) probelms with potential or actual allies.
    (3) Provocation of a preventive attack.
    (4) Huge drain on conventional forces budget.
    (5) Inability to ensure the survivability of a few nukes without geographical depth.
    (6) Potential uselessness if the invader credibly threatens to retaliate tenfold.

  10. There was a interesting debate in the end '70 and in the beginning of the '80 about alternative Defense for Germany against the Soviets. The main thinkers were Horst Afheldt and Carl Friedrich von Weizäcker.

    see the article by Hal Harvey,

    "Non provocative Defense in Europe"
    (the second article, scroll down)

    Starting from the same idea's and put in practice was the Austrian military doctrine in the Cold War which based of the ideas of General Spannocchi. (Hunter Commandos and Area Defense)

  11. The probelm with those old concepts (among other problems) is that they were founded on their context.
    Austria was a potential transit country for moving forces between Germany and Italy in WW3. Its defence had to aim primarily at raising the transit fee to unacceptable levels. That was relatively easy, while raising the price to an unacceptable level is more difficult if your country is the prize itself.

    It was similar with Germany. There were several alternative defence ideas discussed during the 60's and 80's (some based on misconceptions), but they were primarily about improving the buffer function of Western Germany. We were the batlefield, not the main prize, after all. No war would have been fought for control over Germany - that wasn't even up for debate during the Berlin crisis when the (the Russians were still bled white at that time).

    The national, colelctive and international deterrence needs to be stronger than the potential benefits of an aggression. The latter varies wildly between different examples.

    A deterrence strategy may still fail (if stupidity is in effect on part of the aggressor), of course.

  12. "On Infantry" page 86 author writes that Soviet army got his first serious lessons in WW2 in Finland and made changes. So if Soviets had attacked later and they had adopted those lessons learned, there is huge chance that the Finlands destiny would be different. You can access this chapter "Stalin's hammer, Hitler's .." via Google Books.
    Today there is question HOW this success can be repeated?

  13. Ich habe mir, ausgehend von Deinem Beitrag erlaubt, ähnliche Überlegungen - nur aus russischer Sicht - anzustellen:

    Krieg im Baltikum

    Beste Grüße


  14. Hi Sven:

    Re-reading on your old posts (I'm in a debate over the reform of our national armed forces), I wanted to ask your opinion about not so small powers. For instance, we (México) have over 100 millon inhabitants, and our army has (in theory) over 100 000 soldiers to fight, plus the Navy (our air force is really non-existent, so I don't count it). We are in the situation of very small countries in the south, which are not a threat just because of our sheer size and population (Guatemala); and on the other hand we have USA, which is probably one of the most 2.unconfortable neighbours in this planet. To try to go as big as them in our armed forces is 1. Impossible because of budget; and 2. They always call for a challenge (is part of their ethos), specially in what they consider their "backyard". Considering that all proposals so far include the retrieval of the army and navy from internal security tasks, how can we build a credible defense deterrence? We have the manpower, and maybe the resources to raise as many armored brigades as the Bundeswehr, but, in the long run, is very expensive to upkeep such a force and to justify their existence when the last time we had an incident was WWII. What would you consider a rational scale of priorities in our case?

    1. I don't consider the whole thing a budget challenge. It's more about the "what" and "how" than of budget or size. It's not primarily about deterrence either - deterrence is but one approach for the pursuit of security.

      (a) Make sure your generals don't get bribed as Iraqi generals were bribed. This is a defensive military intelligence job.

      (b) Avoid unnecessary political conflicts.

      (c) Make sure you got good relations with important arms developing countries, specifically those which resist pressure by your potential threats.

      (d) Exploit the relaxed situation now for a long-term improvement of military leadership and technical competence. This means really good selection for NCO and officer courses based on individual potential and really good and demanding courses themselves. Get the personnel system as a whole right; reward the right attitudes and talent, sanction the wrong attitudes and correct promotion mistakes.

      (e) Have a national basic military training (~six months) and plenty small arms in stocks. Conscription isn't necessary if the quality+pay and thus reputation of the basic training is fine.
      The Americans have a myth that nobody would dare to invade them because of their millions of armed civilians. They would probably respect a country capable of arming 20 million trained militia(wo)men enough to not invade it.

      (f) Keep a professional military core for raising and maintaining military competence in the high tech arms, and a large combined gendarmerie/border guard for the low tech challenges.

      (g) Make sure plenty billionaires in the U.S. have vested interest in peaceful trade with Mexico (they should NOT have substantial direct investments in Mexico, nor be major creditors to Mexico).

      (h) Exploit the 'hispanic' demographic in the U.S. to influence political attitudes there. Germany neglected this badly in 1914-1917.

      (i) Keep good relations with Guatemala, so even a complete air/sea blockade would not cut off Mexico entirely.

      (j) Consider striving for a kind of 'sacred ground' status by hosting important international institutions. (Offer some city with a good air quality as location.)

  15. i am writing an essay for uni at the moment on how a small nation can develop defense policies in a globalized world, however i don't really understand the part of the "globalized world". How does that make a difference for small states defense policy nowadays and back in the days in a non-globalized world. thanks a lot for your thoughts.

    1. Let's assume Panama had a security problem with Colombia. Back in the late 19th century, the U.S. would have been the only foreign power which would have determined the outcome (if interested).

      Yet today, Panama could import weapons within weeks from Russia, India or other faraway countries by air transport. An example is Iraq's recent ultra-quick arms import after Mosul fell to ISIS.

      Panama's hypothetical problem might be discussed and heavily influenced by the UN Security Council, in which countries such as Luxembourg and Rwanda have a vote.

      Panamese emigrants living in Europe and the United States could affect the public opinion there, not the least through personal contact to mass media and non government organisations.

      Talented individuals from panama could create through social media compelling, powerful narratives of the conflict - even through a single image.

      A country as small as Panama could also ally with multiple (instead of typical for 19th century and earlier but one) alliance relationships with great powers. The lending of a harbour as a naval base isn't onsidered as a sign of subservience any mroe as a hundred ayears ago with China. Nowadays the base-operating great power could not interfere in domestic politics of a small 3rd world power without risking substantial public backlash in the 1st world.

      One advantage of a small power is its smallness. it's much easier to launch a policy if there's but one university institute specialising on researchign this policy area. Imagine having 20 of them - 20 different opinions!
      Ths smallness enables less conventional, more innovative policies if you exploit it, as visible especially in Scandinavia and the Netherlands.

      The top politicians are often also better in small than in large countries because large countries' politicians needed to skill to defeat many political opponents in power politics and are thus selected for this skill, while a small country's top politicians may even lack this skill and reached their position almost by luck - which actually raises the odds of them being actually competent for the job.

      Disclaimer: I'm totally not responsible for your grades. ;)