Musings about timeliness of forces for continental defence in Europe

The EU and European NATO are vastly more powerful  than all non-allied neighbours combined, even if we would count Switzerland and NATO ally Turkey against the EU, for example. Russia doesn't come close to the sum of EU military power.
The present challenge for deterring violent conflict on the European continent is thus not about the quantity of forces or the sizes of budgets. That's what superficial voices want us to believe, and it's also a myth that's conspicuously self-serving for the armed bureaucracies and arms industries in Europe.

The real challenge is to let these forces be relevant (and meanwhile, we could actually reduce military spending and force numbers and still stay safe). "Relevant" means "timely" and "suitably prepared". A suitable preparation is a preparation for defence; insurgents won't attack us, if any power dares to attack us it's going to field a powerful regular military that's used the time it had to counter our doctrines, our technologies and that's prepared to exploit our weak spots. Forces focused on how best to occupy some distant country and force a puppet regime on it are a waste of money and time in regard to defence.
"Timely" is about how quickly the suitably prepared forces arrive.
The most plausible scenario for an attack on our alliances (NATO and EU) isn't a full-out assault to make us all speak Russian, Chinese or Arabic. It would rather be a quick coup de main followed by a fait accompli, a "I'll use nukes if you try to take back what I conquered!" message. A very promising counter would be to make the original coup de main improbable by showing the ability to counter it with enough military power IN TIME.
The old NATO "strategy" of counter-concentration is bollocks, for it assumes that an aggression can be predicted in time and politicians actually act on the intelligence without prohibitive decisionmaking lags.

We need forces either where we'd need them or able to get there real quick.
This is how I'd rate the different timeliness of land and air power:

(1) high readiness forces in-theatre (incl. allied forward-deployed forces)
(2) air-deployable forces with resupply secured (including with prepositioned material)
(3) low readiness forces in-theatre (including personnel reserves)
(4) high readiness road march-deployable forces (incl. tanks on tank trailers)
(5) rail march-deployable forces (only diesel locomotives are relevant)
(6) low readiness deployable forces (including deployment by sealift)

The cut for actual relevance is in my opinion among those forces of category (3) that are close and those that are very far on the continent.

The typical air-deployable forces would be air power (self-deploying air force aviation with core ground crews deployed by transport or passenger aircraft) and "airborne" forces. The "airborne" forces might do a jump, but not close to known opposing forces. Such a jump would rather serve to deploy them farther forward than the most forward safe airfield. Surface-to-air missiles are still less long-ranged against slow* transport aircraft at very low altitude than the 500 km limit in ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles of the INF treaty. So airborne forces may arrive a few hours earlier on the scene if they jump than if they land at some safe airfield (that's probably overcrowded anyway).

There are problems with both air power and airborne forces. Air power will likely not achieve much initially, for Western air power doctrines have grown to depend on either a slow force-build-up (1990) or even a long conflict (Vietnam, Libya) and enough time to first go after the opposing defences (air defences, fighters, supporting HQs) and then influence ground war. Western air forces are poorly suited to make themselves felt on the ground within hours or days even in face of powerful defences. We could change this by investing more into ground--launched cruise and ballistic missiles, but we've allowed our air forces to idolize fighter pilots so much that the ranks of air force generals are dominated by pilots. Pilots don't want a force of trailers with missiles ready-to-use, they want manned combat aircraft! Thus we neglected GLCMs and GLBMs.

Airborne forces have horrible problems as well:
- poor if any artillery power
- poor anti-tank power (dependent on shaped charge principle, especially anti-tank guided missiles)
- poor battlefield mobility (hardly any armoured vehicles)

Airborne forces that qualify as quick reaction forces for collective defence need to

(a) have these three problems solved (maybe with an arms room concept in which their artillery battalion switches between towed artillery and air-deployable self-propelled guns as needed)
(b) they cannot be used as stand-alone formations (they'd be reduced to infantry reinforcements for mechanised brigades)
(c) they can only be used for niche missions such as defending a bridge, towns/cities or woodland

A plausible recipe for collective security at spending levels that include hardly any avoidable waste would be focused on collective deterrence, not on the interests of warmongers, not on the interests of the armed bureaucracies, not driven by path dependent customary force structures and habits.
Europe is vastly more powerful than needed and is spending vastly more on military power than wise, regardless of the uninformed gut feelings of people who claim otherwise. Yet Europe's military power is not oriented at doing its noble core job; providing collective security through effective (and preferably highly efficient) deterrence.
I am under the impression that the reorientation towards this is half-hearted and slow, but most worryingly, it's low on ambition:
So-called quick reaction forces are small, patchwork and not really quick. The quickest-deployed forces are predictably ineffective in the relevant collective defence scenarios.

Maybe the collective defence activities are 100% satisfactory and effective despite being largely symbolic, or rackets to serve the armed bureaucracies and the careers of their political masters. Well, if this was the case then that would be a most convincing reason to still become more efficient, and to cut spending levels accordingly. What can be done by much at poor efficiency and rather symbolic effectiveness can surely be done at much less expenses if the efficiency was better.


*: Either fast or very low altitude, one cannot do both with transport aircraft.


  1. Although still totally dependent on CE for anti-armour applications, the mechanisation of Airborne forces has already been achieved by the Russo/Soviet Air Assault forces. In the NATO context this would allow an avenue of "let's build more shiny toys"-ism, but undoubtedly would suffer from gold-plating and massive delays in entering service.

    Standard 'leg' ABN forces seem to be intended to work as "tripwire" forces, which I know you've written about before and your criticisms are entirely valid on that. If we took alliance agreements seriously this is nonsensical: because of collective defence an attack on a single member, even (or especially) Estonia, means those national forces would themselves be the "tripwire" and only American Exceptionalism as a fallacious notion would support the idea of inserting meaningless reinforcements.

    Why are only diesel locomotives relevant? I assume this has to do with pulling capacity, reliability, and regional infrastructure?

    1. It's too easy to disrupt railway traffic that depends on overhead lines for electric power supply. Even a railway operation limited to diesel-powered trains would need to be a simplified and manually-controlled operation because the signal lines could still be disrupted.
      I doubt the railway corporations are well-prepared for a reliable military-supporting rail service in face of sabotage, much less air and missile attack.
      The German and Polish rail network operators should be fit for this.

      The Russian 2S25 sure is more impressive than Stryker MGS, though in Western service such a vehicle would o doubt receive better thermal electronics and sights as well as become overweight with add-on armour modules.

    2. For cost reasons I'd hesitate to have a parallel military structure able to take over the infrastructure in a state of emergency, but exercises should certainly incorporate these civilians (and perhaps recognize their role as being somewhat paramilitary, in much the same way as we recognize all emergency responders as having a role) at a minimum. As always, need more sweat expended on this issue. What I saw at Canadian railyards was shitty or non-existent security, if this is the same in Europe it should be rectified. The point is not to protect against a spetsnaz commando backflipping hatchet-throwing ninja attack, but instead to make it that much harder for one or two dickheads in civvies to go in and mess with something important. This might matter a great deal if you happen to have Russian "backpackers" wandering the area, e.g. the Baltics.

  2. While Europe may dwarf Russia and Turkey in regards to GDP, military budgets and population size which could be defined as them being "vastly more powerful". The USA was vastly more powerful than N.V.A that still didn't stop them from losing the Vietnam war. The security of Europe goes far beyond just being able to stop an Invader from taking over and given its inability to deal with Syria, Ukraine and Libya highlight how impotent it is.

  3. The Vietnam example is irrelevant. What matters is that the North Vietnamese NVA was never able to coccupy the U.S., it's uninteresting to me whether it was able to resist an occupation of Vietnam by the U.S.. This is "Defence and Freedom", not "Offence and Freedom".

    The European policies regarding Libya, Ukraine and Syria are more a question of political will and necessity than of military capabilities.
    Besides, the Europeans flew more sorties over Libya than the U.S. in 2011.

  4. My point on Vietnam was to emphasis the point that just being bigger and stronger doesn't necessarily translate into victory. The question I have though is where does defence end in today's age, is it at one's own borders or beyond...? It's all well and good being secure within your own borders but if you are reliant on imports from country x for your economy then that's not good enough.

    I do agree with you about political will and military capabilities but if the E.U can't find the political will then its military capabilities are irrelevant. I wasn't actually arguing over who did what, between the U.S and the E.U, just the actual end result. In my view without the U.S in Europe, the E.U vs Russia and Turkey could end with them being on the winning side. Obviously not taking over the whole of western Europe but certain strategic gains.

    1. About defence

      Having almost twice as much conventional military power and a double mutually assured destruction deterrence is enough for security unless there's the salami slicing issue with coup de main and fait accompli in play. This may render much of the military power irrelevant.
      For explanation:

      I don't care about what you call "victory".

  5. In the face of a large conventional combined forces attack 90 pct of the European armed forces would just collapse, drown in the chaos of civil disorder, be petrified by the civil political leadership ignorance on all things military, and soon just stop working because of vastly insufficient logistics and in reality totally untrained troops. The fact that a few battalions somewhere might fare a little better is irrelevant.

  6. Yeah, well that's just your opinion man.

  7. Airborne forces that are inserted in front of mechanized invaders will be overrun, unless the terrain is very favorable.
    So either one plans to use them in favorable (cities, forest) terrain, or insert them at the lines of communication, avoiding the mechanized part.

    VD airborne forces follow an offensive game plan, where they would disrupt the enemy movement to allow the mechanized spearheads to break trough. Equipping the fast response force like that would increase they utility, they still wouldn't stand a chance.
    In fact, it might lower the chances as the dismount numbers decrease.

  8. If memory serves, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait was preceded by Kuwait refusing to issue munitions to its forces, to avoid provoking Iraq...

    Its not an uncommon event.

    Belgium failed to much if its defense in the second world war, despite an invasion being obvious, large numbers of German 'hunters' were camping at key positions

    The us failed to disperse its fleet from pearl harbour despite knowledge an attack was imminent

    Actually, can anyone provide an example of a government acting on Intel and activating its war mobilisation plans?