By Robbin Laird
The Russian takeover of Crimea signaled an end to the optimistic post-Cold War era.
As Putin continued to ramp up challenges, the West gradually began to focus on the return of direct defence. Protecting critical infrastructure from cyber attack is, in many ways, surpassing other forms of military protection mandates.
Although counter-insurgency remains a key skill set, once again Western militaries face the threat of force-on-force confrontations and the challenge of returning to core tasks, such as anti-submarine warfare and air superiority, which had atrophied.
The Cold War has returned – in a new form.
Sure, it has Cold War elements, but in a very changed strategic situation.
This is becoming increasingly clear in Northern Europe where I have conducted several visits over the past few years interviewing political, strategic and military leaders about how to shape a way ahead to deal with the new Russia and the evolving Western policies, leaders and threats.
It is clearly not your daddy’s Cold War but, for the younger generation, not having lived through it, it can be a bit of a shock facing a nuclear power that has threatened Northern Europe (several times) with destruction if they don’t comply with how the Russians want to see security and defense develop in Europe.
But there is no Warsaw Pact.
The Russians cannot lead an envelopment campaign in the event of war against Northern Europe.
In the Kola Peninsula, Russia maintains the greatest concentration of military power on earth, and this makes Northern Europe a key flashpoint as Russia pushes its military power to areas of interest, including the Middle East.
The opening of the Arctic is clearly changing the strategic geography as Putin stands up new military bases, including air bases, to provide greater reach and range and affecting his ability to project force out into the North Atlantic.
The Nordic countries recognize that the extended reach of Russian strike capability (longer-range missiles) changes the threat calculus.
A very clear statement of the strategic shift was provided during my visit last year to Denmark. Admiral Nils Wang, former head of the Danish Navy and then head of the Royal Danish Military Academy, clearly differentiates between the Cold War threat of the Soviet Union and the Russian threat the Nordics now face.
Wang argues the Russian challenge has little to do with the old Soviet-Warsaw Pact threat, which had been one of invasion and occupation and using Nordic territory to fight American and allied forces in the North Atlantic. The Danes and their allies were focused on sea denial through the use of mines, with fast patrol boats providing protection for the minelayers. Aircraft and submarines were part of a defence strategy to deny the ability of the Soviets to occupy the region in time of a general war.
Admiral Wang contrasts this with the current situation, in which Russia is less focused on a general war, and more on building capabilities for a more limited objective – controlling the Baltic States.
He points to Russia’s arms modernization (focused on land- and sea-based attack missiles, missile defence, and airpower) as the means to shape a defence-in-depth strategy that creates significant freedom of manœuvre to achieve their objectives.
A core Russian asset is the Kalibr cruise missile, which can operate off of a variety of platforms and provide a cover for their manœuvre forces. Land-based mobile missiles are being used as their key strike and defense asset. “[It] is all about telling NATO, ‘we can go into the Baltic countries if we decided to do so. And you will not be able to get in and get us out.’ That is basically the whole idea,” says Wang.
Wang suggests a reverse engineering approach to the Russian threat, combining several key capabilities: anti-submarine (ASW), F-35, frigate- and land-based strike. This position is based in part on the arrival of the F-35 as a core coalition aircraft designed to work closely with either land-based or sea-based strike capabilities.
“This is where the ice-free part of the Arctic and the Baltic gets connected. We will have missions as well in the Arctic at the northern part of Norway because the Norwegians would be in a similar situation if there is a Baltic invasion.”
During a conference held in Copenhagen on October 11, 2018, the Danish Minister of Defence provided an overview on how the government views defence and security, particularly challenges in direct defence of Denmark and Europe – cyberwar posed by Russia and the need to enhance infrastructure defence are of key concern.
The lines between domestic security and national defence are clearly blurred in an era where Russians have expanded their tools sets to target Western infrastructure. Such hidden attacks also blur the lines between peace and war.
Within an alliance context, the Danes and other Nordic nations, are having to focus on direct defence as their core national mission. This will mean a shift from a focus on out of area operations back to the core challenge of defending the homeland.
Russian actions, starting in Georgia in 2008 and then in the Crimea in 2014, have created a significant environment of uncertainty for European nations, one in which a refocus on direct defence is required.
Denmark is earmarking new funds for defence and buying new capabilities as well, such as the F-35. By reworking their national command systems, as well as working with Nordic allies and other NATO partners, they will find more effective solutions to augment defensive force capabilities in a crisis.
It was very clear from discussions during my visits to Finland, Norway and Denmark earlier this year, that the return to direct defence has changed as the tools have changed, notably with an ability to leverage cyber tools to attack Western digital society to achieve political objectives with means other than use of lethal force.
This is why the West needs to shape new approaches and evolve thinking about crisis management in the digital age. It means that NATO countries need to work as hard at infrastructure defence in the digital age as they have been working on terrorism since September 11th.
New paradigms, new tools, new training and new thinking is required to shape various ways ahead for a more robust infrastructure in a digital age.
Article III of the NATO treaty underscores the importance of each state focusing resources on the defence of its nation. In the world we are facing now, this will mean much more attention to security of supply chains, robust security of infrastructure, and taking a hard look at any vulnerabilities.
Robustness in infrastructure can provide a key defence element in dealing with 21st century adversaries, and setting standards may prove more important than the build up of classic lethal capabilities.
A return to direct defence, with the challenge of shaping more robust national and coalition infrastructure, also means that the classic distinction between counter-value and counter-force targeting is changing. Eroding infrastructure with non-lethal means is as much counter-force as it is counter-value.
We need to find new vocabulary to describe the various routes to enhanced direct defence for core NATO nations.
A new strategic geography is emerging, in which North America, the Arctic and Northern Europe are contiguous operational territory that is being targeted by Russia, and NATO members need to focus on ways to enhance their capabilities to operate seamlessly in a timely manner across this entire chessboard.
In an effort to shape more interactive capability across a common but changing strategic geography, the Nordic nations have enhanced their cooperation with Poland and the Baltic states. They must be flexible enough to evolve as the reach and lethality of Russia’s air and maritime strike capabilities increases.
Clearly, tasks have changed, expanded and mutated.
An example of a very different dynamic associated with direct defence this time around, is how to shape a flexible basing structure.
What does basing in this environment mean? Can allies leverage national basing with the very flexible force packages needed to resolve a crisis?
One of the sponsors of the Danish Conference was Risk Intelligence, a key strategic partner to Second Line of Defense and Defense Information.
Their CEO, Hans Tino Hansen, a well-known Danish security and defense analyst explains the new context and challenges facing the Nordic countries:
“We need to look at the Arctic Northern European area, Baltic area, as one. We need to connect the dots from Greenland to Poland or Lithuania and everything in between. We need to look at the area as an integrated geography, which we didn’t do during the Cold War.
“In the Cold War, we were also used to the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact being able to actually attack on all fronts at the same time, which the Russians wouldn’t today because they are not the power that they used to be.
“And clearly we need to look beyond the defence of the Baltic region to get the bigger connectivity picture.”
He went on to assert the need to rethink and rebuild infrastructure and forces to deal with the strategic geography that now defines the Russian challenge and the capabilities they have […] to threaten our interests and our forces.”
Evaluating threats across a spectrum of conflict is the new reality. “We face a range of threats in the so-called gray area which define key aspects of the spectrum of conflict which need to be dealt with or deterred.”
A system of crisis identification with robust procedures for crisis management will go a long way towards effective strengthening of infrastructure in the face of the wider spectrum of Russian tools.
“A crisis can be different levels. It can be local, it can be regional, it can be global and it might even be in the cyber domain and independent of geography. We need to make sure that the politicians are not only able to deal with the global ones but can also react to something lesser,” Hansen says.
“The question becomes how to define a crisis.
“Is it when x-amount of infrastructure or public utilities have been disrupted or compromised?
“And for how long does the situation have to extend before it qualifies as a crisis?
“This certainly calls for systems and sensors/analysis to identify when an incident, or a series of incidents, amount to a crisis. Ultimately, that means politicians need to be trained in the procedures necessary in a crisis similar to what we did in the WINTEX exercises during the old days during the Cold War, where they learned to operate and identify and make decisions in such a challenging environment”.
In short, the Russian challenge has returned – but in a 21st century context. that incorporates incredibly invasive infrastructure threats. Direct defence strategies must quickly include these threats as part of any comprehensive national security concept.
This article first appeared in Front Line Defence, © 2018 FrontLine (Vol. 15, No 6)