Russian President Vladimir Putin has again scrambled his jets in a snap military drill meant to prepare his air force for a “time of war.”
“In accordance with the decision by the Armed Forces Supreme Commander, a snap check of the Aerospace Forces began to evaluate readiness of the control agencies and troops to carry out combat training tasks,” said Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu, according to Russia’s state-run media.
“Special attention should be paid to combat alert, deployment of air defense systems for a time of war and air groupings’ readiness to repel the aggression,” Shoigu added.
Russian snap exercises on the border with NATO happen often without warning and with menacing overtones. For some time now, Russia has held a numerical, qualitative, organizational, and timing advantage over NATO forces in the Baltics.
In 2014, Putin said he could take Kiev in two weeks. In 2015, a Czech general said Russia could take the Baltics in two days. The US and NATO have responded to Russia’s rising aggression steadily but slowly, most recently by stationing 80 tanks in Poland.
But according to a presentation at the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia by Michael Johnson, a senior defense research analyst at the RAND Corporation, Russian tanks outnumber NATO tanks by about 480 to 80.
And even with a US Navy carrier battle group in the mix, Russia could muster up one-third of its air force to a fight on short notice, according to Johnson.
Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of US F/A-18s currently can’t fly because of budget cuts that led to a backlog on maintenance and sourcing new parts, Defense News reports. The Marine Times similarly reports that more than half of the Marine Corps’ planes couldn’t fly in December.
Even with the US’s ship-based aviation crippled by age and budget cuts, the bigger problem is Russia’s advanced anti-air systems.
In October, Igor Sutyagin, an expert on Russian and US air power and air defenses at the Royal United Services Institute, said even the US’s best, stealthiest jets and pilots would have to be “operationally, tactically brilliant” to cope with Russia’s advanced S-400 air defenses.
Legacy fighters from the US and NATO would have their work cut out for them in a battle of the skies and against missile defenses, leaving few planes left over for close air support. Essentially, US troops would fight without total air superiority for the first time since World War II.
Additionally, by the time US and NATO reinforcements reached the Baltics, the Russians would have long ago established themselves, possibly with more air defenses. US troops would have to go “from fort to port,” 5,000 miles across the sea, then land outside of Russian missile range or airspace and make their way to the Baltics, Johnson said. The whole ordeal could take up to six months, according to Johnson.
US President Donald Trump has called NATO “obsolete,” though the current challenges from Russia arguably would mean the alliance bears more relevance now than at any point since the end of the Cold War. Trump — and Obama before him — has called on all NATO states to pay their fair share on defense, but the US must still lead the fight.
“There are more police officers in New York City than there are American soldiers stationed in Europe today,” Johnson said. “So while bipartisan presidents have always encouraged Europeans to do more, I think we can also look to our own situation in Europe as well.”