NATO is in essence a modern-day Delian League. Like its forebear, It is ostensibly an alliance of equal partners but there is no doubt, as there was no doubt back then, that it is a motley collection of so-called democratic vassal states led by a hegemon. In those times it was Athens, today it is the USA. NATO like the Delian league is the military arm of an empire that enforces the interests of finance and capital through brute force, always disguised behind lofty claims of defending ‘liberty’ and ‘democracy’.
Just like Athens, and the British Empire before it, the USA is the predominant maritime power and just as Athens saw in Sparta a land power that was deemed an obstacle and needed to be destroyed to achieve total hegemony so does the USA see the same in Russia.
So when we are speaking about NATO, we are speaking primarily about US military power. The military power of its vassal states is puny and irrelevant as we shall see in a subsequent article when we address issues such as force disposition and most importantly combat readiness, that is the percentage of equipment and men that is fit for use and can be brought to battle at any one time.
The contemporary military doctrines of both the USA and Russia have been predominantly forged by their experiences in WWII – even though, where the Russians are concerned their military doctrine which has been evolving from the time of Peter the Great also encapsulates lessons learned in the Napoleonic wars and WWI.
It is here pertinent to point out that in WWII, despite all the attempts at rewriting history by Hollywood the German war machine, the pre-eminent fighting force in the world, was destroyed on the Eastern front. The USA lost 400,000 men in all the theatres of WWII including of course Europe and the Pacific. Russia – or rather the USSR lost about 27,000,000. Over 80% of the German and allied armies and ¾ of its air force were wiped out in its war with the Soviet Union. The USA simply has no idea what it means to experience war on this scale or on your own territory while Russia knows it all too well – over 20,000 towns and cities were simply wiped off the map while practically every family lost someone in that titanic conflagration. This too is an important consideration when we will address the most important subject of attrition warfare which is the capacity of a society, the so-called home front to absorb and put up with devastating punishment.
Another consideration we will have to keep in mind is that the Russians have colossal experience in fighting wars of attrition. On two occasions, they fought against practically the entirety of Europe – On both occasions, they also gladly traded territory in return for keeping their fighting forces as intact as possible while degrading the enemy, who with every mile of advance saw their logistical problems compound – in the Napoleonic wars they even evacuated Moscow retreating into the immense hinterland while constantly harassing the Grand Armee, while in the Second World War, the bulk of the Red Army always managed to withdraw in relatively good order and eluded encirclement and destruction while dishing out in return punishment that the Germans could ill-afford – they even moved their entire industry beyond the Ural mountains. On both occasions, Russia achieved total victory over the invading forces with its armies ultimately triumphantly entering Paris and Berlin respectively.
There are also two myths that need to be dispelled for good – that on both occasions, luck was on Russia’s side – that it avoided defeat because of the fabled ‘General Winter’, that both Napoleon and Hitler would have triumphed if it were not for a force majeure. This is a myth, propagated by the losing powers to somehow excuse their military debacles. Both armies failed, because of logistical problems, a scorched earth policy employed by the Russians, the fighting prowess of the Russian Army, and last but not least the ability to out-produce anything the enemy could muster. Any serious military historian has no doubt about the true reasons for the epic defeat of both the French and German military coalitions. See here and here respectively for a start.
The second myth to dispel is that Russian armed forces vastly outnumbered their enemy as if they had endless reserves of manpower. This is simply not true. In WWII, contrary to the prevailing narrative, the Soviets never had any significant manpower advantage over the Germans. The Wehrmacht at its peak in 1943–1944 had ~9.5 million, the Red Army usually numbered around 11 million in 1942-1945. Both sides usually used about 50% of available troops against each other. There were also about one million Romanian, Hungarian, Finnish, Italian, etc troops in the East fighting along with the Germans as well as some 0,7 million volunteers in Waffen SS units. The forces were pretty much equal.
But let us here initially focus solely on military doctrine – that is the expression of how military forces contribute to campaigns, major operations, battles, and engagements.
Based on its WWII experience, the USA emerged convinced that the key to military victory was in achieving naval dominance and above all air superiority, for even naval engagements were invariably settled by carrier-based aircraft.
This belief in the omnipotence of aviation, and thereby the subsequent doctrine of achieving air-superiority as a pre-requisite for victory has led the USA to pretty much base, figuratively speaking all its eggs in one basket. The combat experience of the USA since WWII has (only God knows why) reinforced this belief. Faced with adversaries which had no hope of challenging it in the air, it always quickly gained air dominance which allowed it to bomb practically at will – and paradoxically despite this air dominance, the US cannot claim a single victory. That is because at the end of the day it is armies and not air forces that determine it.
It is easy to impress oneself when one revisits the air campaigns against say Iraq or Serbia, nations that did not have adequate air denial capabiliearly as the Vetnam war there were glaring hints that faced by a capable adversary, sufficiently armed, this doctrine – which rested on WWII assumptions and did not move with the times could prove to be catastrophic.
In Vietnam, the United States military alone lost almost 10,000 aircraft, helicopters and UAVs (3,744 planes, 5,607 helicopters, and 578 UAVs ). If one also adds the losses of its allies this number rose well above 12,000. Let that number sink in – this at a time when air-to-surface missile technology was still in its infancy – and the industrial capacity of the US what at its peak and therefore capable of making good the losses. The inferiorly armed Vietnamese lost in comparison only 1,000 aircraft (precisely because they employed them differently) and as we all know the conflict ended as a humiliating defeat for the US. Another warning was in the Yom Kippur war in 1973 between Israel and Egypt, where Soviet-made Egyptian SAMs wrought havoc on the Israeli Air force, and ultimately it was only thanks to massive US assistance that Israel survived to fight another day, and ultimately achieve victory – not because of its air power but because of its highly mechanised and superbly motivated ground forces.
But it seems these lessons were either never learned or the USA assumed it would simply never fight a peer adversary. As a consequence of the unshaken belief in the importance of air superiority, and the assumption that they will always gain it, the USA and consequentially NATO, while investing heavily in their air forces and their navies have neglected their armies most notably their artillery and air defense arms. It was assumed that once air superiority was gained, aircraft would act as both – that is aircraft would act as the means to deliver ordinance and also the means of denying the skies to the enemy.
By contrast of a totally different experience in WWII, the USSR, and by succession, the Russian Federation, has evolved a totally different doctrine. It is one that assumes that it will have to fight in circumstances where it has lost control of the skies and might never actually achieve it, and therefore contrary to the US has chosen to invest heavily in artillery and air-denial capabilities. As a consequence air defense in the Russian army is copious in both its capabilities and its quantity. While missile air defenses in the West are sparse, in the Russian army, different elements of air defense are not only layered but deeply integrated and embedded with every unit. The performance of Russian air defenses in Ukraine is simply astounding routinely downing anything from Ukrainian aircraft and most rocket projectiles including Tochka ballistic missiles and HIMARS at will.
In air defense, and air-denial capabilities, the Russians are years in advance of everyone else, and while this reality is finally dawning on NATO, and decisions have only very recently been taken to address this critical imbalance, it will take years if ever to achieve a semblance of parity.
The same scenario applies where it involves artillery – the Russians, contrary to NATO continued to believe that barrelled and tubed artillery remain the main means of delivering devastating firepower. In terms of artillery, the Russians deploy vast quantities of each, quantities which dwarf anything that NATO can bring to bear as well as immense stockpiles of munitions for them. As we have seen, in a contested area where the enemy is denied the control of the sky, artillery, as the Ukrainians and by proxy NATO are finding out at their extreme cost, remains the god of the battlefield.
In summary, the two forces had they to collide employ vastly contrasting philosophies of how to conduct war, and in any theoretical war between the two – Russia is not only most certainly capable of denying the skies to its enemies but also of dishing out immense punishment on its adversary in the field, an adversary which has staked everything on the wrong horse, one which denied the use of the skies has little to offer in return. In the next installment, I will expound further on the military doctrines of both forces – the fighting power they bring to the fold and its relevance in the age of hypersonic weapons.