June 21, 2016: Mr. Robert Bell on New Baltic Capabilities

Mr. Robert Bell

Defense Advisor U.S. Mission to NATO and

Secretary of Defense Representative in Europe

Press Briefing on New Baltic Capabilities

June 21, 2016


Mr. Bell:  I’m happy to join you.

I would just say with respect to these capabilities that we’ve been highlighting for the Baltic nations, the concept here is quite simple.  And that’s that smaller allies whose populations are limited and therefore their defense budgets are limited, obviously cannot afford to buy the full panoply of high intensity combat capability that major powers can acquire  — aircraft carriers or lots of tanks or fifth generation fighter planes.  So armed forces from smaller countries that are organized, particularly with their land forces, around small combat units can still be extremely capable in terms of the warfighting capability, because of technology and weapon systems that are well suited to small unit operations.

And we put forward this idea — and this was not a directive in any way or mandatory or an approved solution from above — but it was this [U.S.] mission at NATO that suggested a common theme for the three Baltic allies who are necessarily smaller in population and size and the size of their armed forces.  And that was that their forces simply concentrate in four key areas where technology and modern weaponry allows small units to punch above their weight, if you will.

One if the ability of individual soldiers in small units to defeat armor.  You can do that with the Javelin missile system.

The second is for individual soldiers in small units to bring down helicopters or attack aircraft, and you can do that with man-portable missiles like Stinger.

To do that, of course, you need to be able to know what you’re shooting at and where the enemy is, so it helps to have situational awareness through tactical drones or tactical unmanned aerial vehicles.

And then last but not least, even with all this firepower, sometimes you need reinforcement.  You need to call in airstrikes.  So the fourth capability is this JTACs ability to teach small units to call in close air support from a larger ally’s inventory of fighter aircraft.

We worked on this concept with the embassies from these three countries [Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania] who routinely talk to their host governments about what systems their military should put their priority in approving.  We’ve discussed it, of course, with the host nations themselves because it’s their money — except where we’re providing assistance — and their military and civilian leaders have to decide what weapons to procure.  And we’ve coordinated this with the U.S. European Command in Stuttgart to make sure that we’re not suggesting one line of acquisition and the European Command suggesting another.

This is not an exhaustive or exclusive list.  We’ve simply tried to highlight four areas where we think — and we now collectively think, the embassies and U.S. NATO and EUCOM — there’s real value in prioritizing the acquisition.

Of course, these armed forces are going to be acquiring other equipment.  These are just four areas that we’re trying to highlight precisely because it allows a small ally to have a deterrent or defense effect where they’re punching above their weight.

Let me take your questions from there in.

Press:  Thank you, Jonathan Beale from BBC.  Can you talk a bit more about what we can expect from Riga, the Baltics, from the Warsaw Summit about the reinforcement for NATO?  Also please address the accusation from the German Foreign Minister that NATO has been warmongering and saber rattling.

Mr. Bell:  Let me take the second one first, Jonathan.  I read the transcript as it was translated into English of the key passage of that interview that seems to be most in question and found it rather imprecise.  On the one hand the Foreign Minister of course was talking about the need to have a balance between deterrence — strength — on the one hand and diplomatic engagement on the other.  That’s certainly consistent with NATO policy.  Indeed, it’s the strategy of the Obama administration.

And then he went on to say, as I read it, but we must not engage in warmongering or provocative actions through excessively large military training exercises.  And it wasn’t clear to me whether he was saying precisely that he thinks that’s where we’re at now, that we’ve gone too far.  Or whether he was saying as we put together our deterrent training activities we have to be careful not to cross such a line.  All I can say, Jonathan, is we’ll have to leave it to the Foreign Minister to explain exactly what he meant to say.

Press:  Fair enough.  And the question about the extra troops you’re putting in.  It sounds more to me like a permanent presence than a rotational force.

Mr. Bell:  No, they are rotational.  The plan that will be elaborated by the heads of state, once approved at Warsaw, involves rotation of forces that are coming from outside the host country.  That’s very different than having permanent stationing in the form of bases with assigned forces.

The NATO-Russia Founding Act has said that for those NATO allies who were admitted into NATO after 1999, there would not be the permanent stationing of substantial combat forces on the territory of the so-called newly admitted allies.  And substantial combat forces was roughly defined as one brigade per country.

So in the first place, we’re talking here about a battalion, and there are three or four battalions in a brigade, so it’s well below that threshold.  And in the second place, the NATO-Russia Founding Act, in addition to saying what can’t be done, goes on to say what can be done as an alternative approach that would be seen by both sides as less provocative.  And that was precisely to have rotational reinforcements coming in using prepositioned equipment.

So this is entirely consistent with the NATO-Russia Founding Act and quite the opposite of permanent basing.

What we’re talking about is in each of the Baltic states and in Poland, for each of them there will be a framework nation designated, with different countries stepping up to volunteer to play that role, and they will commit to maintain on a rotational basis, but persistently, heel to toe, a battalion forward in each of these countries.  A battalion that’s combat ready and whose mission would be to engage and contest any limited incursion by an adversary across that frontier.  So that will be in addition to any kind of other training activities or exercises that may be going on in any of the Baltic countries like Saber Strike is going on now.

Press:  Julian Rohrer from FOCUS Online, Germany. The four points which are prioritized – are these applicable to hybrid warfare?

Mr. Bell:  No, I don’t think they’re particularly applicable to hybrid warfare.  Hybrid warfare, by definition hybrid means a combination of two different things.  On the one side you have economic, political, propaganda kinds of pressure on a country that’s being targeted by an adversary.  But the other half that makes it hybrid is there actually are military elements in it.

Now the military elements could range from people that are sort of fifth column infiltrators to, as we saw in Ukraine, people that are soldiers wearing uniforms but without patches who are claimed to be volunteering, on vacation or on weekends.  The so-called “little green men” phenomena.  And NATO has a strategy to deal with hybrid warfare, a strategy that we’re evolving in tandem with the EU.  But the four kinds of capabilities we’re prioritizing in this initiative is more focused on actually defeating aggression in the form of a military incursion coming across the line where you’re having high intensity conventional combat engagements.

So I think this is sort of one step up, if you will, the deterrent spectrum from hybrid, which is more to do with resilience down at the lower end of the conflict spectrum.

Press:  Phillipe Regnier from the newspaper Le Soir, Brussels.  A more general question, I’m afraid. Particularly can you give a rough figure of how many U.S. troops will be rotating into the Baltic states after the Warsaw Summit?  And also in Poland, please.  Thank you.

Mr. Bell:  I can’t give a number, for a good reason.  The U.S. has confirmed that we are prepared to take the responsibility to be one of these framework nations.  We have not made a final decision, nor have we told any government that it’s their country that we’re proposing to take that role in.  But we will take one of those.  So in one of the three Baltics or Poland, we’re committing to maintain on a rotational basis a battalion, which is roughly 800 troops.  So that would be the enhanced forward presence.

Now that, of course, is not the end of the story in terms of American boots on the ground, if you will, or fighter aircraft in the skies or ships in the waters, that will be coming in additionally to participate in different exercise or training or working temporary periods with the host nations.  We’ve taken a look at the exercise schedule, for example, in the coming year, and there’s quite a large number of training and exercise events in each of the Baltic countries and in Poland that U.S. troops who are not affiliated with the enhanced forward presence battalion will be participating in.  Just like U.S. troops are participating in Saber Strike today.

Press:  Gabriela Naplatanova, bTV, Bulgarian television.  Do you plan any such activities that will improve the capabilities for the countries of the southeastern flank of the alliance?

Mr. Bell:  There’s a range of activities going on to enhance the deterrence and defense capabilities of Bulgaria and Romania, just to name two that are to the southeast.  Of course, there are Bulgarian military facilities where U.S. forces are exercising and training.  Those kinds of activities will be continuing.  The United States has announced that starting in February of next year, there will be armored brigade combat team that comes from the United States with all of its equipment and stays in Europe for nine months.  That brigade will probably have three or four battalions.  It’s likely that at any one time, one of those battalions could be in the southeast, either Bulgaria or Romania doing exercises or training.  And beyond that, of course, the U.S. supports the initiatives that Romania and Bulgaria have been putting forward for consideration here at the NATO headquarters to create a multinational brigade in the southeast and possibly a NATO naval sub headquarters that would, or command element at least, that would oversee occasional flotilla activities in the Black Sea for which prospectively Romania, Bulgaria and perhaps Turkey would be core participants, and other allies could come in and join.

Bulgaria and Romania hope that other allies will send at least companies, which is 120-150 troops, to join the multinational brigade in its training activities.

So across that whole range of possibilities on land, air and sea, I expect there will be a fairly robust U.S. presence in the southeast in 2017.

Press:  Ionut Iordachescu from Romanian television.  You were talking about a NATO flotilla in the Black Sea.  And there was this statement made recently by the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Boyko Borisov, that he is against a NATO flotilla because, I quote, “We don’t want a war with Russia.”  Is the U.S. supporting this initiative that came from Romania about exercises in the Black Sea?

And another question, what can you tell us about the activities of the Russians jets near the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea in the context of NATO?

Mr. Bell:  The Bulgarian government, of course, would need to fully explain exactly what the Bulgarian Prime Minister meant and didn’t mean in the quote that you’ve just cited.  I’ve seen some reporting on this from our embassy in Sofia and our embassy in Bucharest, and there’s a distinction, I believe that the Prime Minster was intending to make between a regional initiative of the host countries themselves and something that would come under NATO auspices.  So there are some nuances apparently in terms of things that he has said before on this subject and exactly how Bulgaria would define an acceptable set of naval activities, as opposed to something that it might deem to be too provocative.

But in any case, the point I would make is that NATO is welcoming the propositions that are coming from Romania, Bulgaria, and Turkey themselves in this regard.  This is not something that NATO is trying to push onto those countries.  Rather, this was a regional initiative in the southeast from NATO allies coming to NATO and saying we want to take the initiative to set up certain structures.  We would like them to come under NATO auspices and we would hope that other NATO allies would contribute either ships or troops from time to time, to exercise and train with these formations.  But the formations themselves are our initiative.  So whatever the Romanians and the Bulgarians and prospectively the Turks come to agreement on, in terms of naval activities — and no one’s talking about a permanent fleet or flotilla; they were talking about getting together periodically in the course of a year to do exercises and training and having other ships join in and tie that all in through the NATO maritime command to a broader exercise and training schedule that NATO oversees.

So we’re not trying to impose any solution from NATO headquarters on the southeast.  We’re open to the initiatives that the countries in the southeast themselves are taking to suggest a sort of tailored deterrent presence in their region that they think themselves would strike a balance between showing strength and still not being provocative.

Press:  Mr. Bell, Nuno Pinto from Portugal, Sabado news magazine.  Exactly one month ago, one Portuguese official was arrested while passing on NATO secret documents to a Russian spy. At this point do we have an idea of the dimension of the security breach and what can be done to prevent this from happening again in the future?

Mr. Bell:  I do not.  I’m aware of the incident.  I read reports at the time when the arrest was made, but I have not had the opportunity or occasion to read an assessment of the damage done in this particular case.

Press:  All the expertise for the capabilities that you’re sharpening here are obviously designed for a conventional enemy, which we all know is Russia.  The truth is, you said yourself, putting a battalion in three Baltic countries and Poland is going to do diddly squat, isn’t it, for stopping Russia if it really wanted to attack.

Mr. Bell:  Well, it’s always a classic conundrum, Jonathan, in terms of how much is enough to constitute credible deterrence.  Of course, if you go back to September 2014 when President Obama went to Tallinn and gave a quite famous speech there in which he said there are no large NATO allies or small allies or first class and second class allies or new allies and old allies, there are only allies.  And if you’re an ally, you’re covered by Article 5 and that basically means the United States is extending its security commitment to you.  That was said at a time where we were just beginning to put in place even the rotational assurance measures, let alone enhanced forward presence, or building up the capabilities of the host nations themselves such as this Baltic capabilities initiative that you’ve been briefed on.

So NATO is quite clear going back to the strategic concept in Lisbon and everything it’s said in all the summits since, that our commitment under Article 5 is ironclad and that our deterrence is based on the entire spectrum of possible conflict, from hybrid to conventional through to nuclear.  So any adversary who wants to contemplate crossing a frontier and putting Article 5 into play through an invasion or incursion has got to calculate what he thinks the gain is against the possible consequences.

So anything more you do to add deterrence and strength, of course, complicates that adversary’s compilation, particularly if the adversary thinks they can get away with a fait accompli or some sort of action that will not be contested or followed up on.  And what NATO has done so far is, first, it put in place rotational exercises in these countries, so that ensured that anyone who came across the line was more likely than not to have to engage — other than just the host nations — other NATO members in combat.  Then we put in place the VJTF which can get into the Baltics in a week or less.  So unless the Russians come in from a standing start, if you will, and don’t do a buildup, you have to assume that that brigade will be able to get in place.  The United States has announced the armored brigade that’s going to be rotating nine months to Europe that I already mentioned.  It can aggregate itself and quickly get to a spot that’s under threat.  We’ve also increased the capabilities of the host nations through initiatives like this Baltic capabilities.  And last but not least, we’re now putting in place the enhanced forward battalions.  So you add all that up.  You could aggregate within a week or so in any particular threatened Baltic country something that’s approaching a division in strength.

Now to be sure, the Russians could have a snap exercise with tens of thousands of troops moving adjacent to that border and then suddenly decide to charge across the border.  But if they’re engaging, whether it’s a battalion or a brigade or a division, you’re going to have war.  Article 5’s invoked, you’re in an armed conflict, there’s high intensity conflict going on, men and women are fighting and dying.  At that point, everything is engaged and the Russians know that.  They should not doubt our resolve.  So it would take a real calculation, even though objectively they may be able to say if we do an attack this way with this sort of force we could seize this country in a week.  But what about the next week?  At that point Article 5’s in place and you’re at war.  So I think there’s a deterrent effect at every level on this conflict spectrum.  What we’re doing is making sure there would be no easy answers for Russia if it decided to try to pull a fast one, if you will, at the lower end of the conflict spectrum.

Moderator:  Thank you very much, Mr. Bell.  We know you have to go.  But thank you very much and have a good rest of the day.

Mr. Bell:  Okay, and good luck.  I count out of your list of 16 journalists there are ten teams in the European football championship that are playing this week, so you must be having some interesting conversations up there among yourselves.

Moderator:  We are.  Thank you.