Experts: NATO forces could be bogged down in Suwalki Gap in case of a Russian assault

Suwalki Gap. Source

Filing complex customs forms, weak bridges, flaws in railway infrastructure: if NATO had to quickly shift its military into the Baltic States during a conflict, the alliance could face severe difficulties passing the so-called Suwalki Gap, the German Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung notes, writes.

The newest study from the Centre for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) points out that “military mobility is the most important factor in effectively preventing threats.” In this case, it refers to the ability to redeploy troops faster than a potential opponent. Only in such a case could Western political leaders prevent a crisis in a successful and timely manner. Otherwise, they would have to try and reclaim already lost territories.

Ensuring mobility is key

One of the study’s authors is Ben Hodges, who headed the US’ NATO forces in Europe up until 2017 and during whose command period, the Baltic States’ positions actively began being reinforced following the Crimean annexation.

Following Russia’s takeover of Crimea in 2014, he had to arrange his troops so that within as brief as possible a time period, NATO’s eastern flank could be protected. At the time, he had to admit “hair raising” facts to himself: filing customs forms took an eternity, roads and bridges were not adapted to the transportation of heavy equipment.

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes that once, the general got stuck in a tunnel with tanks travelling to exercises.

The Baltic States are NATO’s Achilles’ Heel: they would be hard to protect due to their direct border to Russia and they are inhabited by numerous Russian minorities, the German journalists worry. In order for Russia to surround the three countries’ capitals, it would take 60 hours at most, according to a RAND Corporation military conflict modelling report from 2016.

If NATO does take up defending its north-eastern allies, the alliance will have to get ahead of the Russian assault. This is exactly what has been in intensive preparations for the past five years.

The alliance has formed a five thousand troop buffer, which could reach the crisis region within a few days. Permanent rotational deployments were established in the Baltic States and Poland, these including troops of the USA – a nuclear power.

The goal is clear – deterring the aggressor from poorly thought out aggressive actions. At the moment, NATO is actively creating a system, which would allow for a further 50 thousand troops to be sent to this region.

Suwalki Gap – NATO’s Achilles’ Heel

The March 2021 report by Heinrich Brauss (former Assistant Secretary General for Defence Policy and Planning), the aforementioned Ben Hodges and defence expert Julian Lindley-French discusses the potential problems in NATO military mobility during a conflict. The experts modelled a total of five scenarios, with two of them pertaining to the Baltics.

The first envisions the transportation of troops from Norway and Sweden to Estonia. It could have a “duration of 3-4 weeks.” This is because the road and rail throughput in Sweden is low and, furthermore, there are essentially no special platform wagons for the transportation of armoured vehicles and tanks. Thus, it is likely that wheeled transports will have to be used, the publication writes.

The second scenario, which the authors describe as NATO’s Achilles’ Heel, is on land and spans from Germany through Poland and Lithuania. In this case, the NATO military would have to pass through a just 60-kilometre wide corridor, known to everyone as the Suwalki Gap [Corridor]. Each detachment would have to plan its route carefully ahead of time so that the troops wouldn’t get stuck in the narrow corridor.

The experts describe this as a more important task than improving road infrastructure. It is also advised to consider the possibility of restoring old Soviet military objects in Poland to facilitate the movement of larger armed forces through this country in case of an attack.

Another problem that the experts noted is military logistics: starting with food and fuel, ending with ammunition. The infrastructure required by the armed forces is often spread out across private land, the report notes. A similar situation can be found in other countries as well, but in Lithuania, its owners might also be Russian, Frankfurter Allgemeine concludes.

During the Cold War, a division was formed so that it could move without outside support for seven days. Things are different now and so, it is crucial to set up supply storage ahead of time. A peculiarity the authors note is that NATO probably couldn’t even make use of stockpiled ammunition in Lithuania because it is prohibited by law, at least during peacetime.

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