The Chinese have a genius for pithy expressions and few are more packed with meaning, while immediately understandable, than “paper tiger”. NATO is one, but paper tigers that overestimate their powers can be dangerous.
Some Russians are concerned that there are today more hostile troops at the Russian border than at any time since 1941. While this is true, it is not, at the moment, very significant. The Germans invaded the USSR with nearly 150 divisions in 1941. Which, as it turned out, were not enough.
Today NATO has – or claims to have – a battle group in each of the three Baltic countries and one in Poland: pompously titled Enhanced Forward Presence. The USA has a brigade and talks of another. A certain amount of heavy weaponry has been moved to Europe. These constitute the bulk of the land forces at the border. They amount to, at the most optimistic assessment, assuming everything is there and ready to go, one division. Or, actually, one division equivalent (a very different thing) from 16 (!) countries with different languages, military practices and equipment sets and their soldiers ever rotating through. And, in a war, the three in the Baltics would be bypassed and become either a new Dunkirk or a new Cannae. All for the purpose, we are solemnly told, of sending “a clear message that an attack on one Ally would be met by troops from across the Alliance“. But who’s the “message” for? Moscow already has a copy of the NATO treaty and knows what Article V says.
In addition to the EFP are the national forces. But they are in a low state: “depleted armies” they’ve been called: under equipped and under manned; seldom exercised. The German parliamentary ombudsman charged with overseeing the Bundeswehr says “There are too many things missing“. In 2008 the French Army was described as “falling apart“. The British Army “can’t find enough soldiers“. The Italian army is ageing. Poland, one of the cheerleaders for the “Russian threat” meme, finds its army riven over accusations of politicisation. On paper, these five armies claim to have thirteen divisions and thirteen independent brigades. Call it, optimistically, a dozen divisions in all. The US Army (which has its own recruiting difficulties) adds another eleven or so to the list (although much of it is overseas entangled in the metastasising “war on terror”). Let’s pretend all the other NATO countries can bring another five divisions to the fight.
So, altogether, bringing everything home from the wars NATO is fighting around the world, under the most optimistic assumptions, assuming that everything is there and working (fewer than half of France’s tanks were operational, German painted broomsticks, British recruiting shortfalls), crossing your fingers and hoping, NATO could possibly cobble together two and a half dozen divisions: or one-fifth of the number Germany thought it would need. But, in truth, that number is fantasy: undermanned, under equipped, seldom exercised, no logistics tail, no munitions production backup, no time for a long logistics build up. NATO’s armies aren’t capable of a major war against a first class enemy. And no better is the principal member: “only five of the US Army’s 15 armoured brigade combat teams are maintained at full readiness levels“. A paper tiger.
This reality was on display – for those who could see – in the “Dragoon Ride” of 2015. Intended “to assure those allies that live closest to the Bear that we are here“, it was a parade of light armoured vehicles armed with heavy machine guns. Although breathlessly covered in the US media (“Show the world some of the firepower the United States and its NATO partners have in Eastern Europe“), it is unlikely that any watcher who had served in a Warsaw Pact army was impressed by what was in effect a couple of dozen BTR-50s. And neither was the US Army when it thought about it: a rush program was put into effect to give the vehicles a bigger weapon. The first one was delivered a year later. So now the US Army has a few lightly armoured vehicles with cannons. Something like the Soviet BTR-80 of the 1980s. Meanwhile, the Russians have the Bumerang-BM turret. Years of kicking in doors and patrolling roads hoping there are no IEDs are poor preparation for a real war.