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Back in 2017, NATO stood up a new battlegroup in order to beef up the flagging defenses along the alliance’s eastern frontier.
NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup Poland—widely know as “Battle Group Poland”—could be one of the first mechanized units to ride into battle in the event Russia attacks the Baltic states.
Battle Group Poland is an impressive force with around a thousand soldiers and scores of armored vehicles. But it also is a reminder of a serious gap in NATO’s force structure. Incredibly, the battle group monopolizes almost all of the 30-country alliance’s short-range air-defense vehicles.
Specifically, twin-gun Gepards from the Romanian army. Cold War throwbacks that, with Russia’s resurgence, all of the sudden are really important again.
Four countries supply troops to Battle Group Poland, which trains to fight alongside a Polish army brigade. The U.S. Army sends a squadron of around 50 up-gunned Stryker wheeled fighting vehicles with 30-millimeter cannons. The Americans also send 155-millimeter towed artillery.
The British Army provides a scout troop riding in Jackal trucks. The Croatian army sends wheeled 122-millimeter rocket-launchers. But it’s the Romanian army’s contribution that makes the battle group truly special.
The Romanians send some of the roughly 40 Gepards they acquired from the German army as the latter was disposing of its short-range air-defenses a decade ago. Those Gepards—which combine Leopard tank chassis with short-range radars and pairs of 35-millimeter cannons—are some of the only SHORAD systems left in NATO.
It’s a problem. There might have been a time in the years following the Soviet Union’s collapse when NATO was fine without short-range air-defenses. Gone were the hundreds of attack helicopters and close-air-support jets that threatened to chew up NATO formations along the front line.
Now Russia is re-arming. Not only with new and upgraded attack ‘copters and strike planes, but also armed drones. By the middle part of the last decade, the erosion of NATO SHORAD was a full-blown crisis. SHORAD “is a very scarce capability,” German army Brigadier General Markus Laubenthal said.
Several NATO countries are developing new SHORAD systems or, in the case of Poland with its handful of Soviet-vintage ZSU-23-4s, dusting off old ones. The United States moved fastest to make something new.
The U.S. Army in 2016 launched a $1.2-billion program quickly to arm around a hundred Strykers with air-defense gear including a radar, a 30-millimeter gun, a quad-pack of Stinger missiles and a twin launcher for Hellfire missiles.
The first of these Maneuver Short-Range Air-Defense vehicles began arriving in Europe this spring and should be combat-ready in the fall. In the meantime, the Romanians have been using their 1980s-vintage Gepards to protect Battle Group Poland.
“The Gepards bring an amazing capability to the battle group,” said U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Jason Adler, a Stryker squadron commander. During one exercise this spring, American mortar teams lobbed illumination shells to help the Romanian Gepard crews practice shooting at night.
International Center for Defense and Security, an Estonian think-tank, recommended NATO deploy more short- and very-short-range air-defenses to the Baltics. The alliance “should encourage forces deploying to the region to include VSHORAD/SHORAD systems in their inventories,” the think-tank advised.
The problem is, 40 Romanian Gepards and a hundred or so American M-SHORADs don’t amount to a whole lot of capability.
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