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Boast and Carry a Twig

TR would not be amused

I have always liked Teddy Roosevelt's apothegm: "Speak softly and carry a big stick". The big stick is the part that is often emphasized, but I think that puts the whole thing backwards. Speaking softly is the point, but, in this dangerous world, the big stick should be visible. Not brandished but visible. Only then will the soft speaking not be seen as weakness.

To my mind Putin and his team practice this maxim. Always polite, always ready for another meeting or diplomatic attempt; but don't ever get the idea that they do this because they have no other choice. Practically every day brings news of another Russian military exercise, another readiness test, another missile test, another new weapon. And, not just military: we see the ever-tightening alliance with China, BRICs bank, SCO and so on. These are the big sticks.

I was prompted to write this because of the "Dragoon Ride" earlier this year. It was sprung upon us in a nighttime drive through Narva, complete with US flags flying. Very provocative indeed: Narva is right on the border and is majority Russian.

A group of US soldiers, in the Baltics and Poland for exercises, rather than go home by train, drove through Eastern Europe back to their home base in Germany.

It was announced with the bureaucratic braggadocio that is the native language of NATO-Land:

This is a complex mission involving a significant amount of international diplomatic and military cooperation,” Lt. Col. Craig Childs, a USAREUR spokesman, said in a statement. “It will allow all units involved an opportunity to test their unit maintenance and leadership capabilities while simultaneously providing a highly visible demonstration of U.S, commitment to its NATO allies and demonstrating NATO’s ability to move military forces freely across allied borders in close cooperation.

Or, according to the man who is credited with the idea: "The whole purpose … is to assure those allies that live closest to the Bear that we are here," said Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, commanding general of U.S. Army Europe. "You heard our president say very clearly, we will defend our allies, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and Poland."

A show of strength and commitment to reassure allies and frighten "the Bear". (By the way, when Hodges was just starting out, much larger columns were routinely moved around West Germany every autumn without anybody making a big deal about it).

That's the boasting bit, now let's look at the size of the stick they were waving.

We are talking about the 3rd Squadron of the 2nd Cavalry Regiment. In other parts of the US Army a squadron would be called a company. Take three or four of those and you have a battalion (or regiment in this case); three or four of those give you a brigade (also called a regiment in some armies); three or four of those and you have a division; three or four of those a corps; three or four of those and you have an army.

A squadron/company is not a very large force – a hundred and fifty soldiers or so and 16 or 20 fighting vehicles (I can't find the real number – a squadron has four troops and one HQ troop so let's say four times four plus two). (This reference says 60 took part: I don't believe that and it's inconsistent with the implied total for the whole regiment of 81).

The vehicles in question – Strykers – are lightly armored wheeled vehicles armed with heavy machine guns (The Narva video shows one tracked vehicle with something heavier, but this video just shows small stuff). Their light armor can withstand a heavy machine gun from a distance and small arms from close. A 30mm cannon round would probably go though both sides and everything in between, a 125mm tank round would shatter it to bits, a Grad salvo would not leave anything very recognizable.

In summary, not a very big stick at all. In fact, in terms of what "the Bear" has, a pretty insignificant stick. More of a twig, really.

So, to sum up:

the US Army commander thought that it would reassure allies and frighten "the Bear" if he drove

  • a couple of hundred soldiers
  • in 20 or so insignificant light vehicles
  • plus support vehicles
  • and a helicopter or two
  • through Eastern Europe.

But there's a sequel to this.

The Stryker appeared about 15 years ago and, ever since, they have been trying to upgun it. An attempt to put a 105mm gun on one was unsuccessful and the "Dragoon Ride" made people realize just how negligible the Stryker, with its puny weapon and light armor, is. No one in the countries it paraded through who had served in the Soviet or Warsaw Pact armies (and that would be thousands of them) would be very impressed by BTR-60s which are essentially the same thing. Now we have an urgent program to get a bigger gun – a 30mm cannon – onto the thing.

In the end, they impressed some children and frightened themselves.

(It is said that when the British and the French were negotiating how many troops the UK should commit to the defense of France, General Joffre said "One, and I will see that he is killed". He understood that that one fatality would bring the British into the war. The Russians already know that fighting any US Army unit, no matter how feeble, would lead to bigger things, they don't need some light recon force driving around to get the idea.)

(And finally, speaking of actual threats, the Baltics together have lost nearly 20% of their population since the USSR disappeared: NATO won't be much defense against national extinction.)


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