Comeback of Deterrence – An Austrian Review of BALTDEFCOL Conference 2018

In Blog, Conference Review, English by Christoph BilbanLeave a Comment

The fourth annual Baltic Defence College conference on Russia took place in Tartu, Estonia from March 8th to 9th. While a lot of the talks were on topics well covered in recent literature and commentaries, there were some strikingly new points as well. For an “outsider” from the peaceful heart of Europe – Austria – the rhetoric encountered on the panels as well as during the breaks, seemed rather belligerent. However, the threat to the Baltic states is real, but not likely. Hence deterrence is the name of the game now for the Baltic armed forces as well as for NATO. Since the NATO summit in Wales in 2014 the term “deterrence” experienced a revival in official documents and statements.

While deterrence is seen as the way to mitigate the security risks posed by Russia to this region., RAND Corp in a recent study pointed out that NATO is vastly outgunned on its eastern flank. With just four battlegroups of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence permanently present in the area, force levels prevent a credible deterrence by denial. Nowadays, the EFP’s role is thus akin to a tripwire put in place to trigger Article 5. It was noteworthy then that conference speakers from the United States consistently ruled out deploying more troops to the area. America for now won’t move any further east than to Poland, notwithstanding the constant calls for GIs from the Baltic capitals Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius.

This can be read in multiple ways: does the U.S. just not want to provoke the Kremlin and give it an excuse for a pre-emptive strike, or is its commitment to its Baltic allies not as firm as stated? The latter is improbable. The latest U.S. Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) made clear that the USA intend to maintain their nuclear shield over Europe. Today’s geopolitical situation bears striking resemblance to the Cold War concepts of deterrence by punishment – including nuclear retaliation for non-nuclear attacks. NPR does not allow to draw any clear red lines for an adversary. Do not mistake this for Trumpian politics of bragging, for the NPR is steeped in a well-known and old strategy. Ambiguity provides security. It is also one efficient way to counter the Russian concepts of “tactical” nuclear strikes, as the Kremlin could face a retaliation anywhere on a scale from (massive) non-nuclear strikes to (total) annihilation.

This revival of nuclear deterrence strategies derives from a position of weakness. NATO has lost its capabilities to prevent a local war in Europe with conventional forces only. There are several issues to be solved, most importantly logistics. The standard for the deployment of an armoured brigade on the Eastern border is seven days, and NATO is far away from that (at least in peace time). National laws hamper troop movements within Europe. While this is a fairly easy task to solve, rebuilding infrastructure will take more time. Europe lacks ammunition storage facilities, depots for weaponry and spare parts. The same is true for rolling railway stock able to move a relevant number of armoured vehicles across the continent. With that in mind, the proposal of factoring general infrastructure spending into the 2% goal in defence spending sounds like the right incentive for the member states not meeting the requirements today.

From an Austrian perspective, the BALTDEFCOL conference addressed a long-forgotten style of warfare: small warfare behind enemy lines. The Baltic states must grow their capabilities to fulfill the very same task as the Austrian Armed Forces prepared for during the Cold War: with no credible capacity to fend off an attack from the East, at least delay and disrupt enemy movements until the arrival of NATO forces. At present however, NATO could not deploy a meaningful part of its troops in-time to defend the Baltics. Therefore the three states have to develop concepts of “total defence”. They need not look far: Finland continues to practice its model of “total defence” today, and others such as Austria, Sweden and Switzerland have done so in the past.

Austria’s model was termed “Umfassende Landesverteidigung” (ULV), corresponding to  “comprehensive national defence”. Planning started already during the 60s and was finalized in 1975 with the publication of the National Defence Plan (“Landesverteidigungsplan”). The debate was further fuelled by the events in Prague 1968. Austria’s doctrine rested on four pillars: 1) military defence, 2) civil defence, 3) economic defence and 4) psychological defence. While military and economic defence were quite well developed, civil defence capabilities differed within Austria e.g. regarding private shelters: While some states obliged home owners to plan a blast shelter in the basements of their houses, others did not have significant legislation in place. Psychological defence stands out for not having been seen as a crisis response, but as a permanent effort during peacetime: Political education was introduced as an overarching principle for all subjects taught on every level of education. Schools should appoint on teacher in charge of psychological defence, who would act as point of contact for the so called “Informationsoffiziere” (information officers) of the Austrian Armed Forces. These trained soldier’s of all ranks give presentations on everything related to the concept of ULV, the Armed Forces or global security challenges. First and foremost their effort was to build trust of the population in the capabilities of the Armed Forces, and build understanding for the needs of an army fighting a small war. Psychological defence was crucial for the success of the military concept of “Raumverteidigung” (area defence).

The armed forces supported civil defence by appointing liaison officers to each administrative district. They are permanent members of the crisis management staff and advise the district chief on possible support by the AAF and ongoing military activity in the district. These liaison officers tend to be experienced active reservists, ranking from lieutenant colonel to colonel.

The military component of ULV was named “Raumverteidigung” (area defence), better known as the “Spannochi doctrine”, named after the then chief of the Armed Forces Command General Emil Spannochi. This concept of area defence – incidentally not dissimilar to the more recent iteration termed A2AD –  divided Austria in sections of delay and defence (“Schlüsselzonen” – key zones), small warfare (“Raumsicherungszonen” – area defence zones) and a heartland in the easier defendable Alps regions (called “Basisraum”). Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Austria built up a network of bunkers, blockades and dispersed depots (“Landwehrlager”) for the militia units that were to operate independent of other military infrastructure. The Austrian small war tactics, called Jagdkampf, were devised around small units up to a maximum of battalion size with a large degree of autonomy. They were supposed to stay behind and subsequently attack the rear of an aggressor occupying or passing through Austria. The price for entrance in the Schlüsselzonen and the price for staying in Raumsicherungszonen should thus be made higher than the prospective gains (e.g. time). In the end, Austria followed a strategy of deterrence by denial. Not all Austrian leadership was convinced of the concept’s effectiveness, but after the fall of the Iron Curtain Hungarian officers gave witness that it did indeed play a large role in their planning: the communist Hungarian Armed Forces, responsible for the advance through Austria, had earmarked a staggering 50-70 guns and approximately 15 tanks per kilometre for offensive operations in the only lightly defended Raumsicherungszonen.

Today an updated and revised reintroduction of “Umfassende Landesverteidigung” could greatly aid in mitigating risks posed by hybrid threats to Austria, and it seems an example well worth considering  for other small European member states.

Featured image (top): Paavo/BALTDEFCOL

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About the Author
Christoph Bilban

Christoph Bilban

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Christoph is a graduate student of political sciences and slavonic studies in Vienna. His interests lie with matters of security policy, peace and conflict research. In his studies, he focuses on Russia, Belarus and other CIS members. He is a reserve officer and currently working for the Austrian National Defence Academy.

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