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  • Writer's pictureThomas Low

Countering Kaliningrad: Preparing for Putin’s Next Strike

Even while the West watches in horror as Russia attempts an 18th century style land-grab, it must start taking steps toward deterring Russia’s next move. If Vladimir Putin is able to solidify his control over Ukraine, we could be watching on our smartphones as Russian tanks and jets carve out even more territory for Mother Russia – this time on NATO’s home turf. Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are ripe for Russian aggression. Though now tied to the West through NATO, these Baltic nations were part of the USSR until 1991 and have sizable Russian minorities who speak Russian, consume almost exclusively Russian news, and conceivably fall under Putin’s “Russkiy Mir.”

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About the Author: Thomas Low is working on Master of Arts degree in international security at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government.

Putin has made his ire known about NATO eastern expansion. It is not hard to imagine a scenario in which Finland and Sweden join the alliance, prompting Putin to claim that ethnic Russians need protecting in the Baltic states and subsequently attempting to reassert Russian control over them. He has used that justification for aggression successfully in Ukraine in 2014 and now in 2022. If Russia invades the Baltics and rapidly manage close off The “Suwalki Gap,” a narrow, 110-115 kilometer stretch of land between Poland and Russia-aligned Belarus, they could block NATO ground forces from reaching the beseeched Baltic states. We must show determination to counter Russian aggression by investing in technologies and weapons systems designed to meet the threat at hand.

Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave on the Baltic sea sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania, is bristling with Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) weapons systems and would make any NATO allied effort to free the Baltics extremely costly. Kaliningrad is now a lethal thicket of overlapping and redundant surface launched ballistic missiles, surface and air launched cruise missiles, and long-range surface to air missiles that would prevent an opposing force from operating in the area without taking on huge risk. Russian defenses in Kaliningrad boast the S-400 missile defense system, Pantsir-S SAM system, Bastion-P coastal defense system using supersonic Oniks cruise missiles, Iskander-M and K missiles and the ship-based Kalibr cruise missile. The Russians claim the S-400 system to have a range of 400 km, which, combined with other defensive and offensive assets in the region, reinforce the notion that the area around Kaliningrad is an impenetrable “bubble” which would be inaccessible to NATO forces attempting to liberate the Baltic states.

Yet, Kaliningrad is not the unsolvable riddle that the Kremlin sometimes leads US to believe. The S-400’s 400-km range is really only effective for large, slow-moving targets, with the actual range thought to be much lower for low flying missiles and stealth fighters. That is just one example of Russian and oftentimes Western journalists’ hyperbole about the severity of the threat. In reality, the U.S. has multiple options for overcoming the A2/AD threat Kaliningrad presents.

On the opening night of Operation Desert Storm, U.S. Navy F-18s had success deploying glider decoys to deceive the Iraqis to light up their targeting radars, at which point the U.S. launched radar-homing missiles to destroy the Iraqi air defenses. A 21st century version of the same concept could be applied to Kaliningrad. Cheap, expendable, unmanned aerial drones could spoof the Russian systems into thinking they were U.S. bombers or fighter aircraft. The S-400s and other A2/AD systems would then unleash their payloads upon the drones and, in doing so, would reveal their location to NATO forces for targeting. The S-400s reload time is 53 minutes, which is plenty of time to target and destroy the defense system’s target acquisition radar or the launchers themselves. Actual stealth fighter-bombers such as the F-35 or F-22 or targeted missile strikes could do the job.

Something similar to the Miniature Air Launched Decoy (MALD), which is a 9-foot, 300-pound drone designated for electronic warfare could be used against Kaliningrad A2/AD (“MALD Decoy”). The MALD is designed to copy the flight profiles of U.S. aircraft, which confuses the enemy's integrated air defense systems. As the MALD is flying around, its state-of-the-art Signature Augmentation Subsystem (SAS), comprised of various active radar enhancers covering a range of frequencies, pumps out signals that mimic the radar signature and flight profiles of a larger, more dangerous, allied aircraft—anything from the B-52 Stratofortress to the F-117 Nighthawk (“MALD Decoy”). The most alluring part of using drones is that they are unmanned and do not put NATO pilots at risk. Moreover, if they are mass produced and built with this kind of mission in mind, they are cheap, expendable, and can be used in large numbers.

Hypersonic missiles could also be used to penetrate Russian A2/AD. Their maneuverability and speed make them highly survivable against missile defense systems. According to a 2021 GAO report, funding for hypersonic weapons increased fivefold from 2016 to 2020. By continuing to focus on the hypersonic glide vehicle and hypersonic cruise missile, the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force will have the capability to “burst the bubble” when it comes to A2/AD. Of the two types, the airbreathing scramjet-powered hypersonic cruise missile is more appropriate to the Kaliningrad threat. Though they do not have as much range as the glide vehicles, they are lighter, cost less, and can be more easily integrated into existing U.S. force structure. Compared to the glide vehicle, the air-breather would also serve as a more effective deterrent. Glide vehicles are more expensive and would run the risk of becoming boutique, which would disincentivize NATO forces from actually using them. In the event of tensions in the Baltics, a missile that has a lower cost and has a higher chance of being used will better signal Western resolve.

Though the West enjoys wealth, material, and population advantages against the Russian military machine, a Western bloc that lacks political will and is casualty averse will only encourage Putin to continue to expose cracks in the NATO alliance and attempt another fait accompli invasion for the West to overcome. Putin seems to only respond to brute force. International norms, treaties, and economic sanctions has not deterred his assault on democracy and the U.S.-led world order, and did not deter him from invading Ukraine. While much more robust than efforts in the past, the Western response since February 24th has only resulted in Putin shifting the focus of his “special military operation” to eastern Ukraine. Indeed, it seems to be predominantly the continued bravery and unexpected resilience of the Ukrainian military that necessitated this shift. Russia has exhibited no signs of slowing down the war in Ukraine. Anyone criticizing the war could be punished by up to 15 years in prison, and Russia has been unremitting in an extensive propaganda campaign characterizing the Ukrainians as Nazis and the West as aggressors. Continuing to fund research, development, and deployment of unmanned systems and hypersonic missiles—especially the cruise missile—will demonstrate a strong commitment to North Atlantic defense against a resurgent Russia led by a man who seems to only makes decisions based on bullets and blood.

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Peer Reviewed by Larry Pfieffer, Director, The Michael V. Hayden Center for Intelligence, Policy, and International Security, Schar School for Policy and Government, George Mason University.

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