By David Sant for the Saker blog
Gonzalo Lira recently posted two soliloquies which were both accusatory and predictive about NATO’s apparent motivations and likely near-term kinetic military objectives. He concluded that after detonating a “dirty bomb” on Ukrainian territory, the USA and NATO would use the opportunity as an excuse to move the 101st Airborne Division from Romania into Odessa.
both may be sped up 1.5x-1.73x
While I think his big picture thinking is generally correct, I disagree with Mr. Lira on the mission of the 101st Airborne Division in the scenario he described.
Many years ago I was an officer in the National Guard sister Brigade to the 101st. Both Brigades are “air assault light infantry,” which was developed in the Vietnam War with the 7th Air Cavalry Division. “We Were Soldiers Once and Young,” tells that story.
Though the 101st is called “airborne” in reference to its World War II days, today its soldiers are not trained to jump out of airplanes; the 82nd Airborne Division does that.
The 101st deploys using UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters. Each division in the brigade has an aviation battalion with three companies of Blackhawk helicopters. Their primary combat mission is to secure a bridgehead.
When deploying, an air assault infantry battalion goes to a designated pickup zone, and a company of Blackhawks comes in to ferry them to the landing zone. Although they are trained to rappel out of the helicopters in a hot Landing Zone, in practice the helicopters usually land, and the troops jump out. It is much faster and safer. Two minutes later the chopper is back in the air and goes back for another squad at the pickup zone. Thus it might take the better part of an hour with two or three round trips to move an entire infantry battalion from the PZ to the LZ, longer if the distance is longer.
While an air assault infantry brigade can move 105 mm light artillery pieces via helicopter, the main supply and logistics assets of the brigade must follow the main force on the ground in trucks. Therefore, unlike the 82nd Airborne Division, or the Rangers, both of which are designed to jump into areas far behind enemy lines, an air assault brigade like the 101st is limited in how far it can leapfrog ahead of its support assets.
If NATO desires to fortify Odessa against the Russian advance, or use Odessa as a base to engage Russian forces near Nikolaev, they have a serious logistical problem. Supply lines from Poland on main Ukrainian highways or railroads must travel 700 kilometers to reach Odessa.
Figure 1: These routes are vulnerable to Russian air power and cruise missiles which have hit targets as far West as Lviv.
The shortest supply lines to Odessa for NATO would be from Romania, which has two segments of border with Ukraine. However, the best paved route would be through Moldova, which is not a member of NATO. Romania has state of the art NATO air defense batteries which can cover most of the route to Odesssa. Therefore, assuming they are effective against Russian cruise missiles, which may be a bad assumption, it would be safer to supply forces in Odessa from Romania than from Poland.
Figure 2 shows two possible approaches to Odessa from Romanian territory.
The NATO base in Cincu ( 45°54’49.15″N 24°48’21.25″E ), Romania is about 450 km from Odessa, which is too far for Blackhawks to make a round trip without mid-air refueling or using a FARP. It is more likely that an Assembly Area would be used near the Romanian city of Huşi.
The 101st cannot advance quickly to Odessa from the south, because there are practically no roads, and then Dniester Bay has to be crossed to get to Odessa. There is only one bridge over that bay, which is right on the coast, within range of Russian missiles, and far from the air defense umbrella in Romania. While possibly an avenue of attack, it would be almost impossible to defend that bridge from Russian cruise missiles.
Transnistria, with its Russian base at Tiraspol, is located directly in-between Romania and Odessa. This presents a problem for any NATO intentions for Odessa.
Transnistria, as an unrecognized breakaway province of Moldova, has been defended by Russia since 1994 or so, and would be seen as fair game by NATO, which doesn’t seem to worry about the rules, anyway.
Just like Azerbaijan and Turkey taking Nagorno Karabakh, if NATO can grab Tiraspol nobody other than Russia is going to squawk about it.
A key military objective for NATO / 101st Airborne is likely to be Tiraspol, the capital of Transnistria, which because of its geography, is the most difficult region for Russia to defend. Sandwiched between Ukraine and NATO, Russia has no supply lines to it. And more importantly, the two best bridges over the Dneister on the best-paved route to Odessa from Romania are located at Tiraspol.
In the Kharkiv region, Russian forces fell back rather than get encircled. But as Tiraspol lies within the merest sliver of land between the Ukraine and Moldova, there is no room for strategic withdrawal or even much maneuver. It is highly relevant to find out how strong the Russian ground and air defenses are around Tiraspol. However, I do not have access to good information about that.
The much-vaunted Kherson offensive may yet prove to be a feint, and the Ukrainian Army’s real attack might well come against Tiraspol from Ukrainian territory, with the 101st Airborne soldiers attacking from across Moldova. Although Moldova is not a member of NATO, I have a feeling that the USA could twist arms hard enough to get permission to overfly Moldovan airspace, especially with the promise of returning Tiraspol to Moldovan control.
Plucking Tiraspol out of Russia’s hands would make Biden look strong just before the midterm election, even though so far he never has been strong. This could be hoped to be a repeat of Joe Biden’s apocryphal poolside triumph over the bully named “CornPop.”
Therefore, if NATO takes action toward Odessa, the 101st’s primary objectives will certainly be the three bridges over the Dniester. Taking these bridgeheads would allow a larger NATO force to cross over and prepare to defend Odessa.
Main Bridge Pair: 46°49’57″N 29°29’26″E
Secondary Bridge: 46°55’11″N 29°28’20″E
Third Bridge: 46° 4’34.55″N 30°28’11.28″E
Without at least one of those three bridges, NATO cannot hold or resupply Odessa. The mission of the 101st would actually be to take Tiraspol and neutralize the air defenses first. Then a follow-on force can roll into Odessa with Ukrainian support.
Figure 3: shows a hypothetical joint assault by the 101st and Ukrainian forces on Tiraspol. However, it does not show the Russian defending forces, as we don’t know where or how strong they are.
In order to take Tiraspol, the bridges over the Dniester River must be secured. U.S. Army air assault infantry is ideal for such a mission. However, the 101st will nevertheless have to survive while coming under fire from Russian S-300 and S-400 air defenses. Crimea is the main Russian Anti-Air platform in the region with the S-400, and its batteries can reach about 200 to 300 km West of Odessa. (Albeit Tiraspol would be at the gray edge of their range.)
Figure 4: shows roughly the air defense ranges of batteries in Crimea and Tiraspol.
A single Russian S-400 battery in Crimea has about 380 missiles ready to launch. These missiles consist of five or six different kinds, having varying ranges, and various types of targets they are designed to hit.
The 40N6E missile in particular is designed to hit low-flying targets over the radar horizon at ranges up to 450 kilometers. These are ideal helicopter killers: The missile flies up to a high altitude, and then—about halfway to its target—turns on its own radar and looks down to find low-flying aircraft. Recently one scored a record 250 km kill in the Ukraine.
The Russian surface fleet also has S-300 and S-400 air defenses. However, the Moskva was the primary S-400 Anti-Aircraft platform in the Black Sea. The Americans helped the Ukrainians to sink it, so, it is gone. While, it is true that Russia cannot get any additional capital ships into the Black Sea, it has already moved several smaller missile ships from the Caspian through the Volga-Don canal system to Rostov-On-Don. I do not know if any of those smaller vessels have AA capability similar to the Moskva.
Despite such a long-range Russian AA threat to the 101st transport helicopters, it might still be possible for Tiraspol to be taken, especially if the US Fleet in the Adriatic were to launch a barrage of cruise missiles against Crimea. That would temporarily take up the full attention of the S-400 batteries, while allowing the 101st to fly to its landing zone in its UH60 Blackhawks.
But such a ploy would probably come at the cost of the NATO carrier group. If the US Navy fires on Crimea or the Russian Navy, it seems quite certain that the Russian Navy will sink the entire carrier group.
The Russians could have long ago escalated this war and sunk the NATO naval assets in the Mediterranean with a first strike. There is a reason that they have not escalated so far: The Kremlin realizes that time is on Russia’s side.
The Western Central Banking System is on the verge of a full melt-down. Russia, China, and Iran have made great progress toward ending the U.S. petrodollar hegemony for energy sales (and for much else). Even in the Ukraine, the slow grind is working in Russia’s favor, despite all the news headlines to the contrary.
The longer Russia waits to escalate, the sooner the U.S., UK, and EU hang themselves with their own rope. It looks like the West has about six months left, tops. We are running out of diesel fuel, oil, gasoline, natural gas, fertilizer—and soon enough—food.
However, if that calculation were to change, Russia could very quickly escalate and deal a quick defeat to the entire NATO naval and air forces via its hypersonic missiles and S-400, S-500, and S-550 air defenses. Russia could permanently blind NATO’s GPS and spy satellites in 30 minutes.
Why hasn’t Russia simply ended this like it could? Because, the U.S. would be likely to retaliate with nuclear weapons. Even though the Russian S-500 and S-550 provide a missile shield to their main cities, they do not want to risk being on the receiving end of a nuclear strike. So the Kremlin is willing to eat relatively small losses in Ukraine and the Black Sea, because it knows victory is already won. Russia is not willing to trade this for a Pyrrhic Victory. Therefore, patience continues to dominate Russia’s actions.
NATO, on the other hand, seems to have misinterpreted patience for weakness. If the geniuses of “NATO” send in the 101st Airborne Division and a Mechanized Infantry Brigade to Odessa, they will learn the hard way that the propaganda about Russian losses in Ukraine was wrong. But I hope they don’t do it. Both Odessa and Tiraspol are ancient and beautiful cities. It would be a terrible tragedy to see them leveled like Mariupol was.
In the final analysis, the only way that the U.S. could pull this whole thing off would be if it can degrade the Russian air defense capabilities for long enough to fly their entire air assault brigade into the landing zones, which is to say, about 12 hours. However, the Russians are “waiting for it,” so, I wouldn’t bet on the U.S.
Crimea is unsinkable. The US Carrier group in the Adriatic is hypersonic missile bait. Tiraspol is a historical Russian city like Odessa. Russia would hate to lose it, but it is the least defensible of all their properties at the moment.
While it would be a big gamble by NATO, Tiraspol is the low-hanging fruit that the U.S., the 101st Airborne Division, NATO, and the Ukraine will probably attempt to seize. I think that will be their first objective if they choose to escalate with a dirty bomb.