U.S. War With Russia Would Leave American Forces With No Air Support in Europe for Weeks, Expert Warns

U.S. and NATO forces would be without air support for "several weeks" in the event of a European war with Russia, as Moscow's advanced anti-aircraft systems could close European airspace to NATO warplanes.

Army officials and defense experts told the Association of the United States Army's Global Force Symposium that the U.S. must therefore upgrade its artillery forces in order to degrade Russia's cutting-edge anti-aircraft capabilities, Military.com reported.

Russia has one of the most sophisticated anti-aircraft defense networks. The key to its power is the S-400 Triumf missile system. Each S-400 battery has four missiles, each designed for use at different ranges, and can engage targets 250 miles away and an altitude of just over 98,000 feet. Its fastest missiles flies at Mach 15, or 11,509 miles per hour.

U.S. aircraft would be taking a huge risk operating over Eastern Europe in the event of war. The range and lethality of Russian anti-air systems would limit close-air support and surveillance missions, leaving U.S. and NATO ground troops with severely limited air coverage and intelligence-gathering options.

S-400 Triumf
A Russian soldier walks near Russian S-400 Triumf air defense system launch vehicles near Moscow on August 13, 2014. KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

John Gordon IV, a senior policy researcher at Rand Corp, concluded that Russia would have a "very significant advantage in terms of numbers and all aspects of ground combat" in the first seven to 10 days of a potential conflict.

The way around this problem, Gordon explained, is to improve American artillery weapons to compensate for limited air reach should war break out. "It's certainly going to put a premium on U.S. Army field artillery," he said.

Gordon believes that the U.S. and NATO have some catching up to do in artillery. "The Russians take this stuff seriously; artillery has been the strong suit of the Russian Army since the days of the czars," he said. "They've got a range advantage over us in a number of different areas, particularly cannons. Typically, modern Russian cannons have got 50 percent to 100 percent greater range than the current generation of U.S. cannons."

This mismatch is driving the Army to increase the range and sophistication of its artillery. The Army has named the Long-Range Precision Fires (LRPF) program its top modernization goal.

US Artillery in South Korea
U.S. Army howitzers take part in a firing drill in Pocheon, South Korea, on March 15, 2012. The Army is undertaking a radical overhaul of its artillery to extend its range and accuracy. Kim Hong-Ji/AFP/Getty Images

General Robert Brown, commanding general of U.S. Army Pacific Command, told the symposium, "We've got to push the maximum range of all systems under development for close, deep and strategic, and we have got to outgun the enemy. We don't do that right now; it's a huge gap."

General Brown continued, "We need cannons that fire as far as rockets today. We need rockets that fire as far as today's missiles, and we need missiles out to 499 kilometers," or 310 miles—the missile range limit set by the the 1988 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty.

One of the central elements of the LRPF project is the Precision Missile System, which will have a range of 310 miles and will replace the Army Tactical Missile System. Prototypes will be ready for testing next year and the Army hopes the weapon will be introduced by 2023.

The Extended Range Cannon Artillery project will upgrade its 155 milimeter artillery weapons with rocket-assisted projectiles and an upgraded breech to extend its range to 43 miles. It will also create an improved auto-loading mechanism to increase rate of fire to six to 10 rounds per minute. These are expected to be ready by 2023.

In the long-term, the Army is researching the feasibility of futuristic hypervelocity and electromagnetic weapons, which others branches of the military have already had some success with.

US soldiers in Bulgaria
US Army soldiers look on while NATO paratroopers descend during exercises near the village of Bezmer, Bulgaria, on July 18, 2017. In the event of war with Russia, it is unlikely NATO aircraft would have access to resupply and reinforce front-line troops. DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP/Getty Images