Armed Forces

Gen. Hodges: We Need Constant Surveillance over the Baltic Sea [INTERVIEW]

photo: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sean Furey/U.S. Navy
photo: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Sean Furey/U.S. Navy

We need an equivalent, an effect of what we call an “unblinking eye” – constant surveillance over the Baltic Sea that we can share with Allies – as LTG (Ret.) Ben Hodges, former US Army Europe Commander, Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis told in an interview with Gen. Hodges also comments the Bayraktar TB2 UAV purchase by Poland as well as the relationships between Poland, Turkey, US and NATO.

Jakub Palowski: General, Poland has recently decided to purchase Turkish TB2 Bayraktar Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Warsaw is the first NATO country to make such a decision, how would you comment on that? 

LTG (Ret.) Ben Hodges, former US Army Europe Commander, Pershing Chair in Strategic Studies at the Center for European Policy Analysis: First of all, I think that it is a great decision by Poland because it addresses a requirement that Poland has for this particular capability. The TB2 will help with reconnaissance, as well as with anti-tank defence and strike capabilities against other targets. On the top of that, Turkey is delivering high-quality systems and we could see those in operational environment. So, this is a good decision, I am glad to see Poland increasing its capability.

How can assets such as TB2 reinforce the collective defence system on the NATO Eastern Flank, given that the threat environment is a bit different from what we have seen in Libya or Syria, where those UAVs have indeed been successfully used? 

Of course, the threat environment is different, but the point is to give a potential adversary as much trouble as possible. Those drones, TB2s, would not act independently, they could act as a part of a combined operation, with indirect fire, rockets and other supporting assets not excluding the manned fighter aircraft.

Besides the strike capabilities, reconnaissance capabilities of the UAVs are the key. They enable us to see the areas that would otherwise be hidden. We United States depend on drones, we are deploying MQ-9 to both Poland and Romania, and now Poland is acquiring perhaps not identical, but somehow similar capability. 

I say it again – there is no magic weapon system, they need to be a part of the system and they need to be employed in a way that makes sense for an overall operation plan. It is imperative to have command and control and networks, and datalinks to be able to receive the data so that commanders could use them, for example, for targeting of long-range precision fires. This is not a standalone system.

You mentioned Poland and Romania, both countries face some challenges regarding the situational awareness over the Baltic and Black Seas, respectively. Can some of those systems be used in a maritime environment?

I see that Poland has a requirement for both reconnaissance and strike capabilities over the Baltic Sea, both for its national defence and for the collective defence of the Baltic States. I don’t know whether TB2 has, or doesn’t have a technical limitation on operation over water.

It would be ideal, if the TB2 was also effective over the water. If it is not, then Poland should also look to procure another system. We need an equivalent, an effect of what we call an “unblinking eye” – constant surveillance over the Baltic Sea that we can share with Allies.

Image Credit: Leszek Chemperek/CO MON
Image Credit: Leszek Chemperek/CO MON

Some of the Polish experts say that those systems, like other large UAVs can be hardly useful in a contested environment, when an adversary possesses a layered Air Defence System, which would be more complex and modern than that used by Armenia in Nagorno Karabakh or Libya. Such a threat could come from the Russian Air Defence systems. 

Any aerial platform, including an F-35, can be shot down. All the aerial assets: helicopters, fixed wing aircraft and also UAVs are vulnerable. We can expect that Russians would try to knock them down during a potential conflict. But that does not mean that they are ineffective, or we should not use them.

You need to integrate the drone into the tactical employment plan, which includes artillery, rockets and other assets. The drones fly with slow speeds, and the operators need to know how to fly them in such a way that reduced their exposure. Of course, there is a risk, but some level of risk is present during every operation, and there is no pilot on board of the drone. 

Current threat environment means the threat levels are varied and often capabilities are used even when there are no open hostilities. How can platforms like TB2 be used in crisis situations, below the threshold of a large-scale conflict?

I can say that even today, NATO Allies are employing their assets over the Baltic Sea and Black Sea. And to establish a successful deterrence, you need to be able to act quickly. So, speed of recognition, speed of decision and speed of assembly, action need to be taken into account. 

Speed of recognition means being able to identify what is happening, to give the decisionmakers time to start movement and send Kremlin the message that we are prepared. Of course, Kremlin knows that, so Russians will try to hide or mislead on what they are doing. So, you need to have a full range of intelligence collection platforms, from satellite, to drone, maritime and land-based systems, as well as human intelligence.

TB2 is part of the system that should enable us to know, what is going on. I will give you an example. Russia has deployed more than 100,000 troops in and around Ukraine in the last weeks, and most of them are still there. So being able to identify what is in place is an important part of the defence and deterrence.

Turkey has been a NATO Ally for decades, but some recent moves of Turkish leadership cause concern among the Allies, like the purchase of S-400 by Turkey, which caused Turkey being removed from the F-35 project. Do you think that despite those concerns, Allies should continue to cooperate with Ankara, including the defence procurement? 

In my opinion such a cooperation should be continued and enhanced. This is a very smart move by Poland and Turkey to strengthen what has already been a historic friendship and relationship. Turkey is a NATO Ally. Of course, they do things that are frustrating, but the same is true for other countries that are in the Alliance, like France or Germany and even the United States, from time to time the Allies make moves that cause friction.

But it would be foolish to block an Ally from all cooperation. I think that the decision of Turkey to purchase the S-400 was a mistake. I disagree with the reasons they gave to justify their purchase of S-400 and I support the decision of the United States blocked them from the F-35 program, because you can’t allow radar which is with the S-400 to observe the F-35 in every mode of operation, which would be possible if F-35 was deployed near the S-400. So, there is a legitimate security concern and Turkey knows that.

However, we can’t let our relationship be defined by a single issue. I think the United States and Turkey need to reestablish trust with each other. It takes both sides to do this. Turkey is an important Ally, not only because of the Black Sea region, but also due to the fact that it is a bulwark against Islamic extremism and Iran. And I see the Black Sea region gaining importance for the NATO. So, we need to work with our Allies, NATO would be much better with Turkey, than without. I think Poland is helping here, as it is supporting a NATO relationship with a bilateral relationship.  

How do you assess the policy of Turkey regarding the threat from the East? On one hand, they cooperate with Russia, also beyond S-400, in Syria. On the other hand, they provide Ukraine with Armed UAVs, something other NATO Allies like Western European countries are reluctant to do. 

Some of our NATO Allies have bilateral relationships with various non-NATO countries, including Russia. Let me give an example of Norway. They are a charter member of NATO, providing a valuable contribution to the collective defence system. At the same time, they do have various arrangements with Russia on timber, fishing and even energy resources. 

So, while Turkey cooperates with Russia on certain things, it doesn’t mean it is not a valuable Ally. Even we United States would like to have a stable and predictable relationship with Russia, assuming Russia behaves in accordance with international law, respects sovereignty of Ukraine and gets out of Georgia. 

Going back to Turkey, it is a good think that it is such a strong supporter of Ukraine. Turkey has also been an advocate of Georgia joining NATO. These are positive steps by Turkey that NATO should encourage and support. 

How should NATO countries, including Poland, but also Germany or even US, develop their relations with Turkey, given on one hand its vital contributions to the Alliance, on the other – the concerns related to Russia?

I think that we’ve got to try “Turkey-USA 2.0”, to make some reset and rebuild the trust. We have to think long term, we cannot make decision based on emotions. I am afraid of losing an entire generation of young people in Turkey that see the United States and the West as an adversary. I think US can find the ways to do it. In the past, perhaps, we might have taken Turkey for granted and the Turks see that.

If we can find a way to reduce tensions, that would be good start. And I do think Turkey is using its veto in NATO way too often, more often than anybody and this is not helpful. Turkey has a responsibility to rebuild trust too, but I think the United States should take the first step.

Last but not least, I would like to ask you to comment on the decision of Biden administration to waive the sanctions on Nord Stream 2, which has been undertaken just recently. 

I was disappointed by that. I can only speculate on the reasons. I imagine that it has to do with the Administration desire to repair the damage to the relationship with Germany. If Germany finally started putting pressure on the Kremlin, like they should, the waiver would have been a good thing, but so far, I don’t see it. I don’t see a pressure from Berlin to hold Moscow, or Beijing for that matter, accountable.

Berlin is the only European capital that can influence the behavior of Russia, but I never hear them being tough on Russian aggression towards Ukraine or the Moscow support for Lukashenko’s hijacking of the passenger plane. And that is why I am disappointed with that decision on Nord Stream 2. We need Germany as an Ally, of course, but Germany should step up and prove, that it was worth, the trust that President Biden gave them.

Thank you for the conversation.