Chances are that if you are a reader of the blog, you have spent some amount of time thinking about NATO’s northeastern flank. The defence of the Baltics has become an issue of considerable debate, with the Suwałki gap doing its best to become the Fulda gap of the 21st century. At some point one start to wonder how a confrontation would play out? What difference would it e.g. make if NATO sent reinforcements into northern Poland?
Enter Next War: Poland, an old-school hex-and-counter wargame with all the bells and whistles to warrant an interest also from the professionals. It arrives in a nicely sized box, which is packed full with two maps, plenty of countersheets, and all the rule and scenario books you need. For a full review of what’s in the box, check out this video on GMT Games’ YouTube channel.
…and, yes, the box isn’t one of their better-looking ones. I have a hard time figuring out why GMT chose the mix of pictures of completely different styles. It is especially puzzling as they have some quite spectacular boxarts amongst their offerings, such as Labyrinth or Pendragon.
The maps consist of two completely different ones, one of which is the hex (‘operational’) map which cover the northern part of Poland and into the southern corner of Lithuania. Here the main battle is fought, where brigade and division level units (and the occasional battalions) run around and collide into each other. However, as we all know a major part of the fight would be to get units into theatre. This takes place on the second map, the strategic display. In essence, this cover the Baltic Sea and surrounding land areas, and consists of land and sea regions, as well as holding boxes representing out of area assets (naval units in the North Sea and long-range air units). Here it is possible to fight the battle for sea superiority in the Baltic Sea, to conquer the Baltic states, and to drop a bunch of airborne units on Gotland to exercise control of the shipping lanes and air space if you are so inclined.
There are a basic and advanced rules, as well as basic and advanced air rules. The basic rules are rather straightforward for a wargame, while the advanced ones are close to a full-on simulation. Under the advanced rules, the strategic display, a detailed logistics system, and a host of support weapons ranging from short-range ballistics missiles to artillery makes it possible to simulate the Russian A2/AD-bubble and NATO attempts to breach it in all its glory.
The game is complex, there’s no denying it. Multiple factors are at play throughout the turns, and keeping track of everything does feel slightly overwhelming at times. Part of this is due to the modularity of the system. The Next War-system, Poland is the fourth volume, is based on a set of common rules, some of which are shared between basic and standard games, some of which are differing. Then comes the game specific rules, which as the name implies cover things specific for the Polish theatre, as well as the scenario rules. This leads to quite some browsing between the different booklets at times. On the other hand, the modularity is without doubt one of the strengths of the game. In essence, it is one great sandbox, and while it does feature a number of different scenarios with varying levels of NATO reinforcements forward-deployed to the area, there’s nothing stopping you from gaming out different scenarios according to your own liking. The same can be said about the rules, where it is rather easy to pick and choose, e.g. to combine a full set of logistics rules with the basic air war.
The fighting follows a rather standard pattern, with units from one side attacking a neighbouring hex, possible support being allocated, and a number of modifiers come into play depending on everything from how well units cooperate to the type of terrain. A single die roll then resolves each battle, with the result being cross-referenced with the final combat ratio on a combat results table, which sports both die-roll modifiers and column shifts. The advanced air rules are a blast to play, and lets you pit individual squadrons against each other, while the naval rules are by far the most abstracted, and in my opinion, weakest ones. It very much feels like the navy is only included because NATO need to be able to leverage the carrier strength of the US Navy and to have a means of transport for the US Marine expeditionary force headed for the beaches of Kaliningrad or a nice Polish harbour.
An interesting concept is the initiative mechanics, whereby one of the players might have the initiative for the whole turn. This provides additional movement and combat phases, representing an attacker having the momentum, but can also easily lead to overstretching as the game also simulates the downsides of pushing the units hard to try and keep up the momentum. If the initiative player isn’t able to keep up the steam, judged by the amount of victory points during the last turn, the turns becomes contested until either player manages to secure the initiative again. This is a prime example of how complex real-world effects are taken into account and integrated into the game by relatively straightforward means.
There are some weaknesses with the game. The maps are nice, but they are printed on thick paper and not mounted. This is the usual way when it comes to wargames, and it is a nice paper quality. Still, it is something worth noting for any non-wargamers stumbling upon this. The player aids are also printed on the same thicker paper, and are in full colour. The main issue for me personally is however the scope of the hex map. As it sits now, it covers the majority of the Kaliningrad exclave, but not quite up to its northern border. In the same way, the southern part of the Suwałki gap is covered, but the battle for its northern end will take place solely on the strategic display. And if the player wants to do a Bagration 2.0 and head for Warszawa from the south, that would be outside the scope of both maps. I understand the reasoning though, because it ties in with another issue.
The game is huge.
The maps are 56 x 61 cm and 56 x 86 cm respectively. In addition you will have a number of cups with all counters that doesn’t happen to be on the board at any given moment, and it is usually a good idea to have the rule books and player aids nearby. All in all, this might not be the game for you if live in a small flat. Effectively doubling the size of the operational map by extending it towards Vilnius to the north and Krakow to the south would mean that any game would require quite a bit of property to be properly set up (with that said, if a double size map covering Vilnius to Krakow would be offered as an add-on, I would certainly buy it!).
The observant reader will notice that a pattern emerges. The scope and complexity of the game is intense, but at the same time its greatest strength. Already with the relatively limited playing time I’ve had with it I’ve learnt new things with regards to the real world situation. It should be stressed that the complexity is based on the fact that modern conflicts are complex and multifaceted, and it never feels like the rules are complex just for the sake of it. Instead, while I am a novice when it comes to hex-and-counter games (my sole earlier experience is described here) I felt that my understanding of real-world conflicts helped me get going with the game. The rules felt logical, and it was easy to grasp what the designer was going after with any single point (though as noted memorising the whole lot was quite something else!). I also never felt like I encountered any significant case of a real-world factor missing (there’s even rules for refugees clogging the roads during the early stages of the conflict), which is high praise for a wargame in my books.
The game isn’t for anyone, but neither is this blog, so I have no qualms about highly recommending it to any of my blog readers with an interest in conflict simulation!
…and before anyone asks: Finland isn’t included, Sweden joins NATO with their Air Force and SOF units if Russia invades Gotland (P 18 is missing), Norway is missing, while Denmark is a fully featured though minor NATO-country.
Oh, and we certainly need a volume in the series situated in northern Finland/Sweden/Norway. Please, GMT?
In an earlier post, I argued that the Suwałki gap was in fact ill-suited for a full-scale Russian armoured offensive with the goal of linking up Kaliningrad and Belarus, as the terrain and road network did not favour that kind of manoeuvres. This naturally leads to the next question, namely what the alternative would be?
Going south from the gap, the first opportunity is Białystok. The city is the main hub of northeastern Poland, and features a significant amount of both roads and railroads, and has the benefit of being approachable from Belarus along two major road, Grodno-Białystok from the northeast and Baranovichi-Białystok from the East. From there it is possible to either turn north towards Suwałki (along E67, not visible on map) or southwest towards Warsaw. However, the areas east of the city are heavily forested, and it represents a significant detour if the aim is to reach Suwałki from Grodno.
However, the route that promises a decisive victory fast, as well as dragging away Polish reinforcements from the Kaliningrad/Suwałki-region, is the E30/A2 road from Minsk via Brest and on to Warsaw. Brest is located directly on the eastern bank of the river Bug, which in this area marks the border between Poland and Belarus. Striking out from Brest would make it possible to potentially take the border bridges over Bug in a coup, or at the very least prepare the crossings on allied territory. Here, the E30 as well as the twin-rail railroad would provide a crucial lifeline for the advancing forces, and the right flank would be protected by the Bug.
This is not a new idea. In the summer of 1944, the Soviet Operation Bagration included a major offensive in the Lublin-Brest area, where the Soviet forces (including the Polish 1st Army that was transfered from the Lviv sector halfway through the operation) captured bridgeheads over Vistula at Magnuszew and Puławy (approximately 60 and 100 km south of Warszaw) and over Narew at Serock (40 km north of the capital). However, the Polish capital did not change hands until the launching of the Vistula-Oder offensive in January the following year, a controversial fact from a Polish point view.
The Vistula opposite Magnuszew, site of the bridgehead in 1944
As noted, this would be a major treat towards the Polish capital, and it is very likely that Poland would direct at least two of its three main divisions to meet this. In practice, the 16th ‘Pomorska‘ Mechanised Division would be left to deal with Kaliningrad, creating a situation where both sides would be roughly comparable, and causing a stalemate around the exclave. This would likely be in the interest of Russia, compared to an offensive closer to the Suwałki gap which would make it easier for Poland to shift troops from one front to the other, thereby negating part of Russia’s quantitative superiority.
The downside to these military upsides is that while a ‘disturbance’ in the Baltic region could perhaps be caused to look like a Ukraine-scenario, thereby delaying a NATO-reaction during the critical first days, an armoured corps moving west along the E30 would be a sure way of launching WWIII, especially as Germany would be far more likely to intervene if the advancing Russians where on the (literal) highway to Berlin than if they occupied Vilnius.
This is obviously not something that hasn’t crossed the minds of the Polish general staff, and the above-mentioned 16th Division actually has an additional armoured brigade in the form of the 1st ‘Warszawska‘ Armoured Brigade equipped with PT-91 Twardy (modernised T-72), BWP-1 (local-designation for BMP-1), and 2S1 Gvozdika. The brigade is headquartered in the Wesoła district on the eastern outskirts of Warsaw. In other words, it is located on the ‘right side’ of both the Bug and the Vistula, and as such is well-placed to meet any offensive along the Brest-Warsaw axis. However, the equipment is rather old, and while the Twardy is a significant step up from the T-72, it is still far from the latest generation of tanks.
As such, it is a noteworthy move when the Polish Defence Forces announce that a tank battalion from the 11th ‘Lubuska‘ Armoured Cavalry Division in the southwestern parts of Poland is set to transfer to Wesoła. This is to make room for the US Army units coming to Żagań, currently home to the division’s 34th Armoured Cavalry Brigade. The 34th sport two battalion equipped with the Leopard 2A5, currently Poland’s most modern main-battle tank. Moving one of these battalions East of the Vistula radically alters the number of units available to the Polish in this key area during the first day or so after mobilisation. It does seem like the Polish Army has recognised the need to be able to concentrate more high-quality units in defence of the capital at shorter notice, and comes as part of a trend in which the West tries to shorten response times in general, and with a focus on heavier units in particular. This is also evident from a Finnish perspective, and both the recent transfer of older Leopard 2A4’s to ‘new’ units and the creation of fast response units in the Army can be seen as part of this very same trend.
The discussion regarding the potential of an armed conflict, or even regional war, between NATO and Russia over the Baltics have become a staple of the post-Crimean world. Most of the focus has been placed on the difficulty in reinforcing the Baltic states in the face of a Russian anti-access/area denial ‘bubble’ (A2/AD) created with Kaliningrad as the centre of the bubble, and the potential of strengthening this bubble by rapidly occupying the Swedish island of Gotland. If this was to happen, the only way of reinforcing the Baltic states would be over the Polish-Lithuanian border, a strip of land which rapidly has become known as the Suwałki gap (named after the Polish town at one end of the gap). The Suwałki gap in turn is claimed to be extremely vulnerable, as it is wedged in between the Kaliningrad enclave and the Belarusian border.
I will argue that this is, in certain aspects, an oversimplification, but that contrary to what one might expect, this does not lessen the risk of a confrontation.
The A2/AD Bubble
With regards to the A2/AD bubble set up in Kaliningrad, it is usually seen as blocking maritime and airborne forces. By using a combination of long-range high quality surface-to-air missiles and anti-shipping weapons (land based missiles as well as surface and subsurface units), Russia would be able to deny NATO forces entry into the southern parts of the Baltic Sea, and any units operating there would be under constant threat. These two features are a key part of the definition of A2/AD challenges, see e.g. . As NATO is lacking both numbers and key capabilities (such as mechanized and armoured units) in the Baltic states, any NATO response to an incursion would have to include a rapid transfer of reinforcements from other NATO countries and into the Baltic states. The ability to hinder or disrupt these reinforcements would ensure that Russia can maintain superiority on the battlefield in terms of both numbers and lethality of the weapon systems employed.
This description is usually accompanied by maps featuring rings at 400 km, the stated maximum range for the longest ranged surface-to-air missile in current Russian inventory (the 40N6 missile of the S-400 Triumf system) , as well as at 300 km, the approximate maximum range of the K-300P Bastion-P coastal defence system’s P-800 ‘Yakhont’/’Oniks’ missiles .
However, this fails to account for a number of facts. To begin with, at maximum range missiles lacks the energy to be able to chase down and hit maneuvering targets such as fighters. The very long range nature of the 40N6 also by necessity dictates that the missile is extremely large, further degrading the performance against maneuvering targets. As such the main use of the 40N6 is likely against large high-value targets such as AWACS, tankers, stand-off jammers, and transport aircraft. A more fitting maximum range when discussing fighter-sized targets would be that of the somewhat smaller and shorter-ranged 48N6E missile, which in its latest version feature ranges over 200 km . This is still a highly potent weapon, but the area covered is roughly a quarter of that of the 40N6.
For anti-ship missiles, the need to maneuver isn’t as crucial, but going out to maximum range means that a measure of tactical flexibility is lost. This includes routing the missiles to attack from unexpected vectors, or simultaneous impact by missiles approaching from different directions, see e.g. video clip from Ruptly .
The main problem operating out at very long ranges is target acquisition. The range of radars are usually limited by the horizon, which is the reason that aircraft mounted radars are so popular. This is a problem for Kaliningrad, as the whole area is easily covered by NATO air defence networks (more on which later), and as such Russia has installed over the horizon (OTH) radar arrays in the area. In the case of Kaliningrad, it was recently disclosed that the Sunflower-E (Ru. Подсолнух-Э / Podsolnukh-E) long-range air- and surface radar will be installed in Kaliningrad . Note that the picture in the source is of the anti-missile radar Voronezh-M, also found in Kaliningrad , and not of the Sunflower-E. The exact range of this array is unclear, but the manufacturer claims it can be used to cover the 200-mile (320 km) economic zone of coastal countries , while the earlier quoted Russia Today article cited ranges ‘up to 450 km’. This latter figure is likely against large airborne targets at altitude, which is also in accordance with a widely circulated but unsourced graphic . The radar array is made up of a ‘forest’ of individual antennas, which means that it is likely very resistant to shock waves from bomb blasts. However, the largely immobile nature and size of the installation means that its exact location is well-known, and while the antennas might be hard to destroy and do feature a certain degree of redundancy if damaged, the system likely has other key components (power supply, transmitters, receivers, and operator centrals) which are more vulnerable.
Radars are also inherently active, which means that they can be located once they start transmitting. To avoid this both anti-ship missiles and the S-400 has the ability to be fed targeting data from passive sources such as emitter locators, which work by locating an emitting radar of the adversary. This is particularly effective if the enemy forces have used active jamming to make the use of own radars impossible, as the active jammer is a very strong source of emission, and hence easily targeted. As a general rule, these systems are however less accurate than active systems, and the difference is emphasised when operating at very long ranges. The fact that all missiles discussed here have their own active radars does remedy this to a certain extent.
The A2/AD bubble in Kaliningrad is made up of some of the world’s most modern anti-ship and surface-to-air missiles
To achieve accurate targeting data at extreme ranges, it relies on potentially vulnerable sensor systems
Secondary sensors are available, but offer a somewhat degraded picture
The bubble does not start at an absolute range (e.g. 400 km), but instead gradually increases in capability and lethality the closer one gets to Kaliningrad
Logistics and Kaliningrad as an enclave
Often overlooked in the discussion is the logistics of the A2/AD bubble and the vulnerability of Kaliningrad itself. The long range missiles of the S-400 and K-300P systems are large and bulky, with e.g. the 48N6E being 7,5 m long. The TEL firing units as well as transport units for reloads are all based on either 6×6 all-terrain trucks pulling semi-trailers or self-propelled 8×8 heavy all-terrain vehicles. The pure size means that the battery won’t have too many missiles with it in the field. Notable for Kaliningrad, if reinforcements are needed fast, only large transports are able to airlift the loaded vehicles, and only a limited number at a time.
Out in the field, the battery moves as a large convoy of bulky vehicles. The firing battery comprises an engagement radar and up to twelve TEL’s, each with four missiles. These are then backed up by the supporting vehicles, including missile transports (roughly similar to the TEL’s in outward appearance) and the reload vehicle with a heavy-duty crane. The firing batteries are then linked to a centralised command vehicle and a long-range acquisition radar. This means that any S-400 battery on the move will include ten to twenty oversized trucks. For the K-300P, the composition is roughly similar.
This mobility is one of the great benefits of the S-400 and K-300P systems. The whole battery can be moved around quickly, and deployed in a spread out fashion to hide from enemy units, see e.g. example of K-300P firing P-800 Yakhont from a concealed position . However, as soon as the radar starts emitting, the rough position of the battery can be found out. This means that for the the systems to heighten its chance of survival, the battery will frequently need to change positions. This in turn means that there needs to be several batteries moving around in a coordinated fashion, so that at any given time there will be a firing ready battery somewhere. For the anti-ship batteries the need to operate with the battery’s radar on is smaller, and by extension they can more easily stay hidden.
Kaliningrad is roughly 200 km long (east-west) and 100 km wide (north-south). This rather small area would have to host a number of S-400 batteries, one or two of which at any given time are shifting from one firing position to another. It is clear that during the movement phase the large trucks would be vulnerable to detection, and by extension suppression and destruction. The same would be true for the large resupply vehicles bringing new missiles from warehouses out to the firing units deployed in the field.
The logistics for the missile batteries is but a small piece of the larger logistical headache concerning the Kaliningrad enclave as a whole. As mentioned, it is wedged in between NATO countries, and while it can disrupt air and seaborne reinforcements into the Baltic countries, it is in fact even more tightly besieged itself.
If we for a moment turn the table, and start drawing range rings based upon NATO weapons systems, it soon becomes clear that current medium/long range systems such as the Patriot PAC-3 or the SAMP/T could seal of the airspace of Kaliningrad. Similarly, the narrow width in the north-south direction means that large areas of Kaliningrad are covered by current Polish and Lithuanian artillery systems deployed inside their own borders. This means that the suppression of enemy air defences mission (SEAD) could in part be undertaken by artillery units equipped with modern munitions instead of risking aircrafts and pilots as would usually be the case. If long-range surface-to-surface systems such as the US ATACMS missile system are used, the whole enclave can be covered by ground based systems.
The small size of the Kaliningrad is problematic with regards to keeping the location of the SAM batteries concealed when shifting position
The whole enclave would be under siege from the onset of hostilities, as the whole airspace can be covered by a small number of units operating current surface-to-air missiles
The size of the enclave means that NATO ground based systems would have a large impact, including performing missions usually reserved for airborne systems (such as SEAD)
The Suwałki gap
As a consequence, the importance of the Suwałki gap to both sides becomes clear. The gap, roughly the area coloured yellow in the map below, constitute the sole land route between the Baltic countries and the core of the NATO countries found in the European mainland. Similarly, the area marks the shortest distance from the Kaliningrad enclave to Belarusian territory, and as such is the most likely place for a Russian attempt to relieve the surrounded enclave.
The gap is often described as ‘vulnerable’ from a NATO point of view, mainly due to it being only 65 km wide at its narrowest point. This means that the entire width of the gap is within range of Russian artillery, and ground units could cover the distance in a matter of days (or less if unopposed).
However, this fails to account for a number of factors. While disrupting the movement of troops on the two main roads (Suwałki-Kaunas and Augustów-Alytus-Vilnius) and single railway that passes though the gap is possible not only with artillery as well as with e.g. special forces on foot, cutting it off completely and opening a corridor to Kaliningrad is another thing completely. The main transport arteries of the gap, as mentioned, traverse the region in the northeast-southwest direction, i.e. between Poland and Lithuania. There are a number of smaller roads going in the opposite direction, but in general it is easier to move troops and materiel between Poland and Lithuania than between Kaliningrad and Belarus. The main road going east from Kaliningrad goes north of the gap, and passes through the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius, before continuing on to Minsk. The terrain is also very varied, with especially the area bordering Belarus being heavily forested. As such, the terrain is well-suited for the kind of light infantry that makes up the majority of the Lithuanian army. Below is an example of the terrain found in this area, featuring the road from Belarus to Druskininkai, Lithuania.
Perhaps the most often overlooked factor is the Polish army. At the same time many NATO countries have shifted to lighter and smaller units, Poland has maintained a core of heavy units, lead by the formidable 11th “Lubuska” Armoured Cavalry Division . The unit is a full-fledged armoured division, featuring two armoured brigades equipped with Leopard 2A4 tanks, to be upgraded to the Leopard 2PL standard . Backed up by two mechanised divisions equipped with PT-91 Twardy, a locally modernised MBT based on the T-72, it could provide the core of a complete armoured corps, one of very few left in NATO.
The big difference between the Polish army and others large armoured units in NATO is that it is based close to the Baltic countries, and, crucially, that the political leadership in Poland and the Baltic states largely shares the same view of Russia and the need to counter an increasingly aggressive Kremlin. As has been noted in other scenarios, the key to countering a Russian aggression in the Baltic states would be to get qualified units on the ground as soon as possible, to boost deterrence and provide an answer to the heavily mechanised Russian ground units that otherwise would be hard to counter for the light infantry units that make up the core of the Baltic armies . Importantly, if a crises were to start to unfold, the Polish units might be the only ones where there would be both the political will and a short enough transfer time that they might pass through the Suwałki gap and take up position before the gap would be under serious threat. The distance from Suwałki to e.g. Tartu is just over 600 km by road, a far cry from the logistics involved in getting a US or British armoured division deployed to Estonia.
It is obviously not without problems to deploy these units to the Baltic states. To begin with, the eastern Polish border can hardly be left undefended. Also, there is a gauge break between the Polish and Lithuanian railway systems, meaning that, until Rail Baltica is ready, what would otherwise be the most efficient way of rapidly moving tracked vehicles from Poland to the Baltic states feature a severe bottleneck. Also, the 11th “Lubuska” division is deployed in the southwestern parts of Poland, more or less as far from Lithuania as possible. The 16th “Pomeranian” Mechanised Division is however deployed opposite Kaliningrad, and while its PT-91’s are inferior to the Leopard 2PL, they are superior to anything currently deployed in the Kaliningrad enclave.
The main logistical arteries of the Suwałki gap, constituting two major roads and a railway, all go in parallel from Poland to Lithuania, with only smaller roads in the gap connecting Kaliningrad and Belarus
While part of the Suwałki gap is open ‘tank country’, other parts are heavily forested and/or broken up by water. A mechanised force would be vulnerable to ambushes and being funneled into bottlenecks
The Polish army fields a considerable striking force in the form of heavy armoured and mechanised units, as well as what is likely a lower threshold to deploy these in the Baltic states in the face of a crises compared to NATO countries located further from Russia
All in all, the Kaliningrad enclave does constitute a strategic problem for NATO in times of crises, due to its location at the entrance to the Baltic states and with the long ranged systems based there interfering with any NATO operations in the southern Baltic Sea. However, it is not an absolute hinder to NATO operations in the area, and in a prolonged conflict it would effectively be under siege. Similarly, the Suwałki gap is not necessarily as vulnerable as it is sometimes portrayed. Also, while the draw down amongst the traditional major NATO countries have left gaps in the ability of NATO to rapidly project military power with heavy units, Poland still upholds a sizeable mechanised force within striking distance of the Baltic states, coupled with a more assertive political leadership compared to what is often seen in the traditional NATO countries.
However, while all this might seem to be good news for NATO in the face of increased Russian aggression and the reckless behavior displayed by the Kremlin in relation to several of their neighboring countries, I will argue that the opposite is in fact the case.
The ability of NATO to respond to a Russian aggression aimed at the Baltic states, as well as the possibility to move Polish units into the Baltic states at short notice, create a scenario where, in an unfolding crises, time would not be on Russia’s side. In fact, if Russia would conclude that a confrontation was inevitable, it would make sense to strike sooner rather than later. Through this, the capabilities of NATO and the relatively weak position of Kaliningrad might actually become catalysts for instead of deterring an open conflict.
While a regional conflict over part of the Baltic states would be bad enough, this is far from the worst scenario. St Petersburg is within 150 km from the Estonian border. If the Kremlin actually start believing their own narrative of an aggressive and expansionist NATO, even the possibility of NATO moving a mechanised division into Estonia might be the spark that ignites a larger confrontation. And a conflict in which Russia feels that its very heartland is threatened by NATO tanks is one from which it won’t back down. I am strongly of the opinion that appeasement is not the best way forward when it comes to Russian aggression. But if Putin makes a move towards the Baltic, NATO just might be out of good options.