The 2 apex predators designed to help NATO stop Russia – and China should take note, too

The 2 apex predators designed to help NATO stop Russia – and China should take note, too

NATO leaders in Washington this week are pledging support for Ukraine, but they are also deeply worried about their own long-term security. 

If Putin ever attacks a NATO country, he’s going to send tanks. And pop a missile barrage over Europe’s cities, just as he did to five cities in Ukraine on Monday. 

Fortunately, NATO has two apex predators to deter Russia: the M1 Abrams tank, and the Patriot air and missile defense system. 

Both U.S.-made systems saw combat as far back as the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Now, their modernized variants are the glue for NATO’s new expanded defense concepts. And as Taiwan knows, the Abrams tanks and Patriots are vital for deterring China, too.

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NATO was in quite a predicament, until recently. Despite Vladimir Putin’s ranting, NATO actually is a defensive alliance. Yet NATO had no detailed war plans for dealing with Russia. The Cold War general defense plans lapsed in the 1990s and after Sept. 11, 2001, the alliance focused on out-of-area operations and countering terrorism. 

But as NATO leaders mark the 75th anniversary of the alliance, the military situation is both more serious and much improved. 

For the first time since the 1980s, Gen. Christopher G. Cavoli, U.S. Army, supreme allied commander, says he has a full set of war plans ready to go, down to the level of which forces hold specific territory. Cavoli also put over 90,000 multinational forces through rigorous exercises this spring. 

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In the recent exercise Dragon 24, nine NATO allies with tanks made a 300 km advance and practiced wet gap crossings at the Vistula River. “We hadn’t done the armored vehicle exercise since 1996,” a French Army captain commented.

Tanks are vital because NATO’s vast new war plans depend on blasting Russian invaders at critical junctions to prevent any quick Russian takeover of eastern border allies like the Baltic republics or breakouts at the Suwalki gap.

No problem for the Abrams tank. Notice the four weapon systems, including the 120 mm main gun, a coaxial machine gun aligned with it, a Browning .50 caliber machine gun, and another machine gun on the side. 

What’s not so easy to see are the improved electronics, thermal gun sights, reactive armor and countermeasures that equip the Abrams for a lethal environment. According to one member of the Army’s 11th Cavalry Blackhorse Regiment, “the suspension makes it ride like a Cadillac.  You’re cruising along and you have no clue you are hitting bumps or anything.” 

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The U.S. Army operates over 4,400 Abrams tanks, and they have been rotating the newest to the garrison in Poland. In May, units from the 1st Cavalry Division took over from the 3rd Infantry Division leading the NATO Task force operating across Poland and the Baltic States. Poland is also home to an Abrams tank academy and a repair center. 

Poland just took delivery of the last of 126 refurbished M1A1s from retired Marine Corps stocks and has another 250 Abrams tanks on order for its own forces. Romania, a key NATO ally and bulwark against Russian mischief in Moldova, is also acquiring Abrams tanks. 

NATO’s response plans will deploy U.S. and allied Abrams tanks to stop Russian armor. Despite losing 2,000 tanks in Ukraine, Russia is still on track to field the largest military force in Europe, and restock from the ammunition lockers of allies China, Iran and North Korea. Any future Russian army will be battle-hardened. 

The U.S. Army is paying close attention to lessons from Ukraine, where a batch of 31 Abrams tanks have been shuttling to hot spots on the front lines. The Army plans upgrades to “allow the tank to continue to close with and destroy the enemy as the apex predator on future battlefields,” Brig. Gen. Geoffrey Norman, Army director for next-generation combat vehicles, said last September. 

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As for missile defenses, the Patriot is undoubtedly the apex predator of its realm. On Monday, Russia launched 40 missiles of different types at five cities in Ukraine, killing at least 31 and wounding 150. Ukraine’s air defense system, led by the Patriot, shot down 30 missiles in the barrage.

Patriot stands for Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept on Target. Upgraded continually, the Patriot system can track dozens of targets at once. Launchers carry four PAC-2 missiles with proximity fuse warheads, or a whopping 16 PAC-3 missiles that hit to kill. 

The PAC-3 literally rams into the enemy missile warhead and the kinetic force of the two streaking missiles smashes it. Very useful for minimizing debris, especially if in future an enemy missile carries nuclear or chemical weapons.

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Because of its range and superior tracking abilities, the Patriot system has been a great boon to Ukraine and links in well with other air defenses. Kyiv reported that Patriots have shot down nearly all the Russian Khinzal hypersonic missiles in recent months, a success rate attributable in part to sophisticated new software. 

The sky shield is a big part of what makes it tolerable – and possible – to keep fighting Russia. NATO allies rely on Patriots to defend capitals against the shock of Russian drones and missiles, and to deny Putin the ability to shut down key ports like Rotterdam, logistics hubs or other infrastructure, including power plants. 

Of course, the Abrams tanks and Patriot air defenses work within the NATO combined arms, and all the logistic support and command and control that goes with them. Still, these apex predators are key to deterrence. 

That goes for the Pacific, too. Taiwan will receive the first of 108 new Abrams tanks later this year. Tanks can range and deny Chinese landing sites, on the beaches or at airstrips. As with European capitals, the Patriot is at the center of Taiwan’s air defenses. 

Taiwan frequently exercises the Patriot air defenses, ready for the day when China’s mass combat jet intrusions go too far. So pay attention, Xi Jinping. 

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