WARSAW NATO needs to build up a sophisticated air deterrent that can counter Russian long-range missiles, a senior NATO commander said on Friday, urging allies to think beyond a multinational land force agreed at the alliance's summit on Friday.
NATO's response to Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimea has so far been cautious to avoid escalating tensions, creating a small rotating force for the Baltics and Poland to be backed up by rapid response forces with warehoused equipment at the first signs of trouble.
General Denis Mercier, whose brief is to focus on future threats, said that was just a starting point if NATO wanted to have a credible deterrent in the air and at sea, especially against Russian networked air defence systems.
"We need to be able to face any kind of challenge. We need high-end, war-fighting capabilities to face anti-access area denial systems," Mercier told Reuters at the NATO summit, using a term to refer to Russia's defensive zones.
The U.S.-led alliance is seeking a response to Russia's surface-to-air missile batteries and anti-ship missiles that can prevent forces from entering or moving across large areas.
When fully activated, the defence bubble based in Russia's Baltic enclave Kaliningrad could cover most of the air space over the three Baltic states and northern Poland, according to NATO officials.
"When I look at the strength of anti-access area denial systems, they have multi-sensors, multi-shooters. We need to do the same," Mercier said.
He added that NATO would soon have high-tech warplanes such as F-35 jets, which can avoid sensor detection, and other state-of-the art kit.
He stressed it was crucial to have all planes, ships, troops and other military assets connected to one another to be able to have a strong deterrent against adversaries.
"In the old thinking, if you have a radar, you say: we need to jam it. But that is just one sensor. We need to combine all our systems to penetrate, neutralise and destroy this kind of system," Mercier said.
Sources close to the Russian military have told Reuters that Moscow is likely to deploy advanced nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad by 2019, casting the move as a reply to a U.S.-backed missile defence shield in Europe.
In a sign of the high stakes, Washington's envoy to NATO, Douglas Lute, warned last month that if Russia were to activate its long-range, networked air defences in Kaliningrad, that could be an act of war.
"Activation of such systems could well constitute an attack ... and therefore trigger a broader alliance reaction," Lute told reporters in June.
(Reporting by Robin Emmott; editing by Andrew Roche)
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