In early April 2017, the Latvian Ministry of Defense’s (MoD) Parliamentary Secretary Andrejs Panteļējevs publicly announced the country was returning to the concept of total or “comprehensive” defense, which it had abandoned after joining the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Latvia will maintain the strategy of total defense over the long term, Panteļējevs declared, and he conclusively rejected the idea of returning to a system of conscription (LA.lv, April 4).
The Latvian defense ministry emphasizes the need to enhance direct public involvement in order to strengthen national security. But neither of its two most important proposals in this regard recommend a return to conscription, which, according to the MoD’s calculus, is not affordable for Latvia. First, the defense ministry recommends giving elementary and high school students a “mandatory choice” to sign up for basic lessons and training in state defense. Second, it calls for reforming the National Guard—Latvia’s all-volunteer force, which is fully integrated with the professional military.
In advocating “defense lessons” in the high schools, Defense Minister Raimonds Bergmanis has argued that the country’s national defense doctrine requires each Latvian resident to know what to do in case of a crisis. Latvia must move toward comprehensive national defense awareness, he declared. “We encourage a paradigm shift in thinking on national defense—[from] the idea that only a weapon in the hands of a Latvian soldier or Allied forces can protect the country, to [an understanding] that every patriot of this country can also make an invaluable contribution to the national defense,” the minister stressed (Jauns.lv, April 5).
The Latvian government also plans to introduce military summer camps for young people that will prepare them to later potentially join the reserves. Every year, 20,000 students graduate high school in Latvia. If only 10 percent of those graduates were to choose to undertake such military training, the Latvian Armed Forces could add some 2,000 reserve soldiers per year. Currently, the country’s reserves total around 3,000 soldiers (LA.lv, April 4).
To further strengthen Latvia’s territorial defense, the MoD wants to change the functions and tasks of the National Guard. According to the Ministry’s proposals, each National Guard battalion should henceforth cover a certain territorial area of responsibility. Moreover, battalion commanders should be better informed as to what resources are available in their area of command, and use such assets accordingly. For example, if a battalion commander is tasked with blocking a local highway, he or she must know where to procure logs or heavy machinery to accomplish such a mission goal. Finally, the head of the National Guard should be responsible for nationwide civil protection activities (LA.lv, April 4).
The concept of total defense also relies on a country’s efficient economic mobilization during war time and the involvement of domestic entrepreneurs in helping to achieve specific priorities related to national security. Currently, many Latvian entrepreneurs already support the National Guard and their employees who are members of this voluntary force. But the MoD is planning to encourage even broader buy-in from businesses by clarifying their responsibilities pertaining to “comprehensive defense.” This reflects core principles laid down in Latvia’s Mobilization Law, which provides that in a State of Exception (when mobilization is activated), private business resources are redirected toward the national defense (LA.lv, April 4).
Uģis Romanovs, a retired lieutenant colonel of the Latvian Armed forces and currently a lecturer at the Baltic Defense College (BDCOL), underlines why the concept of total defense has become increasingly important not only for Latvia, but all the Baltics: “For many years, Russia has been positioning units and infrastructure in the immediate vicinity of the Baltic States and in Kaliningrad, purposefully shaping favorable conditions for itself in case of a military confrontation. Favorable conditions for Russia, first of all, mean that Allied [NATO] forces would not be able to deploy before Russia can achieve its set goals. Therefore, in the initial phases of the operation, the Baltic States must be prepared to fight without or with limited support from Allied forces” (LA.lv, March 29).
According to Romanov, when facing conventional attack, the core mission of the defending ground forces is not just to protect the country’s territory, but ultimately to destroy the enemy’s equipment and invading force by using targeted attacks. Moreover, defense forces need to be able to create conditions conducive for allies to be able to deploy into the theater. To achieve these goals, Latvian units must be mobile, know how to properly utilize their equipment, successfully improvise on the fly, and be able to operate in an information vacuum.
The BDCOL lecturer also supports the government’s plans to review current deployment locations of units of the Latvian Armed Forces as well as the National Guard. “For example,” he noted, “it is unacceptable that along the Vidzeme coast, from Saulkrasti to Ainaži [Baltic Sea shore, north from Riga], there are no military units that would be able to carry out coastal defense tasks or secure ports that could potentially be used by Allies or to deliver non-military aid. The National Guard, can be more effectively utilized as […] an early warning network to cover the entire Latvian territory” (LA.lv, March 29).
Meanwhile, Estonia is discussing expanding its compulsory service and opening the door to women recruits. Mariita Mattiisen, a member of the Estonian Atlantic Treaty Association, explained that compulsory service has a strong symbolic value for Estonia, demonstrating the country’s willingness to protect itself. “Small countries like the Baltic States have little reason not to adopt compulsory service, because the sizes of our populations are smaller than some country’s professional armies. In countries such as ours, a reserve army is the most efficient way to ensure the national defense. Compulsory service is much cheaper because it does not compete with professional salaries,” Mattiisen said (News.lv, April 7).
The debate over conscription in Latvia is unlikely to disappear in the near future. This issue, in fact, constitutes the most notable difference among the Baltic States’ militaries: Estonia and Lithuania are maintaining and expanding the draft, while Latvia has chosen a different path. Specifically, Latvia aims to not rely only on professional soldiers and its NATO allies, but hopes to consolidate all of Latvian society under a comprehensive defense strategy.