A Year in Review: Baltics Steadily Grow Their Armies

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 7

(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The biggest success for all three Baltic countries—Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia—last year was the arrival of the multinational battalion groups to the region, thus implementing the decisions reached at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) 2016 summit in Warsaw (see EDM, February 23, 2017). Furthermore, as of 2018, each of the Baltic States will have finally reached NATO’s mandated minimum of defense spending equaling at least 2 percent of their GDP.

The year 2017 was particularly consequential for Latvia’s military reform agenda. Notably, the authorities adopted policies encouraging stronger public involvement in defense; and terms, including “total defense” and “territorial defense,” took on renewed prominence in Latvian thinking on national security (see EDM, May 2, 2017).

For Latvia, the 2017 defense budget amounted to 1.7 percent of GDP, which allowed for several important procurement and construction projects to be implemented. The largest funding was allocated to the development of the capabilities of the National Armed Forces, including a Mechanized Infantry Brigade of the Mechanized Land Forces, air-defense, military engineering, as well as strengthening the National Guard and Special Task Unit. At the same time, the defense ministry launched the development of indirect fire support capacity (Mod.gov.lv, accessed January 8, 2018). As part of the effort to modernize the army’s mechanized units, Latvia acquired Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked)—or CVR(T)—vehicles from the United Kingdom; and 73 of the 123 purchased armored vehicles have already been delivered. Also in 2017, a bilateral agreement was signed between the Latvian Ministry of Defense and the Austrian Ministry of Defense and Sports on the purchase of M109A5Ö self-propelled Howitzer systems, including the purchase of fire-control and training platforms (Mk.gov.lv, December 29, 2017).

Meanwhile, the New Battle Engineering Development Plan, adopted last year, envisages the development of various mobility and anti-mobility capabilities—that is, capabilities for improving the movement and protection of friendly forces as well as providing support to the civilian population while hindering the advancement of the adversary. Moreover, border-crossing procedures of the Allied forces in the Baltic States were simplified, solving a common issue in the process of international military training in Europe.

In 2017, preparations continued for creating increased readiness units within the National Guard Battalions. These units will excel at various specialty tasks, and work has already begun on developing advanced mine-laying, anti-tank, military engineering, air-defense and sniper capabilities. The first certification of the high-readiness units will take place during the Namejs 2018 military training exercise (La.lv, December 31, 2017).

In January 2017, neighboring Baltic State Lithuania approved a new “National Security Strategy.” Much like the Latvian State Defense concept of 2016, the Lithuanian document explicitly names Russia as a potential national security threat. In addition to efforts to modernize its infrastructure for the rapid and efficient deployment of Allied forces in the country, the 2017 National Security Strategy lists Lithuania’s other priority as increasing its self-defense and mobilization capabilities. Lithuania also plans to conduct more regular exercises each year (Pism.pl, May 9, 2017).

Lithuanian Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis has noted that he hopes NATO countries will reach an agreement in 2018 on a comprehensive air-defense concept for the Baltic region, thus fixing the “weakest link” in Lithuanian defenses. According to the Lithuanian minister, the problem is political, as the technical details have mostly already been worked out. He, therefore, would like to see air defense be included in NATO’s existing plans for a forward presence in the Baltic countries (Delfi, November 22, 2017).

The northernmost and geographically most exposed Baltic State, Estonia, also pursued important steps to boost its defense posture last year. Notable, Minister of Defense Jüri Luik signed a bill in late 2017 that will open the door to allowing more women to serve than ever before. Up to 108 women will be able to enter conscript service this year (ERR, September 29, 2017). In addition, more attention will be paid to boosting the defensive will of Estonia’s young people by launching a patriotic education program (Leta.lv, December 28, 2017). Indeed, Latvia will similarly be reaching out to school-age youth by creating a voluntary military training program for young people.

According to Martin Herem, the chief of staff of the Estonian Defense Forces, in the event of a possible war, his country is presently ready to mobilize at least 21,000 men by providing them with weapons and ammunition. With such a resistance force under arms, “I am convinced that Estonia would not be occupied in a few days,” he stressed. “Perhaps the opponent would occupy some territory, but it would definitely not be able to occupy the whole country” (ERR, January 3).

Additionally, the Estonian Defense Forces recently received another batch of missiles for the Javelin anti-tank system, procured thanks to funding assistance allocated by the United States to support European security measures. The newer Javelin Block-1 type missiles, which arrived at the beginning of last December, are faster and more powerful than their predecessors, the Block-0 type missiles previously purchased by Estonia (ERR, December 12, 2017).

Also at the end of last year, Tallinn approved the implementation of the “National Defense Development Plan 2017–2026” for the years 2018–2021. It calls for the enhancement of armored maneuver capability, creation of a cyber command, the introduction of a new primary rifle and the construction of new military training areas (ERR, December 28, 2017).

During the next four years, Estonia’s independent defense capability will increase significantly, allowing the country to be able to react immediately if necessary. According to Minister of Defense Margus Tsahkna, “€40 million [$49 million] of the 2017 budget has been set aside for the purchase of ammunition, and from 2018–2021 we will invest an additional €166.5 million [$203.8 million] in ammunition in order to increase the combat capability of the defense forces” (ERR, February 23, 2017).

For the next several years Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia will continue to regard the United States as the main guarantor of security in the Baltic region. That said, going forward, the Baltic States can be expected to seek ever closer cooperation with their European partners, namely Germany, the UK, and the Nordic countries (Pism.pl, May 9, 2017). Illustratively, at the end of 2017, all three Baltic States joined the European Union’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) framework for security and defense. PESCO is a voluntary agreement between 25 EU Member States to strengthen cooperation within European security and defense matters. The PESCO Member States undertake all necessary efforts to make adequate financial investments in defense, including via equipment purchases, the coordination of defense planning, and improving the availability of forces dealing with crises response operations outside the EU bloc (Mod.gov.lv, Accessed January 8).

The coming year promises to be marked by further growth and development of the Baltic States’ defense sectors. And this will undoubtedly put increased pressure on local policymakers to maintain successful budget spending and accountability to both their own societies as well as their Allies. Preserving trust on all sides will be needed to guarantee the continued and systematic strengthening of the Balts’ defenses.