Baltic Military Co-operation – One of the Most Essential Factors for Boosting Military Security of the Region

The destinies of three Baltic States – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have always been shaped by the policy of the great powers. Recent developments in the strategic environment can serve as justification to this statement. But this time it is different. Moscow’s endeavours for its policy goals have given a great chance for the Baltic States to benefit by boosting their defence capabilities and redirect the dialogue and cooperation with allies and partners into a more desirable direction. Moreover, it could be stated that for the first time in history, the Baltic states have a chance to benefit from the Russian military activities as these do not allow for decision makers, other NATO members and partners to write off so easily the threats modern Russia is posing to Europe. Russia has brought most of the alliance members and states of the Baltic Sea Region to the same page of the story.

The purpose of this article is to review the recent developments in the field of military security of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The article will address such subjects as the three Baltic States’ military capability development and recent developments in their military co-operation.

Defence budget – tool, hope or goal?

Recently the most discussed matter is related with the requirement to increase the national defence budget by 2% of GDP. There are various aspects how defence spending influences military security. The most obvious of course is the fact that money enables procurement of equipment, pay salaries and exercise the forces. Secondly, the size of the defence budget can be used to measure to which side of ‘two-tiered alliance’ the Baltic states belong: to ‘those willing and able to pay the price and bear the burdens of alliance commitments’ or to ‘those who enjoy the benefits of NATO membership, … but don’t want to share the risks and the costs’ [1]. In other words, defence spending is the reference point for the discussion about how much effort and resources other allies have to spend insuring the military security of the Baltic States. Thirdly, upholding to the commitments theoretically contributes to the NATO credibility – potential strategic Centre of Gravity of the Alliance.

While Estonia has been promoted as an example in upholding its commitments regarding defence spending, Latvia and Lithuania are still at the very end of the list. The figures for the two last are not very flattering: Latvia is spending 0.9% and Lithuania 0.8% of GDP for the national defence purposes [1]. The ambition of Latvia and Lithuania is to reach 2% of GDP on defence by 2020. At the same time Lithuanian politicians are optimistic and there are debates on reaching 2% of GDP already by the year 2017 [3]. Already in 2014 the defence budget in Lithuania received an additional € 37 million. The Latvian defence budget will increase by € 37.9 million or 0.1% from GDP in 2015 thus reaching 1% of GDP.

This financial gap among Estonia and other two Baltic States if not addressed properly implies potential risks to the future of the regional defence cooperation, and consequently to the military security of the whole Baltic region.

What is the true price of missed opportunities?

With defence budgets increasing all three states have initiated a number of new procurement projects. All three are concentrating on the improvement of fire, manoeuvre and force protection capabilities in their armed forces. Estonia has launched the largest military procurement project since the restoration of its independence by acquiring 44 CV90 infantry fighting vehicles from the Netherlands. The vehicles will be delivered in 2016-2018. Besides that, ‘since 2004, Estonia has acquired over 1,100 lightly used and well-maintained trucks and jeeps, some 500 trailers and staff containers and 81 SISU XA-188 armoured personnel carriers’ [4]. At the same time the Latvian Ministry of Defence is buying ‘123 used CVR(T)s or Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) armoured vehicles for € 48.1 million from the UK, with the first vehicles due to be delivered in 2016’ [5]. Moreover it is planned to continue improving the mobility of the infantry units by purchasing new armoured vehicles in the near future. The Lithuanian Ministry of Defence aims to sign an agreement with a potential producer of new Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFV) by October 2015. It is envisioned that the vehicles for the first company will be delivered in 2017. The IFVs will replace the M113 armoured personnel carriers. [6].

Another commonality of the three states is related to the procurement of anti-tank weapons systems. According to BNS the US Department of State approved the deal to sell a Javelin anti-tank missile system to Estonia for US$ 55 million (around € 43.3 million). Estonia plans to buy 80 Javelin firing devices. Defence Ministry of Lithuania will spend almost USD 20 million on the Javelin anti-tank missile systems. The first shipment is set to arrive to Lithuania as early as 2015, and the remaining will arrive by 2017. [7] Latvia has chosen to equip its troops with the anti-tank weapon system ‘Spike’, which is more advanced compared to Javelin. [8]

With the same operational environment and potential opponent, it could be assumed that the Baltic states’ main consideration for procuring different equipment of the same type is driven by trying to find the best deal with the money available. However, if the economy was the deciding factor, joint procurement would seem to offer the most benefit, as besides better prices it would allow establishment of common maintenance facilitates, logistic and training systems for the three countries. Therefore it could be concluded that the decisions of the three capitals are driven by political considerations or shaped by bureaucracy. And if that is the case, acquired equipment may represent low operational value and imply high running costs.

There are some very good examples of joint procurement involving Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. For example, in 2013 the three Countries and the European Defence Agency signed € 50 million contract regarding the procurement of the Carl Gustav ammunition. As former Minister of Defence of Latvia Artis Pabriks put it, ‘Joint procurement was one of the key matters on the agenda of the Baltic defence ministers last year, and we have actually accomplished it.’ [9] On the other hand it is an achievement only in the case if the three states could establish the system enabling continuous repetition of similar procurements. The recent developments in the field advocate the opposite. For example, the Lithuanian Ministry of Defence has decided to procure ammunition reserves worth almost € 15 million. Procurement includes ammunition for G36 rifles, 120mm mortars and Carl-Gustaf anti-tank recoilless rifles. [10]

Another area the Baltic states are going to invest significant resources in the nearest future is the development of the air defence capabilities. Due to the small distances and lack of strategic warning in the case of attack, the air defence systems of all three Baltic states have to be tied together into single network thus enabling co-operative engagement of the penetrating forces. As procurement of air defence systems is extremely expensive, all three countries will have to concentrate on the acquisition of the systems enabling the protection of potential high value targets. Therefore the establishment of a single and effective air defence network for the region can be achieved only through close and purposeful cooperation among all three countries. It is reassuring to see that during the last ministerial meeting in May 2014 all three ministers have agreed that air defence is one of the critical capabilities the region is missing. It has been ‘agreed to stride for enhancement of the Baltic Regional Training Event into a large-scale Allied Air Defence Exercise’. [11, p. 1]

There is one more matter which stands out in Ministerial Communique, which at certain extent advocates potential improvements in the field of military co-operation: the decision to establish a Baltic Combined Joint Staff Element. In the Ministerial Communique, ministers ‘welcomed the progress achieved in setting up the Baltic Combined Staff Element and readiness to activate this new Baltic Cooperation body’. [11, p. 2] But there is one worrying factor: three ministers agreed on the establishment of the Baltic Combined Joint Staff Element already two years ago. According to Communique:

The Ministers agreed to set up a new Baltic States’ Defence Staff element to be comprised of officers from the three countries that would be responsible for permanent work on Baltic defence cooperation and coordination of land force capability development. This new structure would also coordinate the national policies and pursue common military exercises. Latvia has volunteered to be the leading nation to further develop this project. [12]

There are at least three obvious examples how the establishment of such a staff component would contribute to the overall military security of the region. Firstly, allies and partners view Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania as a single operational space. Therefore NATO and individual allies would prefer to have a single point for coordination in the Baltic Region, particularly when it comes to the maters related with Host Nation Support and Command and Control of operations. That would allow saving resources and most importantly – time. Secondly, the establishment of a functional staff component would contribute to NATO deterrence and strategic communication activities by demonstrating readiness of three countries to set best possible conditions for integration of allied support. Thirdly, this organisation would become a catalyst for commencing operational level cooperation between the Baltic states.

Baltic Battalion reborn

Another interesting development is related to the (re)establishment of Baltic Battalion (BALFOR). This could be seen as the Baltic Battalion reborn as it is the third time when all three countries have joined their land force units into a battalion-size structure. The details of a planned combined battalion of Estonian, Latvia and Lithuanian forces were released in November 2013. The battalion is composed of around 1,000 troops and will contribute to the NATO Response Force (NRF) in 2016. The unit has began preparations in 2014, while training will culminate in 2015 as the unit takes part in the US-led Sabre Strike exercise and the NATO High Visibility Exercise Trident Juncture in Spain and Portugal. [12] The first time the Baltic Peacekeeping Battalion was founded was in 1994, thus allowing the development of military capabilities and contributing to peacekeeping operations. The Baltic Peacekeeping Battalion has been the model and ‘general operating template’ for other Baltic cooperation projects. The unit was deactivated in 2003. [14, pp. 246-251] The second time when BALTBAT was activated was in 2009 with the aim to contribute to NRF 2014. Unfortunately this time the trilateral unit lost one of the contributors as the Latvians, due austerity measures,

Tomas Jermalavičius has summarised the benefits the Baltic Battalion had to offer to the military organisations of three countries more than 10 years ago. These have not changed much. Firstly, he is stating that unit set conditions to improve standards, procedures and concepts. Moreover, as NATO is adapting its concepts to high intensity operations, participation in the Exercise Trident Juncture allows getting involved into the hub of NATO transformation. The second benefit is the ‘development of the tangible military capabilities’ particularly through the integration of the combat service and support systems of three countries. Finally, and probably the most important gain is the development of the ‘interoperability of minds’ of the future leaders of three armies. This will set preconditions for future Baltic Military Cooperation. [14, p. 133]


The existence of purposeful Baltic military co-operation at all levels is one of the most critical factors of military security in the region. It allows for the savings of resources; better integration of supporting allies and partners; and to a certain extent compensates for operational factors of limited time and space, as well as contributing to NATO deterrence and strategic communication efforts. Recently there have been very good examples of Baltic cooperation at the strategic level, for example, joint procurement of antitank ammunition or efforts to conduct NATO high visibility air defence exercise in the region; and at the tactical level, as establishment of BALFOR (Baltic Battalion). On the other hand, it is noticeable that there many areas for improvement. Two stand out particularly. To begin with, the Baltic states should reassess the role of joint procurement projects as in many cases the second level effects have greater importance to military security than cost benefits. Secondly, increasing operational level co-operation might boost the factor of military reality into decision making at the strategic level. The last emphasises the importance of one of the most successful Baltic cooperation projects so far – the Baltic Defence College, the educational ‘forge’ for operational- and strategiclevel officers in the region. And finally, Latvian and Lithuanian policymakers should uphold their commitments related to the increase of their defence budgets to 2% of GDP by 2020. Otherwise, there is a risk of creating of a ‘two-tiered’ NATO, with the potential to put the credibility and cohesion of NATO at stake. And this is something that we cannot afford.



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Published 17 December 2014

Author Uģis Romanovs