Accelerated Growth: Developments in Baltic Defence
Russia’s war in Ukraine has prompted Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to accelerate the building of their armed forces.
Since regaining their independence in the early 1990s, the three Baltic states have put a high priority on constructing modern, effective armed forces. Most of the European states freed at the end of the Cold War were able to build their defences on the back of Warsaw Pact armies, navies, and air forces. Their donation of surplus Warsaw Pact equipment, including armoured vehicles, main battle tanks, and fighter jets, has been an important aspect of Western military assistance to Ukraine. But the Baltic states needed to build their armed forces from scratch. Russian forces retreating from their territories stripped even the copper wiring from barracks and left only personnel whose military training and experience were a poor fit for the NATO-standard armed forces the Baltic states were determined to develop.
The fact that a little over ten years later the three Baltic states were welcomed into NATO is a testament to the vision and determination of the political and defence leadership of this period, and to the wise use of armed forces as instruments of national power. The armed forces of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania broadly serve two purposes. First, of course, is the conduct of defence, either with allies or alone. For this, the three states have always focused their defence planning on Russia, the only state in the region that could conceivably pose an existential threat to peace and security. All three states include in their national defence strategies concepts of initial self-defence: the idea that their armed forces should be strong enough to defend against (and thus deter) an attack, at least until reinforcements arrive.
Even so, the Baltic states are small, and their defence capacity is unavoidably limited. Their deterrence posture is thus heavily dependent on the credibility of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty and on the understanding that NATO allies will come to their aid if attacked.
Second, the Baltic armed forces are a means of influencing these allies. Participating in NATO and coalition peace support operations in the 1990s and 2000s, for example, was important in persuading them that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania themselves deserved to be member states. Since 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and intervened in eastern Ukraine, and especially since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Baltic states have stepped up their own efforts to build strong defences. They have also sought to influence allies to do the same, leading by example in building the military posture necessary to deter and, if needed, defend against an attack from an aggressive neighbour. To one degree or another, in each Baltic state this has entailed increases in defence spending, adjustments to defence policy and structures, and investment in capabilities.
In 2014, NATO members agreed that within ten years they would all spend at least 2% of their GDP on defence. According to NATO’s latest estimates, only nine of the 31 allies have so far achieved this goal (NATO does not yet include figures for Finland, but Finland’s own data suggests that it too falls slightly short). The Baltic states are all amongst the nine. While Estonia managed to sustain high levels of defence spending throughout the 2007-8 global financial crisis and beyond, Latvia and Lithuania have substantially increased their spending since around 2014 to reach the target.
All three countries also expect to increase defence expenditure further, with political opinions converging on 3% of GDP as a more appropriate target for today’s security environment. Defence spending is likely to be a key topic at NATO’s Vilnius Summit in July, with the three Baltic states and others looking for ways to encourage all allies to also raise defence spending.
A key driver of increased defence spending has been the shift to a policy of forward defence which the three Baltic states and other allies on NATO’s eastern flank have promoted. NATO’s response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and aggression in Donbas included the deployment of battalion-sized multinational battlegroups to the Baltic states and Poland – the enhanced Forward Presence. These forces brought additional military capability to the Baltic region. More importantly, they made more credible the expectation that NATO allies would reinforce the region in times of crisis – they would be the tripwire for a collective NATO response. But the recklessness and cruelty of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has led the Baltic states and others to argue that the risks of this approach are too great. It is simply unacceptable that populations living under NATO’s umbrella should suffer the brutality of a Russian occupation while allies navigate the tricky business of large-scale military reinforcement. Instead, NATO’s deterrence and defence posture on the eastern flank should be strong enough to prevent a Russian attack in the first place.
A move to forward defence would thus essentially require more military capability in the Baltic region. Baltic aspirations include allied deployments of enablers (such as air defence assets and long-range fires), forward-deployed allied brigades built upon the existing enhanced Forward Presence battalions, and the prepositioning of stocks and ammunition. Although allies agreed to this approach at their summit in Madrid in July 2022, its practical implementation is still something of a work in progress. For example, the balance between forces forward deployed in theatre and forces remaining at home but specifically allocated to Baltic wartime tasks is the subject of some (sometimes heated) discussion.
Other questions include how often and at what level additional forces and enabler units should be surged to the region, and what kind of exercises are necessary to ensure the credibility of a deterrence posture that still relies on some reinforcement, at least for higher-end contingencies. As NATO continues to rebuild collective defence, it must find a balance between the desires of allies to the east of its area of responsibility to see as much capability in their region as possible and the reluctance of the major force providers to tie up substantial proportions of their (much-reduced) armed forces in static tasks. The problem is exacerbated by the demands of NATO’s new force model, also adopted as part of the response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which will require the number of high readiness forces to rise from around 40 000 to well over 300 000. The Vilnius Summit will doubtless be a venue for further review and debate on these issues.
Despite asking allies to do more, however, the Baltic states do not wish to be free riders in this next chapter of NATO adaptation. For their part, they have committed to ensuring appropriate levels of host nation support for deployed forces (for example, enlarged training areas to provide training opportunities for higher-level military formations) and to further enhancement of their own armed forces.
This includes the acquisition of new and more capability to fill long-recognised capability shortfalls, informed by lessons identified during Russia’s war in Ukraine. With the support of US foreign military assistance, the three states are acquiring a total of 20 High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems—HIMARS—that will bring long-range fires to the Baltic armies for the first time. Latvia and Estonia have agreed to jointly procure medium-range ground-based air defence systems which, together with Lithuania’s two batteries of the Norwegian Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (also a medium-range ground-based air defence system) will augment a capability that has proved essential for Ukraine in countering Russia’s aggression.
Among other developments, Estonia has purchased additional self-propelled howitzers from Korea and plans to acquire loitering munitions. Latvia is investing in strengthening its logistics capability, improving its capacity for electronic warfare, and procuring coastal defence missiles. Lithuania, meanwhile, is equipping two infantry battalions with a bespoke configuration of the Boxer infantry fighting vehicle and acquiring new light tactical vehicles, self-propelled howitzers, and a small number of Black Hawk utility helicopters. Developments like these would likely have followed at some point in the step-by-step process of building the Baltic armed forces, but Russia’s war in Ukraine has certainly accelerated defence capability building.
Structures and Personnel
As an organising framework for these and future developments, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have proposed that NATO should have three combat-ready divisions for collective defence operations in the Baltic region – one for each state. These would include both local and assigned allied manoeuvre units, and the essential enablers and command arrangements that a formation of this size entails. Estonia has moved forward fastest: with UK and US support, it stood up a divisional headquarters in late 2022 that will command the Estonian 1st and 2nd brigades, several other specialist Estonian units and, in times of crisis, a designated UK brigade.
More to Do
Another important personnel development has been the re-introduction of conscription by Lithuania in 2015 and Latvia in 2023 (Latvia had abolished conscription in 2007, Lithuania had suspended it in 2008, while Estonia had preserved it throughout). The reasons are varied, including signalling to allies and adversaries, and forging closer connections between the military and society. But perhaps most significantly, conscription will contribute to the fuller manning of active and reserve units. Together with various initiatives to increase the size of the regular and volunteer reserves, conscription will allow all three states to field larger force structures in times of crisis.
These developments are mostly focused on the land domain. In building armed forces over the past thirty years, the three Baltic states have prioritised investment in their armies, over their navies and air forces. Maritime and air capability is expensive, and the Baltic states will not be able to provide the full capabilities needed here on their own. Nonetheless, there are important shortfalls in these domains that create vulnerabilities in defence. Finland’s accession, and Sweden’s expected accession, to NATO will provide better opportunities for maritime and air cooperation across the Baltic region, allowing Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, more openings to take part. While combat air forces are almost certainly beyond their financial reach, navies that can perform a wider range of the tasks that are essential to the security of a littoral state need not be.
A key determinant will be the readiness of the Baltic states to work together when it comes to replacing their aging fleets of mine countermeasures vessels, all due for retirement at the end of this decade. More broadly, practical defence cooperation between the three states needs to be strengthened. While they have been successful in their joint pursuit of shared policy positions in NATO and elsewhere, almost all their defence procurement projects have been carried out nationally, including major projects to acquire broadly similar artillery platforms, infantry fighting vehicles, and air-surveillance radars. Cooperation not only enhances interoperability and encourages efficiencies in acquisition and lifelong management processes, it also signals to allies a seriousness about developing the best possible defence posture, despite resource constraints. It makes both practical and political sense.
For further details, see ICDS’s March 2023 analysis, “Baltic Defence Development: Adding Value to the Defence of the Baltic Sea Region”, by Martin Hurt, Mārtiņš Vargulis, Liudas Zdanavičius, and Tomas Jermalavičius.