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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Baltic States and capability of their Armed Forces

Thomas Borgsmidt (ths), DefenceTalk.com | Jan 10, 2007

The three small Baltic nations ( Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) are since the spring 2004 full members of NATO and this paper aims to evaluate how they are coping.

A background into their history in the last century

As the result of the Russian revolution and WW 1 these three small countries gained independence and lives an uneasy life up the break out of WW 2, where they were occupied by the Soviet Union. With the attack on the Soviet Union by Nazi-Germany they were occupied/liberated by Germany. The Soviet operations leading to the defeat of Nazi-Germany generally bypassed to be dealt with later.

This proved to be a long process as the terrain and a number of combat experienced veterans of German service (with no other prospect than the firing squad) kept on fighting. Any attempt to help this resistance failed abysmally. In spite of the hopelessness of the situation it was not before the mid 1950’ies the last elements of resistance was crushed.

For about 50 years they were part of the Soviet Union; but grabbed the opportunity for independence once again. The determined popular support kept the confused and defeated Soviet Union from crushing this non-violent uprising.

These nations applied quickly for NATO-membership in a realisation – brought home by history – that the only long term chance of survival was as a part of an international alliance.

The defence in the early days of the 1990’ies was a territorial defence consisting of regions using light forces with a company sized reserve in each region.

Nothing that could avert a reasonably determined onslaught from Russia; but it could buy time and cost an aggressor dearly – at a high cost to these countries themselves.

The factors that really made these countries (and they are three very different countries) survive was:

1. A firm diplomatic pressure from USA and the other NATO countries, indicating to Russia that if she entertained any “fast” ideas, she better forget about them right away.
2. A massive effort from all the countries in the neighbourhood – especially the NATO members – preparing NATO membership.
3. Participation in international peace-keeping operations at every opportunity.
4. Curbing the resentment towards the Russian minority in Estonia and Latvia.

The NATO membership has changed the disposition of the armed forces of these three countries.

1. The territorial defence has changed in as much as the local army units have been disbanded and integrated into a motorised infantry brigade in each country.
This is not necessarily just a poor mans solution, as the terrain gives light forces an advantage. That being wooded areas and swampland in which armoured formations will have great difficulties.
At one time inspiration was sought in old Swedish field manuals predating armoured warfare.
2. The territorial defence is left to Home Guard type units of volunteers. Such formations have the advantage of a very high state of readiness buying time for the motorised formations to mobilise. Home Guard units are widely dispersed and although each unit is easy enough to defeat, it is a time consuming and costly process.

Air Force:
1. The emphasis is on warning and control through the participation in BALTNET.
2. While it is a deliberate choice not to build up jet fighter forces, it is as deliberate a choice to concentrate on transports and helicopter SAR – both can be used to provide mobility to light forces and keep them supplied.

1. The navies concentrate on mine warfare – especially minesweeping, as 2 – 3 world wars (depending on how you count) has left the waters infested with some say 60.000 mines unaccounted for.
2. Coastal patrolling. This entails that some frigates leave the inventory.

Over All
1. The defence is integrated in NATO to an extend that it is next to worthless without an alliance.
2. There is great emphasis on ability to receive reinforcements and provide host nation facilities.
3. A large commitment to international operations relative to the countries size – and they are not applying for the soft billets.

The strategy seems eminently sensible in so far as leaving valuable materiel under the very nose of an aggressor is inviting a crushing blow. These countries have NO strategic depth in themselves; but by being part of an alliance, they will provide strategic depth to the alliance. Militarily speaking this is one of the more striking features of the post cold war NATO: The alliance has gained strategic depth, thus the ability to buy time with territory – in striking contrast to the cold war period, where the decisive point was if Antwerp could be taken by the Warsaw Pact within 72 hours.

Furthermore the disarmament after the cold war left the old NATO members with an abundance of heavy forces and fighter aircraft, which means that it is more cost-effective to let the old NATO members take turns providing fighters for air defence over the Baltic countries. It makes very much economic sense to maintain not only the fighters; but also the infrastructure of an existing force, instead of building 3 air forces that will never be anything but a token.

It is infinitely cheaper to maintain a force instead of disbanding units and at the same time build more or less the same strength in three new services – with all the agony that entails.

The flip side of the coin is that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania is building some of light forces NATO needs very much in the post cold war period. NATO was left with an abundance of armoured and mechanised formations and a scarcity of light forces.

This is an important point, as light forces are – contrary to popular myth – not cheaper to operate than heavy forces, quite the contrary in high wage areas. This is partly due to the fact that armoured formations have fewer feet on the ground. In an industrialised western nation materiel is cheap and personnel expensive. Another reason is that many light forces go to work in helicopters and drop out of transport planes – expensive transportation.

The value of the Baltic nations has to be based on the fighting effectiveness, operational advantages and economic savings to the alliance as a whole.

The low defence budgets of these countries are misleading:

1. They are using much materiel that is surplus to requirements in other allied nation. Examples include towed howitzers that are far better in wooded areas than self propelled canons, as they are easier to move an manoeuvre on narrow paths and their high trajectory is not to the same extend swallowed by forest. Patrol vessels that are useless in the Atlantic will perform much better in the waters they were designed for.

2. The Baltic countries are – at the moment – low wage areas, this means that it makes economic sense to “outsource” manpower intensive unit to such areas. To get an idea (not estimate) of the value you could compare with the cost of 82nd and 101st divisions. Forming similar units would be the alternative to the Baltic countries contribution.

3. The Baltic membership means that Russia – if she ever returns to her expansive ambitions – will be in a vastly more difficult position than ever before.

As the Baltic nations are part of the integrated NATO strategy, an attack on these nations will not only be a political issue; but a also a military challenge to the other nations, as the participation of these countries forms the strategy and composition of the old member nations.

In the past some has expressed mild condensation towards these “midget” states. This is totally uncalled for; they are more than pulling their weight. They contribute at least as much security (and economic savings) to NATO as they receive. They do it in other ways than older and “wiser” militaries would have thought of; but that is beside the point, as there are other ways of killing a cat than drowning it in cream.

*The primary source of this report is the Defence White Papers these nations have published in English.

About the Author: Thomas Borgsmidt is a member of DefenceTalk forums and his intro can be found here.
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