Defense Capabilities of Baltic States
Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, often referred to as the Baltic states, are close allies of the West, in particular, the U.S. Strong relations among the Baltic states on the one hand and the U.S. and European states on the other are rooted in history since they never recognized the forcible incorporation of the Baltic states by the USSR in 1940. They were the first to promote their independence strife and the restoration of their independence in 1991.
The West also supported the Baltic states’ accession to NATO and the European Union (EU) in 2004. The Baltic states cooperate in the military-defense and security sector with the West for the purposes of deterring potential Russian aggression and countering hybrid threats, such as disinformation campaigns and cyber-attacks.
Deterrence in the Baltics: NATO vs Russia
To improve the credibility of deterrence against Russia seems to be the key military objective of the Baltic states. All three countries expect Russia to be deterred by NATO’s collective defence posture, as well as the alliance’s presence in the Baltic region and Poland, with a small tripwire of allied reinforcement troops.
U.S., NATO, and Baltic leaders view Russian military activity in the region with concern. Such activities include large-scale exercises, incursions into Baltic states’ airspace, and a layered build-up of anti-access/area denial (A2AD) capabilities.
Baltic national armed forces and NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battalions deployed in the region reduce Russia’s ability to initiate a potential military conflict and rapidly achieve desirable results, avoiding a large-scale Alliance involvement.
Experts have concluded that the Baltic states’ defense in a conventional military conflict with Russia would likely be difficult and problematic. The Baltic states fulfill NATO’s target of spending 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) on defense, although as countries with relatively small populations, their armed forces remain relatively small and their military capabilities limited. The total military spending of the Baltic states on hardware was about 300 million euros in last six months.
The Baltic states’ defense planning relies heavily on their NATO membership. The U.S. and the Baltic states cooperate closely on defense and security issues. New bilateral defense agreements signed in spring 2019 focus security cooperation on improving capabilities in areas such as maritime domain awareness, intelligence sharing, surveillance, and cyber security.
The U.S. provides significant security assistance to the Baltic states; the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 increased and extended U.S. assistance for building interoperability and capacity to deter and resist aggression. Under the U.S. European Deterrence Initiative (EDI), launched in 2014, the United States has bolstered its military presence in Central and Eastern Europe. As part of the associated Operation Atlantic Resolve, rotational U.S. forces have conducted various training activities and exercises in the Baltic states.
NATO has also helped to bolster the Baltic states’ security. At the 2016 NATO summit, the allies agreed to deploy multinational battalions to each of the Baltic states and Poland. Britain led the battalion deployed in Estonia, Canada led in Latvia, and Germany led in Lithuania. Rotational deployments of aircraft from NATO member countries have patrolled the Baltic states’ airspace since 2004; deployments have increased in size since 2014.
Since 2014, when the EU adopted sanctions targeting Russia due to the Ukraine conflict, tensions between Russia and the Baltic states have grown. These conditions have generated heightened concerns about possible hybrid threats and Russian tactics, such as disinformation campaigns and propaganda, to pressure the Baltic states and promote anti-U.S. or anti-NATO narratives. A large minority of the Estonian and Latvian populations consists of ethnic Russians; Russia frequently accuses Baltic states of violating the rights of Russian speakers.
Many ethnic Russians in the Baltic states receive their news and information from Russian media sources, potentially making those communities a leading target for disinformation and propaganda. Some observers have expressed concerns that Russia could use the Baltic states’ ethnic Russian minorities as a pretext to manufacture a crisis. Cyber attacks are another potential hybrid threat; addressing potential vulnerabilities with regard to cyber security is a top priority of the Baltic states.
In the Baltic region, Russia maintains a significant advantage in integrated air and missile defenses, long-range artillery and heavy armor. Russia’s internal lines of communication, both road and rail, would allow Moscow to launch and sustain operations in the region rapidly.
Russian warplanes as they are flying to and from the Russian Kaliningrad exclave are frequently intercepted and escorted by NATO jets on Baltic air policing duties.
Russia has stationed missile systems that will seriously affect the military balance of power in the immediate vicinity of the Baltic countries. These are the Iskander-M ballistic missile system (hitting targets within a range of 500 km) and the S-400 long-range anti-aircraft missile system (defence range of 250–400 km). Russia plans to enlarge its Iskander brigades from 12 to 16 launchers each, and 32 missiles could be fired simultaneously in one salvo.
Iskanders, which are capable of carrying nuclear payloads, will start to be deployed to nuclear military units in 2020. Russia will beef up defense in its border areas, allegedly due to the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in Europe. NATO’s decision to increase the number of its forces in Poland and the Baltic States is the official reason for Russia’s plans to strengthen its Kaliningrad-based motorized units in 2020.
In the end of March 2020, new multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) Smerch (hitting targets within a range of 20 to 70 km) entered the service of the armament of the Baltic Fleet’s army corps of Russia deployed in the Kaliningrad Region. The new equipment was received as part of the planned rearmament of the troops with modern weapons and military equipment.
In the event of a contingency in the Baltic region, the Suwalki corridor would become a lifeline between the Baltic States and Poland. As such, NATO must have in place an effective early warning system to detect a possible incursion, developed infrastructure for the quick deployment of troops, and the necessary manpower ready to defend the territory.
The breakup of the USSR left the Baltic states with virtually no national militaries, and their forces remain small and limited. The Baltic states’ defense planning consequently relies heavily on NATO membership, and these states have emphasized active participation in the alliance through measures such as contributing troops to NATO’s mission in Afghanistan.
In the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and renewed concerns about Russia, the Baltic states have significantly increased their defense budgets and sought to acquire new military capabilities. According to the National Security Threat Assessment, jointly published in 2020 by the Lithuanian Ministry of National Defence and the State Security Department, “Russia’s increasing military potential and activity in the Western Military District and Kaliningrad region, as well as its deepening military integration with Belarus, has a negative impact on Lithuania’s military security”.
Lithuania increased its defense spending from $427 million in 2014 to an expected $1.084 billion in 2019, equivalent to 1.98% of GDP. In February 2020, Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda announced that Lithuania allocates 2 percent of GDP for defense and intends to steadily increase this spending to 2.5 percent.
Lithuania has the largest military of the three Baltic states, with 19,850 authorised (regular force and active reserve) personnel in 2019. After abolishing conscription in 2008, Lithuania reintroduced compulsory military service in 2015 due to concerns about Russia, a move that brings 3,000 personnel to the armed forces per year.
The Lithuanian government allocated about 265 million euros for military purchases. The country also actively bought military equipment. The defense ministry moved ahead with plans to acquire new self-propelled artillery systems and portable anti-aircraft missiles, as well as elements of a medium-range air defense system.
The Lithuanian army received NASAMS medium-range Norwegian anti-aircraft missile systems worth more than 110 million euros, 88 German-Dutch Boxer infantry fighting vehicles for 385 million euros, another 21 PzH2000 self-propelled howitzers, 26 M577 V2 armored command vehicles and 6 BPZ2 evacuation tanks from Germany for 16 million euros. And finally, the military received 340 five-ton UNIMOG trucks from Daimler AG for 60 million euros.
Lithuania also carried out a major reconstruction of the military infrastructure, building three new military camps - one in Vilnius and two in the western part of the country. Also, the military has long dreamed of getting Patriot anti-aircraft missile systems.
Lithuania bought a 34-million-euro GROM air defence system from Poland in September 2019, and a month later the country announced it would spend 16 million euros on a fresh supply of Javelin anti-tank missiles from the US.
Estonia’s defense spending totaled $669 million in 2019. Recently in 2018 and 2019, respectively 2.14% of the GDP (i.e. 524 million EUR) and 2.15% of the GDP (i.e. 566 million EUR) have been allocated to defence. Since 2012, there has been an agreement amongst political parties in Estonia to support and maintain the defence budget at 2% of GDP.
The country’s armed forces amount to 6,600 active personnel and 12,000 reserves, plus a volunteer territorial defense force with about 15,800 members. Estonia is modernizing air defense system and a range of ground warfare equipment, including anti-tank weapons. Estonia practices compulsory military service for men aged 18-27, with an eight-month basic term of conscripted service.
As of 2018, the professional military contingent includes about 3.4 thousand active servicemen. The only unit which is comprised solely of professionals is the Scouts Battalion under the composition of the 1st infantry brigade, which stands out as the main component of the Estonian land forces. It also has a high-readiness to participate in international operations led by NATO, the United Nations, and the European Union and has considerable experience of doing so with repeated company deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The 2nd infantry brigade was established in August 2014 and the main task of the brigade is expected to offer immediate resistance to the enemy during wartime. It is expected to be in fullcombat readiness by 2026 at the latest.
In early April of 2020, Sven Mikser, Estonian defence minister, sealed the biggest military procurement in his country's history, worth 138 million euros. According to the deal, the country will buy 44 CV90 combat vehicles and six Leopard tanks from the Netherlands.
It comes a month after Mikser agreed a contract worth 40 million euros with the US to buy 40 Stinger missile systems. Estonia also has an order for self-propelled guns in the works.
Latvia’s armed forces total 6,210 active personnel and have more than doubled its defense spending as a percentage of GDP over the past five years, from 0.94% of GDP in 2014 to 2.01% of GDP, or $724 million in 2019. The country’s defence budget was increased in the subsequent years gradually after Russia’s intervention in Ukraine.
The acquisition priorities of the Latvian armed forces include self-propelled artillery, armored reconnaissance vehicles, multi-role helicopters, anti-aircraft missiles, and anti-tank missiles.
Latvia does not have compulsory military service and does not intend to introduce it in the nearest future. Based on changes in the legislation in 2017, a status of “reserve soldier” is given to an individual without previous military experience who has completed a suitable training course.
In August 2019, Latvia bought 123 combat vehicles for 48 million euros from Britain, and in November 2019, the country agreed to a four-million-euro deal with Norway for 800 Carl Gustav anti-tank weapons, plus 100 trucks.
US military aid for the Baltic states
The U.S. allocated over $170 million in the military aid for the Baltic states to purchase weapons and military hardware. The Baltic states procured ammunition for Javelin anti-tank systems, artillery shells and reconnaissance equipment. Estonia signed an agreement on the purchase of 80 Javelin complexes for 40 million euros back in November 2014.
In 2018, Latvia approved a law according to which in 2018 the state raised army spending to 576.34 million euros annually. Latvia procured second-hand American M159 155-mm self-propelled artillery mounts from Austria. The cost of acquiring one unit, depending on the modification, ranged from 60,000 to 140,000 euros. A total of 47 pieces of equipment were bought, the first self-propelled guns were delivered to Latvia in 2019.
Along with the procurement of weapons, the U.S allocate $3.5 million for a program to train students from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia at U.S. military academies. The fund was also spent on the construction of new barracks, arsenals, hangars for armored vehicles, and on the modernization of shooting ranges.
Part of U.S. aid went to modernizing communications and procurement of drones. In particular, the Latvian National Armed Forces received unmanned aerial vehicles worth 3 million dollars as part of the US military financing program. The army received AeroVironment's RQ-20A Puma systems for reconnaissance operations.
In addition, the Latvian army receive from the USA 62 tactical vehicles Polaris MRZR-2, MRZR-4 and MV-850 manufactured by Polaris Government & Defense, as well as several vehicles equipped with mobile surveillance devices.