The Heritage Foundation on October 25, 2013, published a Backgrounder on the Baltic states. These three states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have proven to be staunch American allies since they regained their independence in the early 1990s. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, each has made huge progress in implementing democracy, rule of law, economic freedom, and developing a strong national defense. They accomplished this by aligning themselves with the West—particularly the United States—while rejecting Russian calls to remain neutral or inside the Russian sphere of influence after the end of the Cold War. Excerpts below:
While small in size and population, the Baltic states represent something much bigger geopolitically: They are staunch defenders of economic freedom, liberal democracy, and human rights. They experienced Russian treachery during more than five decades of Soviet occupation in a way that few other countries ever did. This horrific experience means that the Baltic states do not take for granted the democracy, liberty, and security they enjoy today. Consequently, they have become a beacon of hope among countries of the former Soviet Union. The U.S. should deepen the U.S.–Baltic defense and security relationship by proactively seeking new areas of cooperation and building on old ties. It is in America’s and NATO’s interests to do so.
Since the 1990s the Baltic states have focused on seven areas of deeper cooperation:
1.Baltic Battalion. Established in 1994 with the help of the Danes, the Baltic Battalion, also known as BALTBAT, is a combined infantry battalion consisting of soldiers from all three Baltic states. This was the first of the collaborative defense projects undertaken by the Baltics since they regained their independence and has since provided the framework for other collaborations.
2. Baltic Defence College. Established in 1999 with the help of the Danes and Norwegians, the Baltic Defence College (BDC), provides a Joint Command and General Staff Course (JCGSC), Higher Command Studies Course (HCSC), and The Civil Servants Course (CSC). Military graduates of the college go on to work on international staffs, serve as chiefs of staff of military regions or at infantry brigade level, work in policymaking, and take on long-term planning positions in their home Ministry of Defense. Civilian graduates of the CSC return to their home countries to work on national security and defense policy.
3. Baltic Naval Squadron. Established in 1997, the Baltic Naval Squadron, also known as BALTRON, is a combined naval force that focuses on mine-countermeasure operations. As mentioned, the threat from unexploded ordnance left over from previous world wars in the Baltic Sea region is a serious concern. BALTRON is an excellent example of small states with a shared security interest working together in an intergovernmental way to meet defense requirements.
4. Baltic Air Surveillance Network. Established in 2000, the Baltic Air Surveillance Network, also known as BALTNET, serves as a regional air surveillance and command and control hub. It was partially funded by the U.S. and Norway, and by 2002, General Joseph W. Ralston, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander, called the air surveillance system “one of the best I’ve ever seen. We’d love to have it at NORAD in Alaska.” BALNET is located at the Lithuanian Air Force’s Airspace Control Center at Karmelava and supports the Baltic Air Policing mission. Like other joint Baltic defense initiatives, the command of BALTNET rotates and staff is provided by the three states.
5. Baltic Air Policing. Baltic Air Policing was established in 2004 to enforce the sovereign airspace of the three Baltic countries; NATO recently agreed that it will remain in place for the foreseeable future. Realizing that it was not feasible for the three Baltic countries to procure a fast-jet capability required to protect Baltic airspace, NATO decided that it should take up the task as a permanent part of its collective security mission and that the mission should continue on indefinitely. NATO contributions change every four months and some NATO countries contribute more than others. Although Baltic Air Policing was recognized as a good example of NATO’s Smart Defense initiative at the Chicago Summit in 2012, in reality, it was the natural extension of the comprehensive system of air surveillance that has been in place since the 1970s.
Currently, Baltic Air Policing is conducted from the military air base section of Šiauliai International Airport in Lithuania, which is the largest military airport in the Baltic region. There are backup air bases located at Riga International Airport and, in the future, Lielvārde air base in Latvia. The Estonians operate Ämari Air Base, which also serves as a backup for the Baltic Air Policing mission. Ämari Air Base is already used by the U.S. for training exercises, and along with Lielvārde, has the potential to perform even a greater role when it reaches full operational capability by 2015.
As NATO continues down the path of Smart Defense, lessons can be learned from the Baltic states’ willingness to pool and share capabilities. First, grandiose pan-European pooling and sharing projects are unlikely to work as intended. Pooling and sharing works best on a small sub-regional level, such as the Baltics. Second, pooling and sharing works best on military capabilities that are defensive in nature. Because the terms under which the said capability would be used are usually predetermined, there is no disputing the use of the capability. Third, the Baltics pool and share capability in a region where there is a shared view of the threats. It is unlikely that Baltic-style military cooperation would work on a pan-NATO basis because Portugal does not share the same security challenges as Norway, for example. Finally, pooling and sharing in the Baltics is done in such a way that no country loses sovereignty or control over a particular capability.Contributions and command time are made and allocated on an equitable and rotational basis between the three Baltic states.
6. Host-nation support. Another way the Baltic states contribute to NATO is through a focus on host-nation support. The combined armed forces of all three of the Baltic militaries could fit comfortably inside a large college football stadium, and most of their military hardware comfortably placed in the adjoining parking lot. Consequently, the Baltics understand that there is no degree of pooling resources that can deliver the level of capability required in the event of an armed conflict by an aggressive neighbor.
Providing host-nation support demonstrates to NATO allies that the Baltic states are serious about NATO playing a role in the region by building the infrastructure such as barracks, airfields, and telecommunications centers that could accommodate a large influx of NATO troops if a crisis were to arrive in the region. This is far cheaper than permanently basing large numbers of NATO troops in the region, and during a time of relatively peaceful relations with neighbors, delivers a NATO capability without seeming overly provocative.
Whenever possible, the United States should promote and sell its combat-tested military equipment to the Baltic states.
1. Joint military hardware procurement. Joint procurement of military hardware is another way in which the Baltic states collaborate. Modern and capable military technology is not cheap, so it is beneficial that the Baltics work closely together in this area when possible. Collaboration in this area is made easier since all three share the same regional security risks, and common equipment will likely mean lower unit and life-maintenance costs for Baltic taxpayers. Earlier this year, the Baltic states signed a deal to jointly purchase ammunition for Carl Gustav recoilless rifles from Sweden’s Saab. Buying the ammunition jointly will save money and time.
Each Baltic state has made it clear that the modernization of its land forces is a national priority between now and 2020, so there is much opportunity for the U.S. to promote its battle-tested equipment.
The U.S. has a history of selling battle-tested military hardware to the Baltics. Therefore, it is natural that the U.S. is active in promoting U.S. military hardware and the military-to-military relationship that goes with it. Choosing U.S. equipment will ensure an American presence in the Baltics in a way it would otherwise not be if the Baltics picked the Swedish alternative, for example.
Whenever possible, the United States should promote and sell its combat-tested military equipment to the Baltic states.
Always Room for Improvement
There is ample room for deeper relations between the U.S. and the Baltic states, particularly in joint military training and defense procurement. It is clear that the Baltic states are committed to transatlantic security. In light of the Obama Administration’s failed “reset” with Russia and the so-called pivot to Asia, the U.S. should find opportunities to increase defense and security cooperation with the Baltic states as a way to recalibrate its focus on Eastern Europe.
In doing so, the U.S. should:
Show America’s gratitude and appreciation. The White House, State Department, Department of Defense, and Congress should use opportunities to express publicly America’s thanks for the Baltic states’ contributions to NATO and to congratulate them on how far they have come since the end of the Cold War.
Establish a permanent military presence in the Baltic region. There are strong indications that the Baltic states desire a permanent U.S. military presence in the region. This does not have to mean establishing a huge garrison of U.S. troops. In 2012, the U.S. Air Force established a small detachment at a Polish air base that hosts periodic rotations of U.S. aircraft. A similar air detachment should be considered for the Baltics. This would offer more opportunities for joint military training and demonstrate U.S. commitment to transatlantic security.
Consider using the Baltic states as part of its global prepositioning program. The U.S. Marine Corps’ only land-based prepositioning site for military equipment in the world is in Norway. This facility has proven useful for supporting the mission of the U.S. Marine Corps in Europe. If the requirement arises for another land-based prepositioning site, the U.S. should consider the Baltics. This location would complement the focus placed by the Baltic states on host-nation support and would demonstrate U.S. commitment to transatlantic security.
Consider establishing a Baltic Sea Rotation Force. The U.S. Marine Corps currently operates a Black Sea Rotational Force that consists of a special-purpose Marine air-ground task force (SPMAGTF). Although the Black Sea SPMAGTF carried out a training exercise in Lithuania in 2012, the main focus of the task force is the Black Sea and Caucasus regions. The U.S. should consider the value of establishing a similar task force for the Baltic Sea region. Such a task force would offer more opportunities for joint military training for the Baltic states as well as for Poland, Finland, and Sweden. Furthermore, such a task force would demonstrate U.S. commitment to transatlantic security.
Reiterate America’s commitment to NATO’s Article 5. There is a perception in parts of Europe that transatlantic security is a lower priority for the Obama Administration than it was for previous Administrations. The Obama Administration could demonstrate America’s commitment to NATO this autumn by sending a sizable contribution to Steadfast Jazz 2013. Considering the degree of importance attached to Steadfast Jazz 2013 by America’s NATO allies, the 200 troops provided by the U.S. sends the wrong message.
Explore areas of maritime security cooperation in the Persian Gulf. If they are willing, the U.S. should explore opportunities for the Estonian and Lithuanian navies to contribute to CTF-52 in the Persian Gulf. The U.K.’s Royal Navy leads the world in terms of counter-mine maritime operations and plays a very important role in the Persian Gulf. The Estonians operate the same advanced Sandown Class MCMVs and have a close military relationship with the U.K. The Lithuanians operate British-made Hunt Class MCMVs. Participation in CTF-52 would be an important contribution to maritime security in one of the world’s most important shipping areas.
Increase senior leader engagement with the Baltic states. Symbolism matters in international affairs. After taking office in February 2013, Secretary of State John Kerry travelled more than 169,000 miles and visited 30 countries before he finally visited one of America’s Eastern European partners. His tardiness was noticed in Eastern European capitals. The U.S. should regularly dispatch senior officials to the region to reinforce America’s commitment to transatlantic security.
Ensure that security cooperation will continue after withdrawal from Afghanistan. One of the biggest concerns of the Baltic states is that U.S.–Baltic military cooperation will be reduced when the mission in Afghanistan winds down. The U.S. must work with its Baltic partners to find new areas of military cooperation. The Baltics are eager to continue contributing to international security missions and it would be a wasted opportunity if the U.S. failed to work with them.
Work with Baltic allies to improve wounded warrior and veteran care. The Baltic states could benefit greatly from U.S. experiences in the field of wounded warrior care and long-term veteran welfare. The Baltic states, especially Estonia, have suffered disproportionately high casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just like in the U.S., many combat veterans are suffering from mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Continue with joint training exercises. There is an old military adage that you should train like you fight. General Breedlove told The Army Times in a recent interview that the U.S. has canceled 45 percent of military-to-military training events with European partners. Saber Strike and Steadfast Jazz are the types of exercises that should be spared from cancellation. The Department of Defense should prioritize U.S. training missions in the Baltic region over others in Europe to ensure that defense cuts and sequestration do not impact U.S.–Baltic relations.
Continue special forces cooperation after the withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Baltics have placed themselves on the map in terms of special operations and it would be a waste if the U.S.–Baltic special forces relationship disappeared when combat operations in Afghanistan end. The U.S. should work with the Baltic nations to find new areas of cooperation in the field of special operations. This might include allowing a liaison officer from each Baltic state in the U.S. Special Operations Command.
Commit to a speedy and robust ballistic missile defense in Europe. It is very likely that ballistic missile defense–capable ships will someday operate in the Baltics as part of NATO’s missle defense system. The Baltic states view NATO’s ballistic missile defense system as a fundamental part of the Alliance’s defense. The abrupt cancellation of the Third Site in 2009 combined with reductions in missile defense spending makes some in the Baltic region and Eastern Europe nervous.
Enhance cybersecurity cooperation with the Baltic states. An increased American contribution to the Estonian Center of Excellence on cyber defense is welcome. However, it represents only a small portion of existing and potential U.S.–Baltic cooperation in this area. The U.S. should explore ways to broaden cooperation in cyber defense with the goal of sharing experience, expanding contingency planning, training and exercises, as well as developing capabilities.
Ensure that NATO remains a nuclear security alliance. NATO’s 2012 Deterrence and Defense Posture Review stated that the strategic nuclear forces of the Alliance provide the supreme guarantee of the security of the Allies. The U.S. should not underestimate how important this issue is to the Baltic states. As long as the West could face a nuclear threat from any part of the world, NATO needs to remain a nuclear alliance.
Help facilitate U.S. LNG exports to the Baltic region. The security of energy supplies is a serious concern of the Baltic states. It also has an impact on military readiness which is why the U.S. and NATO should be concerned. The United States could do more to help by providing the Baltic states with access to sources other than Russia for natural gas. A bipartisan bill has been introduced in both the House of Representatives and the Senate that would lift restrictions against the export of U.S. natural gas to NATO allies. The sooner restrictions can be lifted, the stronger NATO and the Baltic states will become.
Promote export of battle-tested U.S. defense equipment. The U.S. should work closely to determine how U.S. military hardware can best meet the defense needs of the Baltic states. When a government buys American military equipment it not only receives battle-tested equipment, it also gains a deeper military relationship with the U.S. The U.S. should also consider gifting excess military equipment being removed from the force structure to the Baltics.
Ensure robust U.S. participation in the Estonian and Lithuanian Centers of Excellence. The U.S. has extended experience dealing with cyber security and energy security, and the two Centers of Excellence could benefit greatly from increased U.S. participation. U.S. participation would also provide an opportunity to influence the debate inside NATO regarding cybersecurity and energy security.
Assist the Latvians with the development of their Center of Excellence. Latvia is the only Baltic nation that does not currently host a NATO Center of Excellence, though it plans to open a Strategic Communications Center of Excellence by the end of 2014. The U.S. has much experience in strategic communications and should therefore assist Latvia during the development process of its Center of Excellence. Once it becomes operational, the U.S. should participate in the Center of Excellence.
Continue to send students to the Baltic Defence College (BDC). American officers already attend the BDC. The U.S. should not view American participation in the BDC as low-hanging fruit for budget savings. U.S. student enrollment at the BDC allows U.S. Service personnel to learn more about NATO allies in Eastern Europe and allows U.S. Service personnel to share their experiences from more than a decade of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in an institutional setting. This is a benefit for both the U.S. and its NATO allies.
Offer opportunities for the Baltic states to be global actors. As NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan is ending, most European governments are looking forward to scaling back their already limited defense and security commitments. This is not the case for the Baltic states, which want to continue supporting U.S. and NATO missions. The U.S. is in a position to help the Baltic states achieve this ambition. Areas that the U.S. should focus on include special forces operations and counter-mine and maritime security operations in the Persian Gulf.
Leverage the U.S.–U.K. Special Relationship in the Baltics. The U.S. and the U.K. are more effective actors in transatlantic security when they work together. For historical reasons, the U.K. has very close relations with the Baltic states, especially with Estonia. The U.S. should work with the U.K. to identify areas of deeper defense and security cooperation with the Baltics.
Work with the Nordic countries to improve relations with the Baltics. Good U.S. relations with the Nordic countries will mean closer relations with the Baltics. Historically, the Baltic states have had a very close relationship with the Nordic countries. NATO members Denmark and Norway played an important role in the development of Baltic military capabilities since the end of the Cold War. Although not members of NATO, Sweden and Finland also have a close security relationship with the Baltics. Access to Swedish and Finnish territory and airspace will be crucial if NATO is called on to defend the Baltic states. The U.S. needs to find areas of cooperation with the Nordic countries.
The three Baltic states have come a long way since re-establishing their independence after the fall of the USSR and the end of Soviet occupation. Economically, the Baltic region is prosperous and stable. Democracy and the rule of law have flourished. In terms of defense and security the Baltic states have done what many thought at the time was impossible: They developed modern, Western-trained armed forces, joined NATO, and have served gallantly and selflessly in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Balkans. Due in part to leadership and commitment from successive U.S. Administrations, the Baltic region is secure and prosperous.
In terms of security and defense cooperation, the biggest concern for many in the Baltic states is that the U.S. might disengage from Europe due to the “pivot” to Asia and become disinterested in NATO once the mission in Afghanistan ends. The U.S. needs to prove otherwise—with actions, not words. A U.S. presence in the Baltics is wanted and will go a long way toward sending the right signals. Finding new areas of military cooperation with the Baltic states will demonstrate that the U.S.–Baltic security relationship is an enduring one. Friend and foe alike in the region will be watching the next few years closely.
The Baltic states show a degree of enthusiasm for NATO and transatlantic relations currently not found on either side of the Atlantic. The U.S. should grasp this opportunity to develop and deepen its relationship with the Baltic states. Doing so is in the interests of the U.S., NATO, and the Baltics.
—Luke Coffey is Margaret Thatcher Fellow in the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.
The author is grateful to Daniel Kochis for his assistance in preparing this study.