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[size=18pt]Baltic States Divided On Merging Armed Forces[/size]
WARSAW — While budget cuts are jeopardizing acquisitions of new arms and equipment across Europe, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are intensifying their military cooperation in line with NATO’s “Smart Defense” policy and collaborating on joint arms purchases.
Moreover, with a proposal to merge the three armed forces recently put forward by a senior statesman, their collaboration could be taken to a next level in the long term.
Late last month, Latvian President Andris Berzins told local news agency BNS that Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia could one day unite their respective armed forces. If they do, the three countries, which joined NATO in 2004, would become the first member states to make such a step.
If pilots from various air forces can participate in joint missions to protect territories of all three Baltic states, the three countries’ armed forces should also be allowed to combine their efforts, Berzins said.
The proposal by the Latvian president was criticized by Estonian Defense Minister Urmas Reinsalu, who told local broadcaster ETV that the current setup, where there [are] three separate militaries that cooperate and form temporary joint units for international tasks, is optimal.
However, local analysts say that, despite their different stance on the proposed armed forces merger, the three states are equally invested in boosting military ties.
“Over the past few years, this cooperation has grown stronger and stronger,” said Tomas Janeliunas, associate professor at the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University and editor of the Lithuanian Foreign Policy Review. “The level of engagement of respective countries is quite similar. To date, emphasis has been put on military operations abroad, in particular in Afghanistan, joint training and exchange of experience.”
Janeliunas said skepticism expressed by Lithuanian and Estonian decision-makers over the consolidation is due to organizational difficulties that would be caused by the merger.
“For now, it seems that the current level of cooperation is rather efficient and satisfactory,” Janeliunas said. “In short-term, the process of merging [the countries’] armed forces would be difficult.”
The countries’ defense ministries give great importance to joint air policing missions carried out mostly by aircraft deployed by other NATO member states. In a statement, the Latvian ministry called the Baltic air patrols “one of the first practical and visible factors that increased our security after the [accession] to NATO.”
In its guidelines for 2012-2017, the Lithuanian ministry said it is seeking a more efficient military cooperation between the Baltic states, giving priority to “projects that, if implemented, would cut the costs of the [Lithuanian Air Force] capabilities development.”
Commenting on the three countries’ defense budgets, the Estonian minister said Russia’s defense expenditure has doubled over the past four years, which necessitates increased defense efforts by the Baltic states.
“Also, in absolute sums, Estonia spends more on defense than either Latvia or Lithuania,” Reinsalu said, pointing out that his country is allocated 2 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) to defense, in line with NATO’s guidelines. Estonia is aiming to spend €361.36 million euros (US$482.3 million) on national defense in 2013, an increase of 6 percent from €340.88 million in 2012, according to figures released by the Estonian ministry.
In Lithuania, defense spending as share of GDP is the lowest among the three states, but the government could increase it next year. Lithuania’s 2013 defense budget is 924.6 million litas (US $357.8 million), up about 6.6 percent from 867.2 million litas a year earlier, according to ministry data. This, however, translates into less than 0.8 percent of the country’s GDP.
For 2014, the Lithuanian ministry is planning to expand its budget by at least 50 million litas, Defense Minister Juozas Olekas told local radio station Žiniu radijas Aug. 6. This figure would still be smaller than the pre-crisis budget of 2008 when Lithuania allocated 1.247 billion litas to national defense. Nevertheless, the increase would put the country’s defense budget back on a path toward growth after a series of budget cuts triggered by the recession.
Military cooperation between the Baltic states could be further consolidated by joint procurements of armament and military equipment on which the three countries are increasingly collaborating.
This year, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia signed a deal to jointly purchase ammunition for Carl Gustav recoilless rifles from Sweden’s Saab. The deal, to be awarded by the end of 2013, is estimated to be worth about €50 million. It will be carried out by the EU’s European Defence Agency through its Effective Procurement Methods initiative, designed for collaborative procurements by member states.
Meanwhile, neighboring Poland and the Czech Republic have decided to join the Baltic states’ purchase initiative.