From the point of view of optimizing the use of resources, the move makes sense. Still, NATO presence in the Baltics was shored up because of the war in Ukraine – which has not ended yet. One of the proposed explanations has been that the move is NATO’s message to Russia that it does not wish to escalate the conflict, but the Baltic nations are part of the alliance and their security will be ensured.
December 2014. Dutch fighter jets, sent to back up Portuguese and Canadian forces performing the air policing mission from Šiauliai, take off to intercept a group of Russian military planes flying above the Baltic Sea.
This was just one incident out of some 500 in 2014 alone when NATO forces had to accompany Russian bombers, transport planes and fighters that had approached the Baltic borders too close. There has been no letup this year either, with more then 300 such cases.
At the moment, 16 NATO jets protect the Baltic airspace, four times the normal size of a NATO air policing mission. Additional jets were sent last year, after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and escalated the armed conflict in the country’s eastern regions.
The Alliance has announced, however, that only eight fighter jets will remain in the Baltics in September. Lithuania’s Foreign Minister Linas Linkevičius has said it is perfectly acceptable. First, that’s still twice as many as we started with and, second, eight jets will be enough to maintain security in the airspace of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.
“This, if you will, superficial reduction does not change the essence of the matter. [The size of the mission] is still bigger than it was in the beginning and, besides, it’s more than enough to perform the mission effectively,” Linkevičius said.
“The air policing mission is not being reduced, the backup of the air police is what is getting cut. The air policing mission stays in the main base in Šiauliai, just as before. It’s just that the mission itself was at one point significantly reinforced and now, seeing that the jets of the main base and the backup from the Ämari base [Estonia] can cope with the tasks, it has been decided to reduce the backup in order to rationalize the use of resources,” Lithuanian Defence Minister Juozas Olekas said.
The Alliance reportedly analysed results and concluded that it made little sense to keep so big a force in the Baltics; the redistribution of resources will, among other things, help optimize the forces in the Baltic states as well.
The current NATO plans envisage four fighter jets stationed in the military base in Šiauliai, as usual, and four more in Estonia; there will no longer be any based in Poland. Despite the reduction, the allies are not giving up on commitments to the Baltic security, the foreign minister insists. The air policing mission, he says, is but a piece in a big picture. One that shows clearly how serious NATO is about its commitments to member-states.
“We care about the measures agreed on in Wales. The entire package: setting up military staffs in our territories – as of this autumn, Lithuania and five more countries will host NATO staffs to plan deployment of forces in case of a crisis, especially the rapid response force, and do the planning for various exercises. There will also be – the decision has already been made – some 250 pieces of heavy weaponry throughout the region,” Linkevičius lists reassurance measures for Central and Eastern Europe.
According to the Lithuanian foreign minister, the heavy weaponry – Abrams tanks, Bradley armoured vehicles and other military equipment – is expected to reach Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia in the nearest future.
This September, the Baltic states, Romania, Poland and Bulgaria will launch NATO headquarters tasked with taking care of the redeployment of the rapid response force that NATO set up to defend a member under attack.
Another deterrence measure are the rotating US infantry companies deployed in the Baltics and Poland as well as regular military exercises in Lithuania involving troops even from countries like Portugal or Hungary.
Not least is the Alliance Ground Surveillance project which includes Lithuania. The programme is about developing drones to fly over Europe and Lithuania by 2017 and, in case of a military conflict, supply intelligence on the enemy and potential targets. Next year, the Baltic states are to announce if they are implementing any other measures to protect their airspace.
“The three Baltic states have agreed that we will conduct a study on developing mid-range air defence systems in the region together with out strategic partners, so common defence is sufficiently strong. Our reaction to the situation is really adequate, both Lithuania’s defensibility and deterrence are sufficient,” Defence Minister Olekas assures.
Armament expert Darius Antanaitis agrees. He says the Alliance’s main purpose is defence, not rearmament and projection of might, which is what Russia is doing, especially in its Kaliningrad Oblast. The expert is convinced that NATO continues to reassure its members of common defence commitments and will not leave anyone to fend for themselves in time of need.
“The rotating US companies, the deployment of heavy weaponry in Eastern Europe, the new NATO headquarters send a strong enough message to Russia. Another strong message was delivered by the Lithuanian army chief who made a military assessment of rearming the army with heavy weaponry.
“I think that NATO will respond adequately to any threat that might arise. I am certain that we will see not only fighter jets, but also anti-aircraft missiles, tanks, the navy, what have you,” Antanaitis said.
Lithuania is rearming itself, too. The army is purchasing new equipment, it reintroduced military draft this year and the first group of conscripts will start service this autumn. Defence funding has been growing each year. According to plans, next year it will amount to 1.5 percent of the country’s GDP, twice as much as only several years ago.
In short, Lithuania is moving toward its old pledge of spending 2 percent of GDP on defence, something it promised – but never delivered – over a decade ago when joining NATO.