Latvia’s defence priorities in an evolving security environment: being on the right track?

This article discusses the current focus of Latvia’s defence effort responding to the changed security environment. The article also briefly looks at the actual applicability of the well-known NATO guideline for the appropriate level of defence expenditures. With reference to the experience of several Central European NATO members, the author offers recommendations on the approach which would allow Latvia to achieve the best value for money in terms of developing its defence capabilities.

NATO is a collective defence organization whose members agreed to help each other in case an armed attack occurs against any of them. NATO’s ambition is to maintain security in the North Atlantic area. The security environment prior to 2014 suggested that NATO will continue to focus on addressing challenges distant from Allies’ territories and certainly not affecting them directly. The post-2014 security environment, however, does not confirm this expectation. From a primarily Baltic perspective, it is characterized by reinvigorated Kremlin’s appetite for power politics as already proven by Georgia 2008, most significantly by Crimea 2014 and the Donbas conflict, and recently also by engagement in Syria.

Against this background, NATO and Baltic countries have moved the relevance of their deterrence and defence posture (i.e. their own policy, capabilities, capacities and readiness) significantly higher on their priority list. Before being faced with another, now rather likely, security shock involving any of Russia’s power instruments, the Baltic countries and NATO as a whole want to be ready.

The Summits of Wales 2014 and Warsaw 2016 formulated the bedrock of NATO’s response and adaptation to the new security environment. NATO certainly prefers effective deterrence over an actual defensive operation, but that means that NATO has to make sure all practical arrangements are in place to enable Allied reinforcement to come to defend any NATO member, i.e. also the Baltic region. Enhanced Forward Presence together with a series of training and exercise activities is a very visible element of it.

While it is sensible to expect a NATO-wide response to the challenge posed by Russia, the Article 3 of the North Atlantic Treaty commits each member nation to continuously and meaningfully preparing for its own defence. No one suggests that Baltic countries had not done it in previous years but the question is whether there is a need and room for changing the Baltic countries’ approaches to developing their defence capabilities in the context of the changed environment.

All three Baltic countries are already taking certain courses of action in order to reinforce their defence posture, and are considering additional ones. The re-establishment of conscription service in Lithuania, originally for a definite period of five years which was a year later turned into a permanent arrangement, certainly belongs among the most significant measures. Of course, the long-standing effort to generally increase combat effectiveness across all services by modernization of intelligence and reconnaissance, mobility, and direct and indirect engagement capabilities is continuing. On top of that, Latvia has focused on enhancing the capability of its National Guard as well as Host Nation Support capacities to be better able to receive Allied reinforcements.

At the Riga Conference 2016, the Ministry of Defence State Secretary Jānis Garisons expressed his perspective on what would be the ideal option for Latvia to become resilient enough and prepared to face conceivable security challenges: If every citizen of Latvia would have the experience of serving in the National Guard, then Latvia would be safe.[1] He sees the focus on developing National Guard as a part of a return to traditional total defence concept which he considers the only possible option to respond to the new circumstances.

Since the statement is quite straightforward, it is also simplified to an extent which might hinder appropriate interpretation. Therefore, it would be helpful to place it into the right context.

Focusing on the National Guard, or any similar structure based on military reservists, is probably not the appropriate approach to meet all defence related requirements that Latvia would likely have in a multifaceted crisis in which adversary uses a whole array of tools to undermine the strength and will of a society to resist and eventually withstand an attack. The roles of Home Guard-type structures do vary in different countries but, in general, their main task in a large scale national emergency would be to contribute to maintaining security on the territory, protecting key infrastructure or even taking over a (larger) portion of territorial defence. There are, however, a number of functions in the civilian sector which are absolutely essential for the state to continue its operations during a crisis, and those also have to be carried out by someone. It is therefore quite certain that not every citizen would be needed and useful as a National Guard serviceman during national emergency, even if it would entail pure military defence.

However, there are positive outcomes that can be achieved by letting people experience the service in the National Guard, and in this case “the more, the better” applies. Passing the basic or even advanced or specialized military-related training; obtaining basic skills and knowledge of how to act during any emergency situation; getting familiar with various instruments of security policy – all that will positively enhance resilience of a society and all that can, to a larger or lesser extent, be achieved through active membership in the National Guard. Such effort is worthwhile and useful even if many of these people will not, eventually, serve in the National Guard units during a crisis but instead will continue to carry out their roles in their everyday jobs.

In any case, the quoted statement reveals the trajectory in which Latvia’s defence policy is actually developing. The focus is placed on increasing effectiveness of territorial defence to buy time for arrival of Allied reinforcement as well as on increasing capacity to receive that reinforcement and enable their operations. In short, this means reinforcing the in-place character of Latvian armed forces. However, NATO policy and strategic concept require all Allies to be able to meaningfully contribute to all NATO tasks, including collective defence of every Ally. This implicitly requires all Allies to maintain certain, actually rather significant, part of their forces deployable.

For Latvia, current situation clearly poses a continuing, or rather intensified, challenge of striking the right balance between the two focuses of capability development – on territorial defence or fully deployable capabilities. From the 1990s up to the decision to bring to an end the operations in Afghanistan, NATO’s general focus was clearly on deployable forces.[2] With the risk of another conventional conflict in Europe sometime in a foreseeable future becoming more tangible, NATO might also benefit from including more in-place forces in its overall pool of forces (which actually consists of national contributions). How does this logic apply specifically to Latvia? With a limited size of armed forces that Latvia, for obvious reasons, can ever achieve, what could be the best approach to prepare for defending the country? Does the “in-place or deployable” question constitute a real dilemma? There is a standing argument that deployable forces are perfectly usable also for territorial defence but does it work also the other way round, i.e. how affordable it is, especially for smaller nations, to make heavy forces designed for territorial defence deployable on extended distances? Let us also have a look at strategies of some Central European countries, such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia or Hungary.

Scenario matters – national level of ambition and capacity to meet it

Defence and armed forces cost a lot of taxpayers’ money. It is far less than health care, social care, or education but still enough, and the public is usually highly sensitive about misuse of public funds, particularly in the defence sector. Eventually, mistakes and omissions in developing defence capabilities must be avoided simply because they are not affordable in terms of both resources and time. To achieve effectiveness and efficiency, the well-proven recipe is to regularly conduct a standardized defence planning process based on analytical rigour. Defence planning, in general, should be understood as a wider process of identifying the best possible solutions for delivering capabilities and capacities needed for a country’s defence. It is based on a careful consideration of: the security environment and perceived threats; the overall level of ambition (i.e. politically defined set of elementary tasks for the armed forces, including the arrangements for national defence); the resources available (financial, human, material); and time available.

The first and most important step in defence planning is defining a set of scenarios, i.e. the situations representing the threats and circumstances against which a nation is preparing its armed forces, their capabilities, and eventually the whole defence sector. On the one hand, scenarios should be sufficiently generic and focused rather on the type of tasks that military forces might be required to carry out, in order to identify universally usable capabilities regardless who the actual adversary might be. On the other hand, it is also sensible to use scenarios involving certain important real-world characteristics, in order to simply arrive at realistic conclusions. In current NATO practice, this approach is called capability-based, threat-informed defence planning.

NATO at certain moments in the past used to have a dilemma gregard which type of operations should predominantly guide its defence planning, meaning either out-of-area/expeditionary or territorial defence operations, and to some extent still struggles with it. Some NATO countries clearly prefer one or the other approach, e.g. the UK or Turkey, respectively. The best answer probably has to be based on the combination of both, but still one needs to select a concrete set of scenarios which will generate the capability requirements.

When looking at Latvia’s National Security Concept and the National Defence Concept (approved in early summer 2016),[3] which represent the latest political guidance for defence sector already reflecting on Russia’s 2014 actions against Ukraine, we see that these documents are stating the key principles of defence policy quite clearly. The most relevant threat is identified as asymmetric warfare carried out by Russia, i.e. using various methods and tools to erode the security of Latvia (the National Defence Concept uses the term “asymmetric warfare” to describe what others mostly refer to as “hybrid warfare”).

If only two basic scenarios should be selected to guide defence planning in order to not diverge the efforts too much when only limited resources are available, the following scenarios would probably best fit Latvia’s national security and defence concepts.

The first one is a small scale armed incursion, using regular military personnel in either overt or covert manner, masking itself as a local anti-government movement and its militia. In this scenario Latvia’s ambition should be resolute, countering this incursion by all means, leading to a rapid domination of the situation and repulse of the incursion.

The second one is a large scale full-fledged invasion in which Latvia’s armed forces would have to secure a successful withdrawal of critical government assets, try to secure the key entry points for Allied reinforcement and resort to guerrilla/partisan warfare dispersed over Latvia’s territory as soon as possible.

Applying this or structurally similar approach in defence planning could allow Latvia to harvest maximum possible output out of all invested resources.

Burden sharing issue and the actual significance of 2% of GDP

Fair sharing of the burden, which can be broadly expressed as contributing to all the tasks and activities of the Alliance and sharing the related risks, is one of the founding NATO principles. This fair burden-sharing can be also expressed as a universally determined percentage of national resources (basically the gross domestic product) which should be devoted to defence, both in favour of national establishment and NATO. The relevance of 2% of GDP[4] is as questionable as ever before. Previously, the NATO guidance on percentage of GDP that should be devoted to defence was set basically as an average of Allies’ previous years defence spending. So the concrete figure used to vary. Even though it is determined as a percentage, which suggests that it should present the same burden for each country, notionally it is not exactly right. Let us consider, for instance, two nations of roughly the same population but significantly different in size of their territory. Making certain (civilian) infrastructure available to the whole population will certainly be, in relative terms, much more costly for a nation with larger territory. Another example could show a nation with very high GDP and relatively small population, in which case the 2% might represent excessive amount for which there would actually be no meaningful use in its defence sector. One has to draw a simple conclusion: the appropriate level of public expenditures necessary to establish sufficient defence capacity of a country, even if expressed as a percentage of GDP, varies from nation to nation and depends on a number of factors such as the size of population and territory, size of national economy, strategic ambition, or regional security environment.

Just a few figures for illustration: for the Czech Republic with a 10 million population located in the heart of European NATO territory, it might be sufficient to have armed forces of 22,000 military personnel (0.22% of population) mostly for deployed operations. But for Latvia with a 2 million population and located on a NATO border, armed forces representing the same 0.22% of population (which would be some 4,400 personnel) might not be enough.

In general, it can also be observed that in order to create the same level of (meaningful) defence output, smaller nations have to invest relatively more than larger nations. Having meaningful armed forces requires maintaining of a certain base to build upon – typically education system, training facilities, medical service, command and control network etc. This basic infrastructure has a fixed cost which, to a large degree, cannot be reduced proportionally to the overall (small) size of the armed forces.

Another frequent and also relevant argument is that some nations are able to generate more tangible defence output using the same amount of money than other nations can. The efficiency of actual use of funds and other resources is one of the key indicators which have to be taken into account when assessing the appropriate level of national defence expenditures.

However, the NATO agreed guidance on the level of defence spending (currently 2% of GDP) is meant to be understood as an expression of the minimum that each and every Ally has to spend to make sure everyone carries his fair share and no one is free riding.

To summarize this part, if Latvia would spend on defence 2% of its GDP it might still not be enough to meet her defence needs or to make a truly meaningful contribution to NATO core tasks, particularly the actual operations and missions. However, for Latvia spending these 2% arguably would be a heavier burden than for other Allies with significantly larger economies, such as the Netherlands, Belgium, or France.

Central European experience

After joining NATO, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary step by step gave up their ambition to make a meaningful contribution to their own defence (ability to individually defend their national territories) in exchange for making a meaningful contribution to NATO’s overall pool of forces and capabilities[5] and a meaningful contribution to actual deployed NATO crisis management operations. Consequently, this approach also allowed these countries to give up to a large degree their autonomous defence planning. Their defence planning became based on reliance on NATO collective defence and, in fact, driven by NATO collective defence planning. Therefore, the output on which these countries would then have to focus is exactly what NATO asks them to contribute to the common pool of forces and capabilities. However, it is questionable to what extent they actually follow this logic because their contributions (both to the pool and the actual operations) have usually had noticeable limitations.

NATO, its international staff at Brussels Headquarters, together with both Strategic Commands, prepare a fairly comprehensive biennial assessment on each and every Ally.[6] This assessment carefully considers the current state of particular nation’s military capabilities (together with the possibility of providing certain capabilities by civilian contractors), quality and focus of their plans for future capability development, national contributions to actual NATO operations, personnel development, and the level of available and planned funding for defence. This assessment to a large degree answers the question – how much each nation is willing to contribute to common Alliance’s tasks, share the common burden and related risks. Some nations make the main features and conclusions of their assessment public, some do not.

Many Allies keep telling NATO Headquarters that they want their assessment to be truly fair and honest, which basically means critical, and to properly expose all their shortfalls. This should help them justify the claim for at least maintaining the previous level of funding, but even more importantly, for increasing the public expenditures on defence, ideally to meet the agreed level of 2% of GDP. The idea is good in itself, however, the problem is that the defence ministers do not make these NATO assessments sufficiently visible to their governments and Prime Ministers, and certainly not visible enough to their parliaments or even publics.

Part of this problem is, or actually used to be, that despite the clear wish of the nations the NATO staff has remained very politically correct. There has always been a good balance of negative and positive evaluation so that everybody could be happy and no country’s performance appeared too poor. The 2016 NATO Defence Planning Capability Review was for the first time significantly different from the previous cycles, i.e. it really pointed out areas where nations were doing far less than should be reasonably expected. One could read the final conclusions saying “…the nation X is strongly encouraged to start carrying its fair share of the Alliance burden…,” or “Other Allies will have to shoulder the additional burden caused by the capability gaps left unfilled by nation Y”. This was already saying quite clearly: You are a free rider!

Of course, in order for these assessments to have the desired effect, the top decision makers and members of parliament would have to get familiar with them. But this was not always the case.

The three abovementioned central European countries finally got their quite harsh assessments in June 2016, resulting from more than a decade of very relaxed approach to the development of their capabilities caused by a long period of heavy underinvestment in their defence sectors. All those countries have recently declared a commitment to increase their defence expenditures significantly. It is perhaps unrealistic given the record of their defence budgets over the last years and the difficulties their defence ministers usually faced when negotiating even a very slight increase. Overall, the current response of these three countries is not overwhelmingly convincing. We still have to await whether the trajectories of defence expenditures will lead to the shares of GDP these countries promised to devote to defence by 2020.

The underlying message from NATO Headquarters still is that all three countries should first invest into their fair contribution to what NATO collectively identifies as the overall requirement necessary to meet NATO’s ambition, goals and tasks. The basic logic is simple – if these countries base their national defence on the principle of collective defence, they also have to fulfil by 100% their fair contribution to the collective defence in favour of the whole Alliance.

It is also true, recalling the Article 3 of the North Atlantic Treaty, that every member state has to develop capabilities for its own defence, and Article 5 does not lift this responsibility. The overall defence capacity of each country clearly has to be proportionate to its size and political ambition, which typically means it should be larger than just the force contributed to NATO. Some recent steps taken for instance by the Czech Republic as part of capability development (supposedly based on national planning requirements despite its strong focus on NATO requirements) were not welcomed by NATO simply because they did not really improve the major contribution expected from the Czech Republic. And there is actually a lot to be improved. In case of countries whose defence policy is strongly oriented on NATO, it is particularly recommendable to consult with NATO on any major steps in capability development or changes in armed forces character before they are actually realized. This should help to avoid mutual misunderstanding about the most appropriate defence priorities of a particular country.


Latvia’s defence potential is and will remain limited for many obvious reasons. Therefore, the ambition to develop forces able to meaningfully defend a significant part of Latvian territory in a large-scale high-intensity conflict should not be the main driver for Latvia’s defence planning. Latvia has to rely on Allied reinforcement within NATO’s collective deterrence and defence. In this context, looking specifically at the land forces as the most important component of Latvia’s armed forces, any increase of their size which would also bring additional meaningful military value is probably not worth the cost attached to it.

Therefore, before embarking on a path of experiments with significantly enlarging the traditional land forces (including the National Guard), introducing conscription service or any other course of action which would change the current character of the armed forces, Latvia should focus on developing, maintaining, and being able to provide what NATO Allies consider Latvia’s reasonable and proportionate contribution to the NATO core tasks. In fact, the NATO requirement for Latvia’s contribution is not overly demanding; it comes from the realm of reasonable expectations. Therefore, Latvia’s first ambition should be to meet this requirement by 100%.

However, there certainly is a room and a good reason to improve the overall quality of current land forces and their capability to tackle the adversary, particularly at longer distance. This entails, among others, intelligence and reconnaissance for early warning, protected mobility of troops, stronger air defence, and some other key enabling capabilities. To ensure a high level of military proficiency and rapid reaction, the focus should be placed on regular peace-time force structure. In this context, it is also sensible that Latvia continues to keep a certain part of its armed forces non-deployable, focused on territorial defence.

An area where Latvia can make a significant difference is the effort to develop forces able to prevail in a determined countering a smaller-scale incursion, provocations, or actions designed to look like local militia’s insurgent activity. This is an affordable ambition.

Therefore, the area where it is advisable for Latvia to go well beyond and above the NATO requirement is Special Operations Forces. Experience shows that this might be the most useful force element to counter ambiguous armed incursion.

And last, the key to success, in general, is a smart acquisition. That means procuring what armed forces really need based on the most likely scenarios of their use, and similarly, not wasting funds on things from the nice-to-have category but rather acquiring solutions which are critical for the mission success.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent position of any institution he might be affiliated to.

[1] J. Garisons’ address of 29 October 2016 at the conference panel titled “Resilience: Renaissance of total defence?“ The video is available at

[2] However, e.g. Turkey and Greece have always challenged this approach.

[3] The National Security Concept (2015- ); retrieved on 14 February 2017 from the Ministry of Defence website,%20koncepcijas/NDK/NDK_ENG_final.ashx;

The National Defence Concept (2016- ); retrieved on 14 February 2017 from the Ministry of Defence website,%20koncepcijas/2016/AIMVAK_260516_EN_2.0.ashx

[4] The current NATO agreed guidance on defence spending is 2% of GDP. The guidance also says that at least 20% of the defence spending have to be devoted to acquiring, or modernization of, major equipment, i.e. major weapon systems etc. NATO agreed guidance means that all NATO nations have agreed to it and committed themselves to meet that guidance.

[5] NATO’s pool of forces and capabilities is a set of forces which Allies declare as available and prepared for use in NATO operations. The composition of the pool is designed to be sufficient for all NATO tasks and all types of operations, including collective defence.

[6] The assessment is officially called “NATO Defence Planning Capability Review”.

Publicēts 22. februāris, 2017

Autors Jan Stejskal