Baltic defence cooperation during economic crisis: between symbolism and substance

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 27 April 2009

Autor: Tomas Jermalavicius

Twice a year, in spring and autumn, ministers of defence of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania meet to discuss the status and progress of defence cooperation between the three countries. Every time a Joint Communiqué is issued, sometimes after quite heated discussions over its content and wording, to highlight the priorities, measures and steps to advance this cooperation. Last week‘s meeting, which took place in Tallinn, was no exception. However, contrary to most of the previous meetings, this one was slightly overshadowed by the impact of the deep economic crisis on defence. This theme very much dominated a roundtable discussion between top defence officials, Estonian and Lithuanian defence ministers and Latvian MOD‘s political director, held at the ICDS on Friday.

The good news is that Baltic defence cooperation is supported by reinvigorated political will and seems to generate a great deal of optimism among policymakers. As it was duly noted during the roundtable debate, defence is still most advanced area of cooperation between the three states and, indeed, its challenges and problems pale compared to, for instance, energy cooperation. It is a refreshing outlook, especially to those who remember vividly the situation some five years ago, when the inter-Baltic spats degenerated into rancour and when three ministers could barely talk to each other during their meetings. At the very least, attitudes at different levels of defence organisations will stop being poisoned by bad chemistry at the top.

Another encouraging aspect pertains to the impact of economic crisis rather than inter-personal relations: three countries seem to view it as an opportunity and great incentive to collaborate more. Although there has been much talk of joint defence procurement in the past, this time there is a clear sense that progress must be urgently made in this field. Joint Communiqué contains firm instructions to national armament directors to look into and harmonize national legislation, processes and procedures in defence procurement, in order to enable much more common procurement in the future. There are even some suggestions to consider joint maintenance as a logical extension of this idea, which would bring about further reductions in costs for the armed forces of the three nations.

Timely and relevant ideas and measures these are, given the budgetary circumstances. And some of the problems in developing cooperation projects between the three states could have been avoided, if joint procurement had been one of the first areas to advance and develop. BALTBAT, which is now being groomed for a duty tour on the NATO Response Force (NRF) next year, is a good example: military experts are struggling to eliminate or mitigate differences in armament and equipment between the units contributed by each country, which stem from different national procurement choices. These differences have very real practical implications to the military effectiveness of common units, and their removal adds to the cost of military cooperation between the three countries.

It remains to be seen whether the same challenges will not come to haunt, for instance, BALTRON: each country made separate purchases of mines counter-measures (MCM) ships. And there are plenty more contracts in the pipeline or being fulfilled, which will lead to the same problems of translating political will and symbolism of cooperation into practical and workable military arrangements. We have placed a cart (common projects to bolster capabilities) in front of the horse (procurement) a while ago, and turning them around will take time, effort and money.

It is also certain that harmonisation of legal or procedural frameworks will be a necessary but not a sufficient precondition for joint procurement and maintenance in the future. The Lithuanian defence minister hit the nail on its head by pointing out that a multitude of psychological, organisational and cultural obstacles will have to be overcome as well. I will not speculate what she might have had in mind, but my strong suggestion is to focus on making defence procurement more transparent. If Corruption Perception Indices (CPI) in Latvia and Lithuania are anything to go by, it would be naïve to think that defence organisations of those countries live in a different world than their parent societies. One of the reasons, why so little penchant for joint procurement existed in the past, might be that it produces much greater transparency. Not everyone might be interested in such a thing.

We also have to look into our level of ambition for common projects, BALTBAT being the case in point again. With so much push and effort to prepare it for the NRF duties, I have little doubt it will be ready even under existing financial pressure. But, what happens then? Let us imagine that we will have to actually commit it to what it is being prepared for – go into action with the NRF, whether in Afghanistan or in some other country or region of the world. The cost for deploying and sustaining this unit together with the NRF will be such, that some decision-makers must be praying now that nothing happens during the BALTBAT’s stand-by period. Symbolism and ambition are good things, but risks to credibility must be weighed properly as well, especially when they increase due to dramatic shifts in the economic context.

Perhaps, when the stressful waiting for nothing to happen during BALTBAT’s service on the NRF is over, we should consider re-assigning it to the force that the Baltics lent so much political support in the last Joint Communiqué – Allied Solidarity Force (ASF). If this idea kicks off, BALTBAT will have a natural place in it – as a proper expression of pan-Baltic solidarity with their allies as well as a unit for affordable deployment (mind you, it would probably be a contingency related to Article 5, where no funds would be spared, and it would anyway probably take place closer to home than Afghanistan).

Last but certainly not least, when calibrating, revising and visioning Baltic defence cooperation, decision-makers would do well to remember a wise note of caution by one Finnish participant of the roundtable discussion. Drawing upon the experience of the Nordic defence cooperation, he noted that Baltic defence cooperation may actually cost more than going alone, not less, as the Baltics might be expecting; at the same time, the gains will also be greater than going alone (or doing nothing).

There is no need to look across the Baltic Sea for examples – we have our own “food for thought”. Baltic Defence College (BALTDEFCOL) is a good case to consider (coincidentally, the ICDS has just completed a study on it). Probably conducting a small joint staff officer course nationally would save a lot, compared to owning and running a high-quality tri-lateral joint staff and higher defence studies college. However, losing such advantages as the breadth and depth of foreign expertise and experience that we can access thanks to the BALTDEFCOL, or its diversity of learning environment that we can tap into for the benefit of professional development of our officers, would certainly outweigh any economic gains of fully “nationalising” professional military education in a long term.

Baltic defence cooperation initiatives have to be put into a broader perspective than just subordinating them to the economic imperatives of difficult times. Otherwise, we will end up with ever more of cheap symbolism and flag-waving and with ever less of substance – common capabilities of real strategic and military value. Certain undertones of the rediscovered optimism of policymakers give grounds to believe that long-term perspective is not yet lost.

posted by: RKK/ICDS

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