June 15, 2018

Baltic Air Defence: Addressing a Critical Military Capability Gap

Shortfalls in air defence would leave the Baltic states vulnerable to the effects of a fast-moving air campaign

Since regaining their independence, the three Baltic states have understandably taken a predominantly land-centric approach to their defence. The architects of early Baltic defence efforts saw large conscript armies as the best way to deter a potentially hostile neighbour. Estonia, especially, was keen to follow the Finnish defence model, aiming to mobilise the biggest wartime force structure possible. Although early targets to raise forces numbering several tens of thousands soon proved too ambitious, this land-centric thinking has endured. A combination of doctrinal rigidity, the high cost of maritime and air systems, and the encouragement of NATO’s defence planning machinery—which, in the 1990s and 2000s, was keen for its newer member states to build light infantry forces and niche capabilities to support its out-of-area agenda—has seen the largest share of Baltic defence spending going to land-based units. Maritime capabilities in the Baltic states are limited to a handful of mine countermeasures vessels and some small patrol boats. Lithuania has taken some steps towards a modern, flying air force with its acquisition of three Alenia C-27J Spartan tactical transport aircraft. But, aside from these, a few general-purpose helicopters and some antiquated utility aircraft, air platforms are mostly absent from Baltic inventories. The inclusion of a panel at this year’s Lennart Meri Conference to discuss the Baltic states’ air and sea “blindness” was motivated by this apparent imbalance in force planning.

In the air domain, one clear capability shortfall is in air defence. The Baltic states have, through the Baltic Air Surveillance Network—BALTNET—built a capacity for air surveillance and command and control which is adequate in peacetime, but insufficiently robust to support NATO’s defence of Baltic airspace in times of crisis. In terms of air-defence weapon systems, the three states possess only legacy anti-aircraft gun systems and short-range ground-based missile systems, providing a limited capability to defend key strategic points for a brief period. Lithuania has begun the acquisition of more capable medium-range NASAMS II missile systems, while Latvia has allocated funding for a similar procurement in the coming years. These will enhance air defence, but overall the Baltic states’ capabilities will still fall far short of what would be required to conduct a coherent, layered defence of the region’s airspace.

Meanwhile, Russia—the only conceivable existential threat to the Baltic states—has built up substantial air power in recent years. In the Western Military District, the strategic command that adjoins the territories of NATO and EU member states, there are 27 air squadrons and six battalions of attack helicopters, as well as four manoeuvre divisions and an additional five brigades of airborne infantry.1 Russia has also invested substantially in Anti-Access/Area Denial capabilities—long-range weapon systems intended to prevent an adversary’s entry to a theatre of operations and to limit his freedom of manoeuvre there. In a conflict with Russia, shortfalls in air defence would leave the Baltic states vulnerable to the effects of a fast-moving air campaign. Defensive operations by manoeuvre forces, including those Allied forces now deployed to the region under the banner of enhanced Forward Presence, would likely be disrupted by attacks from the air. Key strategic locations, including command-and-control nodes and mobilisation depots, would be at risk. Crucially, Baltic air and sea ports, and air, land and sea transport routes would be exposed, threatening NATO’s reinforcement of the region. Strengthening air defence in the Baltic states—and hence deterrence—is essential not only for the three states themselves, but for the rest of NATO too.

For the Baltic states, however, the cost of developing a comprehensive layered air defence is prohibitively high. At a reported 109 million euros, the purchase price alone for Lithuania’s two batteries of the NASAMS II medium-range ground-based air-defence system already equates to a substantial slice of Baltic defence budgets.2 This critical capability gap can only be addressed through cooperation—between the three Baltic states, between them and the rest of NATO, and between NATO and its Enhanced Operational Partners, Finland and Sweden.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania must be ready to take a leading and proactive role in building their air defences, demonstrating their own commitment to solving this challenge. This will require them to make substantial investments and/or to reprioritise their defence planning. They will need to enhance the command, control and communications systems created under BALTNET to be ready to support NATO air-defence operations, rather than the peacetime air-policing operations for which they are currently configured—for example by duplicating communications networks and command-and-control structures to create the redundancy necessary to ensure the high reliability and availability to support high-tempo air operations. They will need to integrate existing short-range ground-based air-defence systems into these networks and ensure that this capability is available from the very outset of a crisis to protect mobilisation facilities and critical transport infrastructure. And they will need to invest in at least a minimum level of medium-range ground-based air-defence systems to provide more effective cover of Baltic territory. Detailed recommendations may be found in our recent report.3

The three states must also enhance defence and security cooperation amongst themselves, seeking common solutions for air defence wherever possible, for example in systems acquisition, training, maintenance and logistics. This will maximise opportunities for saving resources through economies of scale, improve interoperability, and ensure easier integration into wider NATO air-defence architectures. Importantly, it will ensure that air defence is continuous over the territories of the three states—an essential requirement given their small size and the high speed of air operations. And, being in tune with NATO and EU concepts that promote defence cooperation, it will help to ensure the commitment of other Allies to Baltic air defence. Rather than adopt a piecemeal approach, however, the Baltic states should create a new, broad framework to take forward cooperation on the full range of air-defence issues. Existing frameworks such as BALTNET and the Baltic Defence College, as well as previous initiatives such as the Baltic Battalion and Baltic Naval Squadron, configured at several levels to deal with technical, military, policy and governance issues, have proved successful in fostering cooperation among the three states. This cooperative experience—unfortunately somewhat dormant at present—should be built upon to deliver solutions to a new set of challenges.

Where shortfalls in air defence cannot reasonably be addressed by the Baltic states, actions from NATO collectively, or from the Allies individually or in groups, can substantially enhance air defence and deterrence in the region. That said, much of NATO’s current air-defence command-and-control system is also dated. NATO should accelerate its long-standing programmes to build and enhance Alliance-wide air command and control. This will be particularly important when considering the need to ensure fourth/fifth generation interoperability and to allow a common air operating picture to be shared into a modern multi-domain command-and-control network.

The presence of Allied air-defence assets in the Baltic states not only offers valuable training opportunities for both incoming and local personnel, but also sends an important deterrence message. NATO should therefore step up its exercising of air-defence assets in the Baltic region, including airborne and deployable air command and control, long-range ground-based missile systems and fighter aircraft, as well as exercising more general reinforcement of the region and the transition from peacetime to an air-defence posture. Further, air-defence units should deploy to the region for longer periods from time to time, for example under the umbrella of enhanced Forward Presence or the US European Deterrence Initiative. And, given the high tempo of air operations, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe should be empowered with a level of authority to prepare components in the air domain similar to what he already has in the land domain.

Finally, in the event of a large-scale conflict, Sweden and Finland on the one hand and NATO on the other will likely have very similar goals for air defence. It is clear from even the briefest of studies of the geography of the wider Baltic region that an understanding of air-domain activity within or near Swedish and Finnish borders would be vital for NATO’s air defence. The exchange of data between the Alliance and Finland and Sweden would be mutually beneficial, if only for reasons of flight safety. Finnish and Swedish cooperation with NATO is a deeply sensitive and politically charged issue. However, cooperation in times of crisis cannot be achieved simply by throwing a switch. Possible levels of cooperation in peacetime and wartime must be agreed in advance, the technical means for data exchange on a dual-key basis must be established, and procedures exercised.

The air-defence challenge in the Baltic states is formidable, but progress is achievable through cooperative efforts. The Baltic states, the rest of NATO, and NATO’s Enhanced Operational Partners should consider air defence not as a set of discrete technical challenges, but as a package demanding a comprehensive solution. They should take a shared, coherent approach to enhancing air defence and deterrence in the Baltic region.


1 Richard Sokolsky, “The New NATO-Russia Military Balance: Implications for European Security”. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 13 March 2017, http://carnegieendowment.org/2017/03/13/new-nato-russia-military-balance-implications-for-european-security-pub-68222; Defense Intelligence Agency (USA), Russia. Military Power (Defense Intelligence Agency, 2017), p. 55.

2 Budget plans for 2018: Estonia – 524 million euros; Latvia – 576 million euros; Lithuania – 873 million euros. All three states will be spending above the NATO target of 2% of GDP.

3 Sir Christopher Harper, Tony Lawrence and Sven Sakkov, Air Defence of the Baltic States (Tallinn: ICDS, 2018).


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.