June 3, 2014

Current challenges for the Latvian Defence System in Light of the Ukraine Conflict

Early lessons from the Ukraine conflict show that a fundamental reassessment of the entire Latvian defence and security system is needed.

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine leads one to conclude that a fundamental reassessment of defence and security arrangements in the Baltic region is needed. The crisis also highlights challenges for Latvia’s entire defence system.  First, current security concerns and an assessment of the development of the conflict in Ukraine show that asymmetric, hybrid warfare is the fundamental feature of conflicts in the 21st-century security environment, with its multifunctional threats across the entire spectrum of the wider security landscape. One could characterise the current security environment in Ukraine as fundamental political, economic, and security instability that puts the country on the verge of becoming a failed state.
State security and defence institutions are not the only actors in the current situation. Paramilitary groups and organised crime networks are also very active players, seeking to utilise a range of asymmetric/hybrid capabilities and methods in order to achieve their strategic, operational and tactical goals. Within this complex security situation these methods have been employed against civilian, economic, political and informational targets, increasingly utilising urban areas where uniformed or plainclothes combatants, insurgents, paramilitaries, and organised crime networks can easily blend in with the general population.
The Ukrainian example clearly demonstrates that certain asymmetric and hybrid methods are planned and employed, often simultaneously, across time zones and geographic space. The use of cyberspace, including cyber attacks, and irregular warfare (including subversion and civil disturbance), and the use and/or misuse of international and national law are just a few features of conflict in the 21st-century security environment. One could also list several other institutions, tactics, and techniques that have been highlighted during the ongoing Ukraine crisis – enhanced intelligence/counterintelligence operations, information operations designed as coordinated actions in order to influence adversaries’ decision-making, and psychological operations designed to influence attitudes and behaviour affecting the achievement of political and military objectives. Early and effective use of Special Operations Forces (SOF) should also be mentioned in the context of the Ukraine conflict. SOF are trained, equipped, and doctrinally prepared both to conduct unconventional, irregular warfare against a regular, conventional enemy and to fight an irregular enemy by unconventional means. The main tasks of SOF – direct action, gathering of timely and relevant intelligence, and support and training for paramilitaries in a politically sensitive environment – were all effectively performed by SOF in Ukraine, clearly displaying their increasing relevance.
Taking into account all these aspects and early lessons learned from the Ukraine conflict, a fundamental reassessment is needed of the entire defence and security system of the Republic of Latvia. According to Latvia’s defence and security policy, the core aspects of state defence are membership of NATO and a strategic partnership with the United States, with the subsequent development of Baltic and Nordic–Baltic defence cooperation. However, in February and March 2014 the general public and political leadership of Latvia became concerned about the continued relevance of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which resulted in reassurances by the president and vice president of the United States that the American commitment towards Latvia and the other Baltic states was unchanged.
Public and political reaction to events in Ukraine, as well as expert analysis, brought to the surface three fundamental strategic challenges and still-unresolved problems in the Latvian defence system. The first of these is the effectiveness and efficiency, in the circumstances of a Ukraine-style national security problem, of the current classic military institutional structure of the Latvian National Armed Forces (LNAF) – with its land, maritime and air components, Military Police, SOF, logistical support, and training institutions. This includes the possible reintroduction of conscription, as well as a national debate on increasing the percentage of GDP allocated to defence. The second is the need for a fundamental reassessment of the duties of the LNAF, while the third is the effectiveness of medium- and long-term plans for the development of the LNAF.
The main problem with the current LNAF structure is the variety of classic military institutional components within a total force of fewer than 5,000 military personnel.  Looking at the main characteristics and structure of the state defence institutions, one can see the limited number of military personnel and the traditionally low percentage of GDP allocated to defence, factors that consequently result in rather limited military capabilities. Taking into account different threat scenarios, including a Ukraine-style situation, it could be argued that the current structure of the LNAF is relevant only for peacetime conditions and duties, and would be irrelevant in any type of military confrontation. It is quite clear that, despite global, regional, and national security challenges, the still-complex economic situation in the country means that Latvia’s defence budget will not be significantly increased in the years to come. On one hand, Latvia approved a State Defence Concept in 2012, with a political commitment to reach 2 percent of GDP by 2020, and a plan for the long-term development of the LNAF to 2024 has also been approved. However, further implementation of all these concepts and plans will certainly face substantial challenges, due to the continuing economic challenges in the country and parliamentary elections due in October 2014.  This means that the current LNAF structure will probably not be able to acquire and deliver modern combat capabilities. In the event of military confrontation or an asymmetric/unconventional mode of combat, the LNAF and its command & control arrangements would cease to exist in their current form. Land, maritime, air, SOF, and other components of the Latvian military structure would become part of that of  NATO, under Alliance command and control arrangements. One would thus conclude after  taking into account all these characteristics  that any significant internal or external threat to the national security of Latvia would require a fundamental transformation of the LNAF.
Another very important issue that significantly impacts the effectiveness and efficiency of the LNAF is the problem of personnel. It could be argued that while Latvian soldiers are well prepared and equipped at the individual level,  the lack of sufficient financial resources can and will negatively impact personnel development. Bearing in mind the fact that significant numbers of highly professional and motivated military personnel retired due to the financial crisis of 2008, one cannot assume the LNAF’s current organisation to be similarly professional and motivated. Moreover, taking into account demographic challenges now being faced by Latvia, with its still rather high level of  emigration, it is highly unlikely that the LNAF will be able to recruit and maintain sufficient numbers of qualified personnel. This leads to the specific challenge of producing intellectually prepared military leaders with the clear strategic vision and outlook needed for the effective development of the LNAF.
A fundamental reassessment of LNAF duties is also on the table following events in Ukraine. It could be argued that a core set of tasks will remain, but the changing security environment will require a significant shift from the conventional mentality and mindset of the military leadership to one more asymmetrically orientated. Certainly, the protection of state sovereignty and territory and other conventional tasks will  remain. At the same time, the early involvement of LNAF personnel and capabilities in order to counter any threat to internal security is also required. This means that the entire personnel of the LNAF must be assigned  duties within the state internal security realm, applying to every individual member of the military as well as every institution within the LNAF framework. The protection of critical infrastructure and providing sound support to the Ministry of Interior and other state internal security agencies should become a high-priority issue. It could be argued that the LNAF should be involved early and effectively in public safety and security if the situation requires it. Participation in international military operations should remain an important role for the LNAF; however, in the light of the Ukraine conflict and the end of international military operations in Afghanistan in 2014, this task would probably not be very high on the list of priorities.
Early lessons learned from the Ukraine crisis also put significant pressure on priorities for the long- and medium-term development of the LNAF. Development of the Land Forces brigade has been a priority in previous and current development plans. It could be argued that there should be a significant reassessment of priorities within these plans. This should mean a reallocation of resources in order to increase the  priorities of   SOF  and military police units,  both of which could be effective by supporting the Ministry of Interior in preventing the escalation of security problems within Latvia itself.
Finally, one can present some conclusions and recommendations for the adjustment of Latvian defence policy. First, the Ukraine crisis shows very clearly that internal security and stability of the state are of paramount importance; the LNAF must therefore be prepared to act in the early stages of any conflict. This means that there should be a clear vision and clear plans in order to support the Ministry of Interior in an effective and timely manner, including the performance of police tasks by LNAF units, the protection of critical infrastructure, and other internal security duties. Second, there should be a reassessment of priorities for the development of the LNAF – SOF and military police should replace the Land Forces brigade as an internal priority. Third, there should be an increase in resources allocated not only to the Ministry of Defence but also to the Ministry of Interior. However, it will be difficult to achieve all this due to the still- complex economic situation in the country and the upcoming parliamentary elections in October of this year.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.