August 27, 2012

Defence acquisition dilemmas, Lithuanian style

Venemaa valmistub evakueerima oma laevastiku tugipunkti Süürias Tartusis, läbis üle-eile kahin Vene uudisteagentuure. Tugipunkti personal on juba ohutult Vene mereväe aluse pardal, kaldal asuvaid hooneid valmistatakse ette üleandmiseks Süüria võimudele, väitsid ühed allikad. Ei, mitte midagi sellist ei toimu ning esialgu kedagi evakueerida pole plaanis, sekundeerisid mõne aja pärast teised allikad.

Kuigi Tartusi tugipunkti edasine saatus on hetkel endiselt segane, näivad tänased uudised tähistavat omalaadset verstaposti juba juuni alguses alanud epopöas. Toona lõhkas Vene päevaleht Nezavisimaja Gazeta väiksemat sorti uudispommi: president Valdimir Putin on andnud relvajõudude juhtkonnale korralduse valmistada Vene eliitüksused ette võimalikuks sõjaliseks sekkumiseks väljaspool Vene Föderatsiooni piire. Vene sõdurite võimalik sihtriik – Süüria.

Venemaa valmistub evakueerima oma laevastiku tugipunkti Süürias Tartusis, läbis üle-eile kahin Vene uudisteagentuure. Tugipunkti personal on juba ohutult Vene mereväe aluse pardal, kaldal asuvaid hooneid valmistatakse ette üleandmiseks Süüria võimudele, väitsid ühed allikad. Ei, mitte midagi sellist ei toimu ning esialgu kedagi evakueerida pole plaanis, sekundeerisid mõne aja pärast teised allikad.

Kuigi Tartusi tugipunkti edasine saatus on hetkel endiselt segane, näivad tänased uudised tähistavat omalaadset verstaposti juba juuni alguses alanud epopöas. Toona lõhkas Vene päevaleht Nezavisimaja Gazeta väiksemat sorti uudispommi: president Valdimir Putin on andnud relvajõudude juhtkonnale korralduse valmistada Vene eliitüksused ette võimalikuks sõjaliseks sekkumiseks väljaspool Vene Föderatsiooni piire. Vene sõdurite võimalik sihtriik – Süüria.

SAR is one of the missions of the Lithuanian Armed Forces which also includes helicopter capability operated by the air force. Public-relations wise, this is one of the areas providing plentiful opportunities for the defence ministry and armed forces to demonstrate peacetime utility of defence investments. Images of the military helicopters rescuing fishermen stranded on ice in the Curonian lagoon, helping extinguish raging forest fires or airlifting across the country donor organs for transplant surgery are easy to relate to the needs and concerns of the society, members of which often care less about military missions. Old Mi-8 helicopters used by the air force for this purpose are due for replacement by not later than 2016, which should have been a cakewalk public relations-wise given the positive image of SAR capability. But not so in Lithuania, where a lack of foresight in communicating government decisions ends up being a disaster in its own right.

True, up until now, everything was going perfectly fine. The ministry of national defence drew the requirements and invited bids, provided perfect communication to the public about the need for the new helicopters as well as about the on-going process to choose their supplier. It also did not conceal that there was an intention to tap into the EU funds to finance this acquisition, which is perfectly legitimate and practiced elsewhere, although somewhat questionable from a military capability point of view as the assets purchased using the EU funds cannot be used for purely military tasks. Yet, cash-strapped armed forces are happy to address their forthcoming capability gaps with any funding sources available, even if that comes with caveats. A project for the procurement of 3 new helicopters to the tune of some 45 mn. EUR was put together and duly received the governmental approval to go ahead. There was no controversy or public outcry.

However, as it appeared, the project also required some adjustments in the EU-funded governmental programmes. It is only natural that the government looked at those unlikely to spend all earmarked amounts until the end of the current EU financial perspective (which means returning the unspent money back to Brussels) and chose one of the worst performers as a source of financing the defence acquisition project. The most unfortunate part, in many regards, is that one such programme in question is also a source of funding for housing renovation, administered by the environment ministry. Bureaucratic and legal obstacles, inadequate “business models” and multiple other reasons conspire so that housing renovation in Lithuania is in a pitiful state of affairs which keeps only “Gazprom” and its Lithuanian subsidiaries happy. Politically and strategically as well as for the consumers of energy resources, it is a continuing melodrama in the domains of energy, environmental and household financial security. In terms of administrative tactics, though, it provided a reasonable way for the government to find the money for the choppers. Yet, its communication is disastrous.

So, here we are: news headlines screaming that the government is taking away the money to renovate housing in order to purchase helicopters; the minister of communications and leader of one of the coalition parties publicly criticising this approach and defence minister fighting back; leader of the opposition accusing the government of assuming the parliamentary privilege of reallocating national budget; an influential columnist calling it the second most stupid procurement project ever. It is becoming evident that an important project dedicated to maintaining a capability to rescue lives is suddenly itself in a dire need of rescue. And, when the political and public discourse is skewed so that the choice is presented as “warm houses vs. expensive helicopters”, it will be a difficult feat to accomplish. Especially in the society which, instead of demanding value for money in each sector separately, is too much accustomed to perceiving the national budget as a zero-sum game often favouring “unworthy” causes (defence) at the expense of “noble” causes (education, pensions or health care). No matter that, in this particular case, it is a choice between finding the money for a well-prepared, justified, feasible and realistic security, defence and safety project and further hoarding (and then losing) it for a total mess of housing renovation for which a decent minister of environment would have resigned long ago.

If the row derails the project, the repercussions will be serious, both nationally and internationally. With no airborne SAR capability, Lithuanian government’s ability to respond to various emergencies such as natural or industrial disasters and to save lives in danger will become ever more limited. (Of course, when such a disaster strikes, the very same chorus of naysayers opposing the project and its funding source will turn against the government to demand explanations why it has no necessary capabilities). Sailors at sea will be well advised, from 2016 onwards, to stay closer to the Swedish coast, just in case they get into some trouble and need help of authorities. Lithuanian fishermen should keep the numbers of the Russian ministry of emergency situations at hand while out on ice. And, to the delight of the Estonians, NATO’s Baltic air policing operation will have to be permanently relocated to Ämari airbase as the only place where a host nation is able to ensure a SAR function – a prerequisite for the air policing operations base – while air policing of the Lithuanian airspace is suspended due to the absence of the very same function. (Hopefully, by then, the Estonians will have added one or two SAR helicopters to their current fleet of 3 operated by the police and border guard service: the current number is just not enough, as recently demonstrated by simultaneous breakdowns and routine maintenance works of the entire fleet).

If the Lithuanian politicians fighting for their survival in the election year, ignorant commentators and the general public can live with the above consequences of their short-sighted outcry, fine. They only should remain mindful of reinforcing the country’s image as lacking competence and potency in national security and defence, incapable of a broad and meaningful consensus in this field and unwilling to spend for the sake of safety, security and defence of its own citizens as well as to meet its international obligations. Oh, and by the way, those houses are not getting warmer any time soon, and this has nothing to do with buying or not buying new choppers. So, on top of the bungled SAR project, just keep on footing those high heating bills and watch those gleeful smiles of “Gazprom” folk grow. Here is a genuine “lose-lose” case between defence and other investments for you to ponder.

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