February 14, 2017

To Draft or Not to Draft: Defence Policy Choices in Lithuania and Latvia

Lithuanian army soldiers take part in an exercise following the official opening of a military training centre for urban warfare in Pabrade, Lithuania, on August 30, 2016.
Lithuanian army soldiers take part in an exercise following the official opening of a military training centre for urban warfare in Pabrade, Lithuania, on August 30, 2016.

Two years ago Lithuania made the announcement that mandatory military service for male citizens, suspended in 2008, was to be restored. This marked one of the most dramatic defence policy turn-arounds in recent European history, as it bucked the overall post-Cold War trend towards limiting or abolishing conscription on the continent. Sweden will soon follow suit.

Moreover, discussions about reinstating the draft have been taking place in Poland, Romania, and even Germany. By contrast, however, Latvia insists it will retain a fully professional military and will focus on strengthening its voluntary territorial defence force, Zemessardze, rather than contemplate the resumption of conscription which was suspended in 2006.

Lithuania’s decision in 2008 was driven by a number of factors. One was the assessment that membership in NATO required maximising the country’s contribution to international operations, an objective that a conscript-heavy force would not be able to meet – especially given the sophisticated skillsets required for such operations, which cannot easily be taught during conscripts’ relatively short period of training. Second, it is also obvious that national defence decision-makers discounted as rather hypothetical any direct military threat to Lithuania—given that they chose not to build the necessary large mobilisation reserves. Third, there was a tacit understanding that, since a majority of NATO allies were switching to fully professional forces, Lithuania had to do the same. One may call this an act of “strategic mimicry” more than anything else, but this was a rather prevalent means of integration at the time – doing things just to fit in, instead of thinking them through thoroughly. Last but not least, the draft was not popular in Lithuanian society, in stark contrast to the levels of support conscription enjoys in Estonia, let alone Finland.

It was therefore easy for the defence minister of the time, Juozas Olekas, to suspend the draft with a simple decree at an opportune time—that year’s parliamentary election campaign. Potentially, it was a vote winner among the constituencies that found conscription a major nuisance. Even the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008 did nothing to alter the government’s calculus. In the end, the minister’s Social Democratic Party lost the election anyway, while leaving the defence system woefully unprepared to deal with a dual challenge: the lack of a powerful recruitment machine necessary to constantly replenish military manpower on the one hand, and due to the severe financial crisis, the dearth of financial resources to retain even those already in service on the other. The financial austerity policy administered by the subsequent conservative-led administration and cheered by the president, cut defence to the very bones; at some point, the defence budget even dipped below 1% of GDP.

Fast forward to 2015. As a result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and its growing military and political assertiveness elsewhere, Lithuania found itself in a dramatically worse security environment where military force is “hard currency”. It was not an elaborate and comprehensive strategic review by the government, followed by parliamentary and public debate – in other words, the usual steps of an orderly defence policy process — that led to the decision to reinstate conscription. Instead, it was just a frank and very realistic gloomy picture of the state of affairs in the armed forces painted to President Dalia Grybauskaitė by the Commander of the Lithuanian Armed Forces Lieutenant General Jonas Vytautas Žukas: battalions were manned at catastrophically low levels (especially at the lowest ranks), in some cases with less than 30% of the necessary manpower, and with available mobilisation reserves having shrunk to next to nothing. The president’s announcement that Lithuania would resume conscription followed almost immediately, catching everyone off guard—including the defence minister, who by irony of fate was the same Juozas Olekas who suspended the draft back in 2008. As a result, the government was unable to communicate the decision effectively to the general public, with defence officials scrambling to quote the outdated laws and assure those liable to serve that no one would be calling them up tomorrow and thus pulling them away from jobs, studies or families.

The process of reinstating conscription – rallying support from the parliamentary parties, passing the legislative package, preparing the defence system to administer it and absorb the conscripts — moved ahead at a spectacular speed. Even the reluctant defence minister fell into line. The pill was sweetened by many promises: that the measure was temporary and was to be applied for only 5 years (though this was changed to “indefinitely” later on); or that the benefits package and the relatively small conscript intake (between 3,000-3,500 draftees annually) were such that the defence system could rely on enough volunteers to come forward instead of resorting to coercive legal and administrative measures.

Some groups of the society protested, but the growing that the security (or even survival) of the nation was at stake eventually overwhelmed such protests. This widespread sense of danger also at least initially ensured sufficient numbers of volunteers for conscription, many of them women. Indeed, the greatest disappointment is that, despite having a female president and commander-in-chief, the country opted for an obsolete male-only model of conscription, rather than follow the example of countries such as Norway or soon Sweden that impose an obligation to do military service on all their citizens. Yet, the armed forces performed a true miracle of fast organisational change to be able to enlist the first intake in early 2016, despite having had little in the way of necessary infrastructure, instructors, procedures, administrative capacity, capacity for medical check-ups or advertising resources to start with. Lithuania has pulled it off, thus sending a powerful signal to its allies and potential adversaries that it treats national defence very seriously and is taking greater responsibility for its self-defence capabilities.

Now, in 2017, with a new parliament and government in charge, very few parties or members of the public openly question the need for this truly massive change. Indeed, the risk now is of overdoing it: many influential political players, including the prime minister, are suggesting that the country should draft as conscripts all suitable men (unfortunately, there is no mention of women as well) immediately after leaving school. They have floated such deadlines as 2020 or 2025 for implementing this measure, which would effectively double or even triple the current intake of less than 4,000 conscripts annually. For its part, the defence leadership is already warning that the financial cost of this approach is so steep that it would endanger the country’s ambitious armament procurement and modernisation programme, even despite the new bonanza of money provided for the armed forces (the country is pushing towards meeting the 2% of GDP benchmark as early as 2018 and then perhaps exceeding it in subsequent years).
Will Latvia follow this path any time soon? Judging from the comments of the defence officials and politicians, the prevailing consensus in Riga is different from that in Vilnius. Scepticism regarding the political and strategic wisdom, societal rationale or military utility of conscription is still strong, while belief in the continuing validity of the current approach – building a small yet agile fully professional force and supplementing it with the expanded Zemessardze – has remained firmly in place. The necessary political conditions for the resumption of conscription seem to be absent. It remains to be seen, however, whether any further geopolitical shocks may shatter this consensus. If they do, then the lessons from Lithuania – about political will and leadership, fast military adaptation, administrative capacity-building, strategic communication and societal involvement – will be important ones to learn and apply to ensure that conscription is readopted successfully.

One has to accept that conscription is only one of the possible ways to deliver capability, one that does not just bring benefits, but that also entails its own costs, disadvantages and compromises. If implemented clumsily – with inexplicably discriminatory selection, poor leadership and motivation, sloppy training programmes, too much idle time, inadequate equipment and supply or meaningless follow-up refresher training – it can disappoint or even alienate society while simultaneously failing to deliver the expected military capability. By contrast, if implemented properly, it can strengthen deterrence, increase resilience or resistance during crisis and in wartime, provide a constant pool for the recruitment of professionals and strengthen the link with society as a whole, all of which are great benefits for a small country facing a direct military threat.

Was Lithuania right to suspend conscription in 2008? At the time, mainly looking at the trends within NATO and the strategic challenges of the day, it appeared so to all except the staunchest, most ideologically-driven supporters of the draft. But did Lithuania properly execute the decision to eliminate conscription, e.g. by allocating sufficient resources to defence so that the required numbers of professionals could be recruited, trained, equipped and retained? Not at all, and this is one of the reasons why the country has reverted back to conscription. Even now, it will have to do much more in order to maintain a steady stream of volunteers while also increasing the future utility and effectiveness of the draft. Is Latvia right to stick to its guns and maintain its current course? It has political, societal and military reasons to think so.

True mastery of defence policy is about being able to spot when steady continuity begins to turn into stubborn dogmatism and complacency (such as a tendency to be always preparing to fight the last war, or a propensity to ignore evidence that runs contrary to one’s pre-existing beliefs) or, conversely, when constant and frequent change becomes a source of damaging organizational fatigue and instability. Under the leadership of the president who prefers radical solutions that have a quick impact, Lithuania has yet again chosen dramatic change and, for once, is doing its best to make it work. Latvia, meanwhile, has chosen continuity—and has to make it work too, because the stakes of failure are simply too high. Draft or no draft, defence needs effective and well-resourced strategy supported with real instead of paper capabilities. This is the point to be kept in mind by politicians, members of the public and the military at all times – in Vilnius, Riga and elsewhere.

The original version of this article was published in the opinion section of the Estonian-language daily newspaper Eesti Päevaleht on 1 February 2017.