DN - Defence Notes

Latvia says no to conscription

20th March 2017 - 12:03 GMT | by Grant Turnbull in Riga

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Latvia has reaffirmed its commitment to meet NATO defence spending targets by next year but will not follow other allies in bringing back conscription, the country's top defence civil servant has said.

The small Baltic state – which is currently at the centre of a significant NATO build up to deter Russian aggression – has approved a three-year defence budget that will likely see it spend at least 2% of its GDP on defence by 2018.

Currently, only four European countries - Estonia, Greece, Poland and the UK – meet the all-important NATO defence spending target.

In an interview with Shephard, State Secretary of the Latvian MoD Jānis Garisons said while the defence budget had already been approved until 2019, the focus should not just be on reaching 2%.

'People are too focused on this figure, what is important of course is that money goes into capabilities…and to have a force that is able to fight and protect the country,' said Garisons.

Asked if this means following in the footsteps of regional allies such as Lithuania and Sweden and reintroducing conscription Garisons said that was not an option for at least five years citing a need for increased expenditure on both infrastructure and command staff.

'If we decide right now for conscription that would mean [spending] the next three years all available budget on infrastructure and not procuring any weapons,' he explained. 'That would be, from my point of view, a big mistake to start something new…we would have everything but in reality we would have nothing.'

To increase deterrence, Latvia is hosting forces from several NATO nations as part of the alliance's Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) defence posture. Reminiscent of the Cold War days, several nations are sending troops and heavy equipment to bolster the defence of the alliance's eastern flank.

The US military also has a separate but complimentary effort known as Operation Atlantic Resolve which has seen the deployment of an armoured brigade combat team as well as a combat aviation brigade.

'We have to have NATO's commitment, not only [its] verbal commitment but also NATO practical commitment,' said Garisons. 'I think that those decisions [at the 2016 Warsaw Summit] with deployment of battalion combat teams are appropriate and will constitute that deterrence that we need.'

On US involvement in the region, particularly since the election of President Donald Trump, Garisons said he still had no doubt about the country's commitment.

'We have never doubted US commitment [and] we believe in US leadership,' he said. 'The United States never recognised the Soviet occupation and they recognised the independence of the Baltic States, therefore we do not have any reason to doubt US leadership.'

While Russian aggression may be the new normal for nations across Europe for the Baltic States it has been a fact of life for several years even before the 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula. Garisons said that it was no surprise for Latvia when Crimea was occupied.

'We've seen that type of development for years,' he said, 'At least since 2010 we saw a gradual increase of exercises, a gradual increase of military movements, we saw new bases, a new helicopter base was established just 30km from our border and now it is fully equipped with new helicopters.'

'We had, I have to admit, quite a difficult time…when [the West was] in some kind of interesting stage of partnership with Russia and simultaneously new units were established on our borders.'

The Latvia MoD is also not surprised by Russia's use of 'hybrid tactics' that include cyber attacks and disinformation, now labelled as 'fake news'. On 13 March, the Latvian MoD responded to the spread of fake news stating that NATO troops could move around the country with loaded weapons, risking the lives of Latvian citizens.

'It is nothing new for us, we have been living in such an environment for ten or 15 years', said the secretary.

In terms of defence modernisation and investment the Latvian MoD has outlined three main priorities that includes early-warning systems, rapid reaction forces and territorial defence to be carried out by a National Guard force.

The Latvia Army is also concentrating on mechanisation with the acquisition of surplus armoured vehicles from the UK, over 40 of which have already been delivered out of a total of 123. In the other Baltic States, Estonia has purchased surplus CV90 vehicles from the Netherlands and Lithuanian has committed to purchasing the Boxer IFV.

Garisons said the three countries were looking at potential joint procurements but it was not an easy process. 'There are different planning cycles [and] different money available at the point that you make decisions, therefore it's not always very easy to come to an agreement.'

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