COLOGNE, Germany — Lithuania wants NATO to reframe its mission of protecting the Baltic airspace with more of a combat punch in mind, as nations in the region consider their defensive posture toward Russia.
Leaders from the southernmost Baltic country previously told alliance officials that they consider the contributions made under the Baltic air-policing mission and the Enhanced Forward Presence program vital but insufficient to deter Moscow. Last week, Germany’s defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, became the latest European leader to hear that message as she visited the German Army’s contingent of 550 soldiers in Rukla.
“The backbone is created, but really we need more around this backbone,” Lithuanian Defence Minister Raimundas Karoblis told reporters during an Oct. 10 news conference with Kramp-Karrenbauer. “The issue of enablers is one of the issues that we have.”
The minister also said that commanders of the NATO battlegroup in his country had requested ground-based air defense to protect their formations.
Kramp-Karrenbauer responded that Berlin’s commitment to the air-policing and the forward-presence missions remains strong. However, any decisions about plus-ups would have to be considered by the alliance as a whole. Moving the air-policing task into the realm of air defense “could be” one of the measures taken, she said.
To the Lithuanians, the distinction is about more than semantics.
“Currently, NATO air-policing mission is a peacetime mission,” a spokeswoman for Lithuania’s Defence Ministry wrote in a statement to Defense News. “The relevant procedures and mechanism have to be set in advance in order to ensure the smooth transition of NATO air-policing mission to air defense mission in crises.”
Starting that preparation now “would significantly enhance NATO's deterrent effect in the region,” the ministry said.
European alliance members, however, are running on empty when it comes to ground-based, air-defense kit, with scarce assets already spoken for in missions elsewhere.
“We have nothing that we could offer to deploy to the Baltics,” retired Lt. Gen. Heinrich Brauß, a former NATO planning official and now an analyst at the Berlin-based think tank German Council on Foreign Relations, told Defense News. “Not even our battlegroups are properly equipped towards that end.”
That is because funding for ground-based air defense was considered ripe for cutting during the past 20 years, as conflicts in Kosovo and Afghanistan presented no serious threats from above, according to Brauß. He said investments in the capability are only now beginning to rise again, including in the German military, partly because NATO members are figuring out their options following the demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.
The decades-old pact between the United States and Russia expired over the summer following allegations of noncompliance by both sides. It prohibited the fielding of mid-range missiles in Europe, sparing countries here the headache of having to plan defenses against these weapons.
On her next stop in neighboring Latvia, Kramp-Karrenbauer was told that regional naval defenses, too, could use a boost.
“Our worry is not only air policing, but air defense and coastal protection,” Defence Minister Artis Pabriks said during a joint news conference on Oct. 11.
Above all, he said, Latvia’s security depends on NATO appearing as a united front in the eyes of Russian leaders. “That is the greatest guarantee for avoiding conflict in the Baltics,” he said.