In 2019, the trans-Atlantic community has had its fair share of squabbles over the future of the NATO alliance. Many in Europe have voiced their concerns about a flagging commitment from the United States to the defense of our old continent, while the U.S. administration seemed to grow increasingly frustrated over defense spending and military capability development in Europe. However, I am a big believer in actions speaking louder than words.
Looking from Vilnius, plenty of evidence points to a firm and enduring U.S. loyalty to Europe. Funding for the European Deterrence Initiative has increased over six times since 2015 to reassure the allies and to bolster their capacities. In addition to thousands of permanently stationed troops in Europe, combat-credible heel-to-toe forces — up to 5,000 in total — are testing a new operating environment in Poland and Lithuania. Simultaneously, U.S., NATO and European military planners are hard at work in anticipation of the Defender 2020 exercise, the largest stress test to rapidly project and receive forces from the U.S. to countries across Europe since the Cold War.
At the same time, it is enough to look at the spectrum of NATO’s activities to know that it has fully embraced a 360-degree approach to address the security needs of today and tomorrow.
Most importantly for my country, the alliance has focused on reinforcing the most vulnerable allies with basing troops in the Baltic states and Poland. Our allies from Germany, the United Kingdom and Canada lead the Enhanced Forward Presence forces in the Baltics, with over 20 European allies contributing their troops. Trans-Atlantic solidarity, which we witness today in the Baltics, constitutes the core of NATO’s deterrence and defense posture in our region.
In parallel, NATO’s Command Structure is being transformed to reacquire capabilities for large-scale collective defense operations — this has emerged as an essential requirement for the alliance in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Furthermore, through NATO’s Readiness Initiative, the alliance aims to elevate its ability for rapid reinforcement of threatened allies. In both endeavors the United States is playing a central role.
Lately, Europe has been positively spurred to action by the relentlessness of the U.S. The continent is clearly on a positive trajectory as evidenced by the growing defense budgets and the sheer amount of newly launched defense initiatives. It is essential that this increased attention to security and defense in Europe maintains a clear focus on capability building and compatibility with NATO.
Lithuania itself is making great strides in strengthening its defense. Thanks to the public support and determined political leadership, a historic sprint in defense spending to reach 2 percent of gross domestic product has been achieved, making a truly powerful impact on the ground. We are undergoing a major breakthrough in modernizing our Armed Forces and in rapidly enhancing military infrastructure. Less visibly but no less importantly, Lithuania is improving resilience of the society as well as developing cutting-edge cyber capabilities, which has already placed Lithuania among the top five in the world in the field of cybersecurity.
U.S. support and cooperation have been a critical ingredient in almost all of our recent successes. Defense capability development is benefiting immensely from the synergy created by the U.S. security cooperation programs complementing Lithuania’s national efforts. Each dollar that the U.S. invests in supporting the Lithuanian military is matched several times over by Lithuania’s acquisitions of U.S. defense articles. Most recently, Lithuania has signed a long-term contract to purchase at least 200 Oshkosh Joint Light Tactical Vehicles, and commenced talks to acquire a fleet of Black Hawk helicopters that would replace our last remaining military platform from the Soviet era.
Bilateral cooperation with the United States has also led to the launch of the Regional Cyber Security Center. It will focus on research and development of next-generation cyber capabilities, training with partners and allies, as well as conducting analysis on cyberthreats.
Speaking of challenges ahead, air defense will remain a key vulnerability in the Baltic region for the foreseeable future. Our national investments in this area can only provide limited response to the potential threat stemming from Russia. Solutions, therefore, will have to come through NATO and through bilateral cooperation with the United States.
Conceptual work has already started within the alliance, while recent U.S. exercises involving deployment of the Patriot missiles and F-35 aircraft indicate the way ahead to address this complex, yet highly important issue.
We also noted that the U.S. Congress has proposed $400 million worth of support to boost air defense of the three Baltic states in its latest appropriations bill. If endorsed, it could signal a major step toward solving this conundrum and would help to patch a substantial hole in NATO’s capabilities.
All these important developments seem to tell one simple story: The trans-Atlantic bond, which held the alliance strong and secure for the past 70 years, is still very much alive, while the U.S. commitment to European defense remains as strong as ever.
Raimundas Karoblis is Lithuania’s national defense minister.