September 9, 2021
The operational and strategic roles of the different headquarters involved in the Baltic Sea region are unclear, and to outsiders even bewildering.
This chapter is part of CEPA's report on Baltic Sea Security Close to the Wind.
NATO is the most successful military alliance in the world and the backbone of Baltic Sea regional security. Its presence in the region has transformed in recent years, from the initial bare-bones membership for the countries bordering Russia in 2004 to extensive plans, headquarters, exercises, and deployed forces. But these are not enough.
The Russian attack on Ukraine in 2014 should have prompted a focused, coherent effort in NATO to develop strategies for the Baltic and Black Sea regions. It did not. Many European NATO members in particular remain in a bubble of self-delusion regarding the nature of the threat faced by the alliance, and their response to it.
The Readiness Action Plan (RAP) launched in 2014 was followed by the 2016 Warsaw Summit which approved a strengthened deterrence and defense posture, with many of the elements existing more on paper than in practice. The NATO Response Force (NRF) was tripled in size to become a high-readiness joint force (with land, air, maritime components) of some 40,000 troops. Command of this force rotates between Joint Forces Command (JFC) Naples and Brunssum for reasons that owe more to internal political considerations than operational efficiency. The NRF “spearhead,” the multinational Very High Readiness Joint Task Force (VJTF), numbering some 5,000 troops, is on permanent standby, ready to move initial elements within a few days.
At the 2018 Brussels Summit, NATO’s political leaders noted that the alliance’s “ability to meet the challenges of a changing security environment is underpinned by an array of robust, sophisticated, and evolving capabilities across all domains, including heavier, more high-end, fully-supported and deployable, sustainable, and interoperable forces and capabilities that are held at high readiness to perform the whole range of Alliance tasks and missions.” The 2018 Readiness Initiative aims to ensure that more high-quality, combat-capable national forces at high readiness can be made available to NATO, with the so-called four thirties: 30 mechanized battalions, 30 air squadrons, and 30 battleships ready to use within 30 days or less. Even this 30-day target is generous. Given the imbalance of forces in the Baltic Sea region, and the fragility of the enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) battle groups there, a more realistic readiness threshold would be 10 days.
However, these aspirations have not been implemented. NATO’s chief concern and greatest weakness has been and continues to be the availability of capable land forces on the European continent that can rapidly support and reinforce allies in the east in a crisis.
NATO’s presence in the region centers on the eFP battle groups. Each of these units is integrated into host nation brigades which include enablers ranging from artillery to intelligence and logistics. It would be wrong to dismiss them as mere trip wires, destined to be swallowed up in the opening hours of a determined surprise attack by Russian land forces. But the credibility of eFP battle groups in the Baltic Sea region suffers from the lack of combat service support units including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities, artillery, engineers, logistics, and ground-based air defense. Rapid and effective reinforcement capabilities are also lacking: in 2017, NATO assigned capability targets to all allies to help implement its new posture. The United Kingdom committed to the provision of two land divisions (France also promised two, and Germany three). These commitments have not been met. They do not seem likely to be in the foreseeable future.
NATO’s defense plan for Poland and the Baltic states, Eagle Defender, was finally agreed in the summer of 2020, after a long delay caused by Turkish objections prompted by disagreement on an unrelated issue.1 The Comprehensive Concept for Deterrence and Defense of the Euro-Atlantic Area sets out a framework for the alliance’s military activity in response to threats across land, air, sea, and in the new domains of cyber and space.2 SACEUR, the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (the senior U.S. military officer and NATO commander), has presented a Strategic Plan on how to implement this into contingency plans. This will involve a review of NATO forces and capability requirements. It is badly needed: NATO lacks a post-Crimea maritime strategy for any area of its operations, not just the Baltic Sea region. The alliance’s current strategy is dilute and outdated. It does not set priorities or test the alliance’s ability to fulfill them.
Within NATO at all levels, effectiveness and readiness are hampered by gaps caused by inadequate ISR, and protocols and rules about intelligence sharing. Naval intelligence involving the whereabouts of ships, and particularly submarines, for example, is particularly closely held, either to U.S. security-cleared personnel only, or to U.S., British, and Canadian personnel. When information about U.S. deployments, capabilities, etc., is discussed at NATO headquarters, other allies must leave the room. Sharing with other allies is slow and cumbersome, even when possible at all; doing so with non-NATO Sweden and Finland presents yet another level of difficulty. This makes it hard to create a common picture of, say, Russian naval activities in the Baltic Sea.
The accelerating growth of the technology gap between the United States and other NATO allies is an issue too. Vulnerable, obsolete platforms are not just dangerous for the men and women in uniform who operate them and expect to be protected by them. They can endanger other allied systems and forces too. This, as well as the divergence of supply chains and stores, gravely hampers interoperability. Moreover, U.S. standards of cybersecurity mean that U.S. commanders will be unwilling to hook up systems such as the Aegis anti-missile radars and interceptors to any allied computers and networks that may use Russian or Chinese software or hardware.
Military commanders are paid to sort out these problems. But NATO’s command and force structures reflect historical and political priorities. The operational and strategic roles of the different headquarters involved in the Baltic Sea region are unclear, and to outsiders even bewildering.
They include in the NATO command structure:
- Allied Command Operations (ACO) at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE).
- JFC Brunssum.
- JFC Naples.
- JFC Norfolk.
- Allied Maritime Command (MARCOM).
- Land Command (LANDCOM).
- Air Command (AIRCOM).
As well as in the NATO force structure (provided to the alliance as required):
- Joint Support and Enabling Command (JSEC).
- Multinational Corps Northeast (MNC-NE) in Szczecin, Poland.
- Multinational Division Northeast (MND-NE) in Elbląg, Poland.
- Multinational Division North (MND-N) in Ādaži, Latvia, and Karup, Denmark.
Photo: NATO and partner air forces take part in exercise Ramstein Alloy 21. Italian Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon EF2000 in flight. A NATO air force exercise, Ramstein Alloy 21, has taken place in the Baltic states. NATO members Germany, Italy and Poland trained with fighter jets from NATO partners Finland and Sweden. Credit: NATO
Even people professionally involved in the defense of the region found it hard to explain to us the chain of command between these headquarters, their responsibilities and capabilities, and the military rationale for their existence. A simple question is this: joint operations in the Baltic Sea region are needed. Who is to command them?
Overall responsibility for the region rotates between Allied Joint Force Commands (JFC) in Brunssum and Naples. This reflects continuing political tension in the alliance between southern members who want it to focus on threats from the south, and those in Northern and Eastern Europe who are more concerned by Russia. The rotation prevents the growth of institutional memory. Both headquarters are joint and multinational in organization and mission, yet they are not necessarily interchangeable or similar in culture and focus. JFC Naples is not only more focused on the southern flank, but is also at heart a naval headquarters. (JFC Brunssum is at its heart land-focused). A further division of responsibility comes with the involvement of JFC Norfolk in the United States, created after the 2018 Brussels summit as the headquarters of Atlantic Command, the only operational NATO command in North America. This is closely integrated (and co-located) with the newly reactivated U.S. Navy Second Fleet. Its mission focuses on the North Atlantic and sea lines of communication.
MARCOM, NATO’s Maritime Component Command, based in Northwood, U.K., has separate cells responsible for the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. MARCOM is looking to move these cells forward to headquarters in these regions. Germany and Poland have both offered to host the Baltic headquarters. In Germany’s case, the operational arm of the German navy is already headquartered at Rostock on the Baltic Sea coast and a Baltic Maritime Component Command (BMCC) is due to be established in the fall of 2021; Germany has offered this to NATO. Many questions arise: the name, the mission, and the authorities — would it actually command, or would it only monitor, maintain a recognized common maritime picture, help with exercises, etc.? These issues reflect a wider, chronic problem for most headquarters in underlying tension between NATO’s Force Structure (the available units) and Command Structure (who issues their orders).
Given the lack of assigned forces and low readiness, speedy reinforcement is particularly important. The new JSEC in Ulm should play a key role in improving military mobility. But it faces challenges on its path to full operational capability, planned for October 2021.3 It is still a national headquarters in Germany with competing priorities, and not a part of the NATO Command Structure. This raises questions about its higher headquarters, its authorities, and even its boundaries. It lacks the authority to cause change where needed or act on priorities from SHAPE or the European Union (EU) Military Staff. It is not yet clear how the JSEC should interact with the NATO Force Integration Units.
NATO’s Standing Joint Logistics Support Group (SJLSG), co-located in Ulm, creates a degree of overlapping capability without clear delineation of duties. In the absence of a confirmed Graduated Defense Plan and without rigorous exercises that would stress the JSEC and identify the various vulnerabilities, the JSEC is unlikely to discover or achieve its full potential as the “one-stop shop” for logistical support that alliance commanders require.
Boots and Plans: The Allied Command Picture
The picture is not unrelievedly gloomy. The Multinational Corps Northeast (MNC-NE) in Szczecin, Poland, is the only NATO Land Corps (of nine) to have a geographic area of responsibility. It provides command and control (C2) for the two regional multinational divisions and commands the four eFP battle groups in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. The Multinational Division Northeast (MND-NE) is staffed by officers from 16 NATO countries, including 10 Americans, as well as Swedish and Finnish officers, in Elbląg in northeast Poland. Lithuania’s Iron Wolf Brigade and Poland’s Mechanized Brigade are affiliated to the headquarters. Together with the American-led Poland-based eFP battle group, they take part in intense cross-border training and exercises to defend the vital and vulnerable Suwałki corridor. The allied countries treat this area as a single operational area, where forces from either side can rapidly transit to the other side without complication — a breakthrough in terms of cross-border military cooperation in the area.
A major effect of the MND-NE headquarters in Elbląg has been to deepen Polish cooperation with Lithuania.
There are other issues too within the region. Latvia hosts the still-forming forward element of the joint Danish-Latvian-Estonian MND-N headquarters, to which Latvia and Estonia’s eFP battle groups and national forces can be subordinated. Lithuania and Poland, and their respective eFP forces, are tied to the MND-NE headquarters in Elblag, Poland.
Both these headquarters, in turn, are subordinate to NATO’s MNC-NE headquarters in Szczecin, Poland. In the event of a crisis, the partial location of the MND-N headquarters in Denmark adds a potential element of resilience. But it is unclear how far this headquarters has reached operational capability, and what the impact on regional defense planning is of Lithuania being subordinated to the Polish, not the Latvian-Estonian, headquarters. These questions can be resolved only by using robust exercises that will stress clarity of authority and boundaries, expectations, and availability of enablers. Such exercises are for now conspicuous by their absence.
Furthermore, none of these headquarters has the assigned forces they would be commanding in the event of a crisis. This causes problems with coordination, training, logistics, and credibility. In particular, it is unclear how the VJTF and NRD will work alongside American “first responders,” chiefly the V Corps (reactivated in 2020 and headquartered in Fort Knox, with an advance headquarters in Poznań, Poland, where 200 of its 635 soldiers are based).4 Given the importance of the U.S. military presence in the region, it is surprising that there is no American presence in Ādaži.
NATO’s weaknesses in the region could be compensated by extra efforts from other regional defense arrangements, or by the European military heavyweights: France, Germany, and the U.K. But as the next section illustrates, none of them can currently make a decisive difference.
Germany’s defense spending in 2021 is planned to be €53 billion ($63.8 billion). That is more than the countries of the Baltic Sea region combined — though still only 1.6% of its GDP. Germany is a Baltic Sea littoral country, albeit with serious defense priorities elsewhere. It has the potential to transform regional security by enabling rapid and effective reinforcement of the eastern flank, both through enhanced military mobility, by the provision of capable land forces, and through its air and sea capabilities.
Currently, however, Germany struggles to maintain even a minimum contribution to NATO obligations. Its main current contribution to regional security is the eFP mission in Lithuania. In a crisis, Sweden’s FOI estimates that Germany could contribute up to 1,000 further soldiers within three days, most likely made up of one battalion from the air-mobile brigade and some special forces, supported by attack and transport helicopters. Other forces would be available in Germany, though their speedy transport to the Baltic Sea region would be difficult.
Photo: An armored platoon of the German Battlegroup of the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force Brigade attacks with infantry combat vehicles Marder from the Norwegian city of Drevsjo towards Oversjodalen. NATO exercise Trident Juncture, in Norway. Credit: SGM Marco Dorow, German Army/ NATO
By 2023, Germany aims to have a fully manned and equipped brigade for NATO’s VJTF, plus a modernized mechanized division by 2027 and three combat-ready mechanized divisions by 2031. Some analysts find that optimistic. The real problem in Germany, however, is not the pace of improvement of military capability, but political divisions over defense and security policy. As noted above, a majority (60%) of the German population opposes providing military assistance to NATO allies if they come under Russian attack.5 There is also widespread public and elite opposition to nuclear weapons. Germany strongly supports a common EU defense and security policy, but is unwilling to provide the money or other resources to make this a military reality. The German Bundestag (parliament) has a veto on the use of military force, creating an extra level of uncertainty about the country’s ability to act quickly in a crisis. The end of the Merkel era, elections in the fall of 2021, a likely lengthy period of coalition-building thereafter, and persistent Russian influence in all quarters of the German political spectrum, exemplified by Germany’s dependence on natural gas imports via the Nord Stream pipeline, further cloud the picture.
Fears that Germany will hinder NATO and other decision-making in the event of a crisis are overblown. But Germany has neither the intention nor the ability to be the main security guarantor for the Baltic Sea region.
France is a major European military power, with nuclear weapons, deployable forces, and a strong strategic culture. It contributes to the eFP with Mission Lynx, consisting of a rotating mechanized company, 300-400 strong, based alternately in Tapa, Estonia, and Rukla, Lithuania. The company has four tanks, 14 armored combat vehicles, and five armored personnel carriers. The French-led 14-member European Intervention Initiative (EI2) is a potential source of outside support. The French armed forces have extensive experience in rapid intervention and operations in warlike conditions, though not against a high-end adversary such as Russia.
However, France’s armed forces are planning for high-intensity war against a peer competitor.6 France is trying to boost its profile in the Baltic Sea region, exemplified by French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Latvia and Lithuania in September 2020, the appointment of a senior diplomat as ambassador to Stockholm, and other developments.
The problem for the Baltic Sea region is that French forces are stretched by commitments elsewhere, and as with Germany political uncertainties cloud the picture.7 Macron’s repeated attempts to build bilateral ties with Russia undermine France’s credibility as a regional security actor. Macron is also an enthusiastic proponent of European “strategic autonomy,” an idea antithetical to strong transatlantic ties. He has warned NATO is experiencing “brain death” and cast doubt on the credibility of U.S. security guarantees. Elections are looming: French parties to both the right and the left of the ruling En Marche party are anti-American, pro-Russian, isolationist, or all of the above.
Photo: A French pilot boards his Mirage 2000 at Ämari Air Base in Estonia. Credit: NATO
3. The United Kingdom
The United Kingdom has a long history as a security actor in the Baltic Sea region. A Royal Navy squadron played a crucial role in Estonia’s war of independence. Its withdrawal from the region under the 1935 Anglo-German Naval Agreement is widely and bitterly remembered as a harbinger of later Nazi and Soviet dominance. The U.K. is one of the world’s top military powers, spending more than 2% of GDP on defense. It makes a substantial contribution to the Baltic Sea region’s security. The Royal Air Force contributes to the Baltic Air Policing mission. The U.K. is the framework nation for the eFP in Estonia. The U.K. also leads the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) (see below). Readiness is surprisingly low — a consequence of persistent underfunding.
The U.K.’s Integrated Review 2021 is a 10-year plan that seeks to adapt the armed forces to reinforce defense, deterrence, and the country’s strategic influence.8 It focuses on agility rather than mass and effectively withdraws from the collective land defense of Europe, a commitment dating back to October 1954. It is a sharp departure from the promise made to NATO as recently as 2017. When NATO assigned capability targets, the U.K. committed to the provision of two land divisions. This is now impossible. Someone else — it is not clear who — must now fill that gap.
The planned British Future Force will be the most technologically advanced “agile” force in Europe by 2030, able to operate with U.S. forces at the high end of integrated military effect across the multi-domains of air, sea, land, cyber, space (including protection of resilient space-based systems), information, and knowledge. The post-Brexit message to the United States is that the U.K. is the only European country that will maintain high-end interoperability. The message to other Europeans is that the U.K. is still willing to defend Europe, but only on British terms. This will involve a profound shift of posture to the hybrid, cyber, and hyper-war domains, across air, sea, cyber, space, nuclear, and information warfare. The U.K. will have the capability to get in and hit hard — but not to stay for a protracted period or clear up afterward.
The review makes little mention of the British-led deployable headquarters, the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC). The “maneuver division” will be maintained in the army’s order of battle (ORBAT), albeit more on paper than in terms of capability and readiness. Four new U.S. Ranger-type battalions will be created, similar to the U.S. Green Berets.
From a Baltic Sea regional perspective, the U.K. can be expected to provide a small, high-end strategic raider force capable of commanding complex coalitions during limited span, first-responder defense and deterrence operations. This is highly welcome. But the U.K. is no longer able to conduct extended campaigns over space, time, and contact. The Warrior fighting vehicle will be replaced with a lightly armed, battlefield mobile, wheeled Boxer. Tracked capability will be in short supply. The U.K.’s land presence in Europe outside crisis times will be the battle group in Estonia, a reconnaissance squadron in Poland (as part of the U.S.-led eFP), plus a training effort in Ukraine.
A military artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics capability will focus on developing intelligent drone swarms, autonomous vehicles, and target recognition. Another challenge is the rebuilding of combat support, combat support services, and logistics. The tiny size of the British army has already been noted by Gen. Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of general staff, and affords the Russians an “asymmetric attraction.”
Photo: British soldiers and vehicles land ashore in Kyrksæterøra, Norway from a French Navy Roll-on/Roll-off catamaran landing craft November 3, 2018 while conducting an amphibious landing during NATO exercise Trident Juncture 2018. Credit: Torbjørn Kjosvold / Forsvaret / NATO
The strategic center of gravity should ideally involve adding real European heft to NATO’s military strategy, the Comprehensive Concept for Deterrence and Defense of the Euro-Atlantic Area, and a military vision for a future NATO Strategic Concept. As a command hub, the U.K. could enable a NATO-centric, high-end, first-response European future force that helps to ease the burden on the United States.
The real problem for the U.K. is the rest of Europe. Too many EU countries pay lip service to the Common Security and Defense Policy while in practice being free riders. Germany fails to take responsibility for land defense, while France calls for strategic autonomy without providing the means or the ends. Add to this post-Brexit wrangles with the European Commission and trust and cohesion are in short supply.
In short, the U.K.’s ambitious defense aspirations are not matched by resources. Particular weaknesses include air and missile defense, ammunition stocks, and logistics. The U.K. remains the most dependable European ally for countries in the Baltic Sea region, and coupled with other countries’ efforts, it can significantly improve both defense and deterrence. But the U.K. alone cannot do the job and expectations of its ability to act should be realistic.
Given the limitations in what can be expected from the U.K., France, and Germany, another source of potential backup for NATO is regional defense arrangements. The next section examines these and their potential contribution to Baltic Sea regional security.
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are three countries, but part of a single operating environment. This tension is not yet fully resolved. The three countries are on convergent paths in security policy, although still far from complete harmonization.
Successes include the Baltic Air Surveillance Network and Control System (BALTNET). Part of NATO’s air and missile defense network, it gathers radar data from all Baltic states to produce a Recognized Air Picture. It was upgraded with separate national control centers in 2020. This is the prime example of Baltic defense cooperation, but came as a result of sustained stimulus and impetus from outside allies. It is integrated with the Baltic Air Policing mission, in which warplanes from allied countries are in a permanent readiness posture and can scramble at short notice to identify and deter any potential civil or military intrusion. However, a notable shortcoming is that this network is not linked to the counterpart system in Finland.
A second example is the Baltic Defence College in Tartu, Estonia, which trains officers from all three countries. It is the only such military education institution on the European continent where English is the principal language.
As noted earlier, the three Baltic states exchange unclassified maritime surveillance information. Plans are underway to exchange classified information.
Other instances of practical cooperation, however, are scant in military and civilian spheres. Common energy infrastructure is lacking; plans to build a joint nuclear power station faltered a decade ago. The symbolically important 870 km, €7 billion Tallinn-Warsaw Rail Baltica project has been plagued by disputes over the route, contractors, and finances.
Intra-regional military cooperation reached an early high point in 1994, with the creation of the Baltic Battalion, consisting of military units of all three Baltic states. This was in effect a shop window for NATO rather than a defense capability. It was disbanded following NATO membership, although a new trilateral Baltic Battalion is now being formed within the NATO Response Force (NRF).
The Baltic Naval Squadron (BALTRON) has since 2016 no longer had regular Estonian involvement, though there is a Baltic contribution to Standing NATO Mine Countermeasures Group One.9 Other low-profile Baltic defense cooperation initiatives have included BALTCCIS (command and control) supported by Germany,10 and BALTPERS and BALTMED, initiated and supported by Sweden.
Procurement policies have room for further optimization. The three Baltic states’ combined military spending is less than 1% of the combined defense budgets of European NATO members, so the cost in financial and interoperability terms of fragmented and ineffective acquisition is disproportionately great. Budget cycles are not synchronized, and the three Baltic neighbors have repeatedly shown themselves unable to generate sufficient political will to overcome the obstacles involved in getting the best bang for their bucks. For example, each country has purchased a different infantry fighting vehicle. Lithuania bought German Boxers; Estonia chose secondhand CV90s; and Latvia the U.K.-produced CVR. It was a similar story with howitzer artillery systems: Lithuania bought the PzH 2000, while Estonia (together with Finland) chose Korean K9s.
Conducting exercises needed to rehearse and train for urban warfare (a likely scenario in the event of a Russian attack) is politically sensitive. Defense planning is still largely national. A Russian attack on Lithuania through southeastern Latvia, for example, could present serious problems. Latvia would reserve its forces for the defense of Riga. Lithuanian forces wanting to fire on invading forces on the territory of Latvia would be in a tricky legal and operational position.
Photo: Estonian Defence Forces on exercise. Credit: Estonian Defence Forces
As a Jamestown Foundation report in 2019 noted, other shortcomings in Baltic defense cooperation include the (lack of) a comprehensive maritime security strategy, air defenses, cross-governmental civilian cooperation, and cooperation on defense research and innovations.11
These problems can be overinterpreted. Even with complete defense integration, the Baltic states would still be dependent on outside help to defend and deter a military attack from Russia.
Enhanced Partnership in Northern Europe (E-PINE): This is a U.S.-led framework to enhance cooperation and political dialogue with the Nordic-Baltic countries, focusing on cooperative security, healthy societies, and vibrant economies.12 An underappreciated aspect of E-PINE is that it stimulates inter-agency processes in the countries concerned, particularly cooperation between defense and foreign ministries. However, E-PINE does not include Poland. Its relevance to Baltic Sea defense policy is, therefore, limited.
European Intervention Initiative (EI2): This is a French-led multinational project, launched by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2017. Its other members comprise Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and the U.K. The EI2 exists chiefly to foster a common strategic culture in intelligence sharing, scenario planning, support operations, and doctrine. It is unclear how the EI2 would fit into NATO and U.S. efforts to reinforce or defend the Baltic Sea region in the event of a crisis.
European Union’s Common Defense and Security Policy: This potential game changer for Baltic Sea regional security still lacks the financial resources or political will necessary for its realization. Under the latest EU seven-year budget, the European Defense Fund and the Military Mobility initiative are set to receive €8 billion ($9 billion) and €1.5 billion ($1.7 billion), respectively, beginning in 2021, sharply down from the initial proposal of €13 billion and €6.5 billion.
Another problem is the participation of non-EU countries, such as the U.K. and Turkey, in the EU’s Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). Legal and bureaucratic obstacles abound, reflecting protectionism in European defense industries, and fears in some countries that Europe’s hoped-for “strategic autonomy” will be compromised. However, there are signs of growing momentum in NATO-EU relations. In March 2021, the United States, Canada, and Norway, all NATO members outside the EU, asked to participate in the planned “military Schengen” arrangements.13
The Nordic Battle Group (NBG) is one of 18 EU battle groups that comprise the EU’s “rapid reaction capacity to respond to emerging crises and conflict around the world.” The NBG was created in 2008 and includes Finland, Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ireland, but has been largely dominated by Sweden, as a majority of participating troops are Swedish.14 So far, however, it plays no significant role in regional security. It is unclear how it would fit into NATO or U.S. efforts to reinforce or defend the region in the event of a crisis.
The biggest test for the EU in its contribution to Baltic Sea regional security is a practical one: improving military mobility. Success on that front could pave the way for further, more ambitious efforts. Absent such progress, many in the region will regard the EU’s efforts as irrelevant grandstanding, at best, and a dangerous distraction, at worst.
Photo: Finnish troops from the Nyland Brigade, Vasa Coastal Jaeger Battalion based in Raasepuri, embark aboard HNLMS Johan de Witt Landing Craft for Vehicle and Personnel (LCVP) involved in the Amphibious Assault, part of Trident Juncture DV Day. Credit: WO FRAN C.Valverde / NATO
Finnish-Norwegian-Swedish cooperation: A trilateral paper signed in September 2020 attracted undeservedly little attention. It outlines common operational planning, especially in the northern areas.15 Cross-border exercises of the three countries’ air forces take place on a near-weekly basis. Perhaps the most important aspect, however, is about security of supply. This trilateral cooperation is potentially of great significance, as it involves three countries with advanced military capabilities and close ties with the United States. The inclusion of Denmark would raise its significance further.
JEF (the U.K. Joint Expeditionary Force): This is a British-led pool of high-readiness, adaptable forces which may come from, as necessary, Denmark, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Norway. It does not include Poland or Germany: a major weakness. The creation of the JEF was announced in December 2012. Sweden joined in June 2017 and the JEF reached full operational capability in 2018.
It remains unclear how the JEF’s potential deployment in the region fits into NATO and regional plans, especially from a Polish point of view. A further uncertainty is the political framework. Before Brexit, this was covered by the solidarity clause in the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. Post-Brexit, this is unclear. Defense ministers are working on a statement of intent which may clarify this.
The JEF should not be confused with the Franco-British Combined Joint Expeditionary Force (CJEF). This is able to deploy 10,000 personnel in response to shared threats. It reached full operating capacity in 2020. It has not been deployed in the Baltic Sea region.
Nordic-Baltic Eight (NB8): This cooperation began at a foreign minister level in 1990, while the Soviet Union was still occupying Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. In 2021, Finland took over from Estonia the yearlong role as coordinating country (chair). The “NB8 Wise Men Report,” written in 2010, assessed NB8 progress and lack of it.16
Nordic-Baltic Six (NB6): The NB6 includes members of the NB8 that are also EU members (Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia) as a forum to discuss EU-related issues relevant to those countries.
Nordic Defence Cooperation (NORDEFCO): The 2009 report “Nordic Cooperation on Foreign and Security Policy” by Thorvald Stoltenberg made 13 concrete proposals for deepening Nordic security and defense cooperation as a complement to NATO and EU frameworks.17 In 2019, the Nordic Council of Ministers requested a progress report from the five Nordic foreign policy institutes.18 It highlighted progress chiefly on:
- Nordic cooperation on surveillance of Icelandic airspace.
- Development of a Nordic resource network to protect against cyberattacks.
- Diplomatic/consular cooperation.
It also noted more limited progress on disaster cooperation, provision of military support services, and political solidarity.19
NORDEFCO has consumed considerable political attention. Its stated purpose is “to strengthen the participants’ national defense, explore common synergies and facilitate efficient common solutions.”20 It combines political and military levels of cooperation. Nordic ministers of defense head the political component and meet twice a year. The Policy Steering Committee (PSC) leads cooperation committees on capabilities, armaments, human resources and education, training and exercises, and operations. The chiefs of defense head the military component and meet twice a year.
So far, the benefits have been limited, reflecting widely differing priorities among the five members — Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. An outsider might imagine, wrongly, that the five countries would establish joint control over airspace, a joint radar picture, or perhaps a joint defense college. Nothing of the kind has happened. Joint procurement efforts on helicopters and submarines have proved fruitless.
One practical result, however, is a secure communications network. Another has been the creation of a legal environment in which armed warplanes can fly between the participating countries. A more cosmetic instance of progress is the development of a Nordic military uniform, with different camouflage patterns for each country.
This may change. Politicians have set ambitious goals for 2025, including improving
- Military mobility.
- Cooperation in total defense, civil-military cooperation, and supply chain resilience.
- Situational awareness.
- Crisis consultation and management.
- Readiness and sustainability.
- Training, exercises, and interoperability.
- Transatlantic relations and European cooperation.
- Dialogue and cooperation with the Baltic states.
- Resilience to hybrid and cyber threats.
- Logistical cooperation.
- Capability development.
- Common education and training.
- Armaments coordination and cooperation.21
Under Finland’s chairmanship in 2021, NORDEFCO is focusing on ongoing operations, planning, training, and clearing legal, bureaucratic, and physical hurdles to mobility. A further line of work is to coordinate NORDEFCO with the Haga (internal security) process.
The first Haga Declaration (2009) was developed following a meeting between Nordic ministers from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden on “civil protection and emergency preparedness.”22 The second Haga Declaration (2013) highlighted “common values, openness, cultural and geographical proximity, as well as a desire for a dynamic development and strengthening” of the respective countries’ resilience in a potential crisis.
The Haga process involves:
- Annual meetings among the Nordic ministers responsible for civil defense.
- A working group made up of representatives from ministries related to civil defense.
- Nordic directors general meetings (including DGs from the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency and their Nordic counterparts) meeting at least once a year to discuss current issues.23
The latest Haga cooperation focuses on fire and wildlife efforts; chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons; emergency communication; and “future areas,” including civil-military cooperation, hybrid threats, and the growing geopolitical and climatic importance of the Nordic/Arctic region. There may be some potential in this process for Baltic Sea defense, but it remains to be explored. In May 2019, the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) released a report with 13 recommendations for enhancing Nordic cooperation and increasing preparedness through 2025.24
Northern Group: This is an informal defense cooperation format for NATO members bordering the Baltic or North Seas. It includes the Nordic five, the Baltic three plus Poland, the Netherlands, the U.K., and Germany.
Sweden-Finland: Sweden has now woken up both to the threat from Russia and to its regional security responsibilities.25
Finland, having fought two wars with the Soviet Union in the last century, never went to sleep.26 Like Sweden, it participates in the enhanced NATO Response Force (NRF) “in a supplementary role and subject to national decisions.”27 A Finnish-Swedish Amphibious Task Unit is registered as a joint asset to the U.K.-led Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF).28 This also has an HNS agreement with NATO, meaning that in a crisis allied forces could deploy onto Finnish soil.29
Video: Swedish Army Jägarbataljon conducts unconventional warfare exercises. Credit: Jimmy Croona, David Gernes, Alexander Gustavsson, Bezav Mahmod, Anna Norén, Mats Nyström, Marcus Åhlén, and Gunnar Almkvist / Försvarsmakten. Aerial photo: Joakim Kromnér.
Finland also signed a bilateral defense agreement with the United States in 2016.30 Sweden and Finland signed a trilateral defense agreement with the United States in May 2018, with further joint exercises being one of the main outcomes. Finland has also signed a trilateral defense agreement with Norway and Sweden.
Joint defense and armed forces integration between these Nordic neighbors is well advanced, with numerous legal and other agreements, including a joint strategic concept signed in 2019. Joint defense planning includes allowing Finns to fight on Swedish territory and vice versa. Company-sized Finnish elements exercise as part of Swedish battalion-sized units. The next stage will be Finnish battalions exercising as part of Swedish brigades. Finnish and Swedish warplanes can operate under either country’s command, defending both countries in air-to-air and air-to-ground scenarios. The Swedish-Finnish Naval Task Group (SFNTG) has entered its initial operational capability phase. A legal question still surrounds the circumstances in which one country could issue warning fire on behalf of the other.
However, cooperation is not as close as between some other pairs of NATO allies, such as, say, Belgium and the Netherlands. More fundamentally, the close relationship is not a defense alliance. Trust issues remain, dating both from 1940 when, in Finnish recollection, Sweden left Finland to fight alone, and from 1991, when Sweden unilaterally announced that it would seek membership of the EU. The two countries now have a “no surprises” agreement regarding any application for membership.
Both countries adopt a Total Defense model, in which civil and military defense are integrated (for example, in telecommunications and transport infrastructure). Though Finland’s model survived unscathed during the post-Cold War era, and indeed developed, Sweden is now rebuilding its system from scratch.
In the absence of the necessary commitments by the larger European allies and effective regional defense arrangements, NATO remains heavily dependent on the United States and U.S.-led efforts for ISR, enablers, and reinforcements. It is to the U.S. presence in the region that we now turn.
When the Going Gets Tough: The U.S. Backstop
The United States is the linchpin of Baltic Sea security. It contributes bilaterally in its relationships with every country in the region, through multilateral defense projects and agreements, and multilaterally through NATO.
With the drawdown of the U.S. Marine Corps presence in Norway, the hub of U.S. efforts in the region is Poland, where the U.S. Army continuously deploys between 4,500 and 6,000 rotational troops, including:
- An infantry battalion leading the multinational eFP battle group, attached to the Polish Army’s 15th Mechanized Brigade and based in Orzysz [south of Kaliningrad and 120 km (75 miles) from the Suwałki corridor].
- V Corps Forward Headquarters, opened in Poznan in November 2020,31 with a Polish deputy corps commander posted at the main headquarters at Fort Knox.
- A further 100-member U.S. Army Division Forward Headquarters in Poznan.
- An Armored Brigade Combat Team (ABCT) in Zagan.
- A combat aviation brigade, a logistical combat support battalion, prepositioned stocks (sufficient for an armored brigade), and a special forces facility in Powidź.
- Further special forces in Lubliniec.
- Joint development of the Drawsko Pomorskie Training Area into a state-of-the-art range complex for up to brigade-level simulation and live training.
- Developing Wroclaw International Airport into a heavy lift and cargo delivery air base.
- A U.S. Air Force Aviation Detachment (AVDET) at Łask Air Base.
- Infrastructure for an 800-member U.S. Air Force Reaper UAV squadron to be deployed at Mirosławiec Air Base in 2021.
- An Aegis Ashore missile-defense site, as part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, on the Baltic coast near Redzikowo.
Photo: Paratroopers with the US Army’s 173rd Airborne assault an objective. Held in Germany, exercise Saber Junction gathered six NATO Allies and three partners to test the readiness of the US Army’s response force based in Europe. Credit: NATO
Poland is contributing heavily to military mobility efforts, with procedural changes, infrastructure upgrades, and equipment, including the purchase of 100 additional rail cars that support maximum-sized U.S. equipment, particularly, M1 Abrams tanks. The planned Solidarity Transport Hub (STH) will be a large new international airport, centrally located between Łódź and Warsaw, capable of receiving heavy-lift aircraft, linked to rail and road upgrades.
Other U.S. forces in the region include:
- A Special Forces presence in Sweden.32
- Further small Special Forces units deployed in all the Baltic states with an intelligence fusion cell in Lithuania.
- A U.S. Army battalion hosted on a rotational basis in Pabradė and a logistic platoon in Marijampolė (both in Lithuania).
- A rotary-wing aviation company in Lielvārde, Latvia.
The European Deterrence Initiative (EDI), launched in 2014, is a generous, multi-annual budget program, in excess of $30 billion, that funds infrastructure upgrades, weapons acquisitions, training, and other programs in NATO allies endangered by Russian aggression. The EDI has funded a $10.8 million upgrade at Ämari Air Base in Estonia, completed in August 2020, and a $3.7 million new special operations base in Riga, including a vehicle servicing facility, ammunition storage, and two helipads for use by the 352nd Special Operations Wing, based in the U.K.33 The continued upgrade of infrastructure is probably the most important long-term U.S. commitment to regional security. It includes not only military facilities, but also roads, railroads, bridges, and ports. In addition to the EDI, the United States allocated $169 million in military aid to Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania for 2021.34 The United States also supports the international unit of the National Cyber Security Centre in Kaunas, Lithuania.
The biggest gap in the U.S. presence in the region, and in Europe, is Air and Missile Defense (AMD). In past years, U.S. forces in Europe were protected by no fewer than 13 battalions of Hawk medium-range mobile AMD. Today, just one Patriot battalion is deployed in Europe. In the event of a crisis, it will surely be focused on the protection of Ramstein Air Base in Germany, leaving nothing to protect other U.S. or allied infrastructure, or European civilians. Only a robust exercise program can test and train the complex interaction of sensors, shooters, and mission-command components of an AMD system. But no such joint, multinational, theater-wide exercise has taken place for a decade. The U.S. Army used to have 26 of these systems; now it has 13, almost all heavily committed elsewhere. Army capability in dealing with cruise (Tomahawk-type) missiles, except for the National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS) defending Washington, D.C., is effectively zero.35
In response to increased concerns, the U.S. Army Europe has also gained a short-range air-defense battalion. It is adding two multiple-rocket-launcher battalions by the end of 2021.
As well as the U.S.-Swedish and U.S.-Finnish defense ties described in earlier sections, the United States is also bringing British and French capabilities together. The Warfighter 21-4 exercise in April 2021 involved for the first time a simulation of a corps-level battle with U.S., British, and French army tactical divisions.
Two big questions surround the U.S. presence in Europe. One is how U.S. efforts fit into the elaborate but under-resourced NATO command structure. In the event of a crisis, U.S. Special Forces can deploy quickly and unilaterally to the region under the command of U.S. Special Operations Command Europe (SOCEUR). But most other elements of any reinforcement or deployment require multilateral decision-making, with all the delay and potential confusion that this involves.
A further issue concerns high-level politics.36 U.S. taxpayers subsidize the defense of Europe, which is bigger and richer than the United States, while strategic attention in Washington is shifting to the Indo-Pacific region. Former U.S. President Donald J. Trump came close to announcing the withdrawal of the United States from NATO and announced a sharp (although never implemented) reduction of U.S. forces in Germany. Strong institutional constraints in Congress and the Pentagon prevented a radical change in U.S. security policy, but it would be rash for European allies to expect that under future administrations business will necessarily continue as usual.
- “NATO puts defence plan for Poland, Baltics into action, officials say,” Reuters, July 2, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-nato-baltics-turkey-idUSKBN24320B.
- “Statement of General Tod D. Wolters, United States Air Force, Commander, United States European Command,” U.S. Senate Committee on Armed Services, April 13, 2021, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/CLEARED%20USEUCOM%20SASC%20Congressional%20Posture%20Statement.pdf.
- Sergei Boeke, “Creating a secure and functional rear area: NATO’s new JSEC Headquarters,” NATO, January 13, 2020, https://www.nato.int/docu/review/articles/2020/01/13/creating-a-secure-and-functional-rear-area-natos-new-jsec-headquarters/index.html.
- John Vandiver, “Polish general joins US Army’s reestablished V Corps,” Stars and Stripes, March 30, 2021, https://www.stripes.com/news/europe/polish-general-joins-us-army-s-reestablished-v-corps-1.667790.
- Moira Fagan and Jacob Poushter, “NATO Seen Favorably Across Member States,” Pew Research Center, February 9, 2020, https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/02/09/nato-seen-favorably-across-member-states/.
- “The French armed forces are planning for high-intensity war: After a decade of counter-insurgency, plans are changing,” The Economist, March 31, 2021, https://www.economist.com/europe/2021/03/31/the-french-armed-forces-are-planning-for-high-intensity-war and “Strategic Vision of the Chief of the French Army,” Armee de Terre, April 2020, https://franceintheus.org/IMG/pdf/french_army_strategic_vision_2020.pdf.
- Dr. Claire Demesmay, “Macron Looks East,” DGAP, October 2, 2020, https://dgap.org/en/research/publications/macron-looks-east.
- The authors are indebted to Professor Dr. Julian Lindley-French for this analysis.
- See “JFC Brunssum Public Affairs Office, Week 18 Northern Europe Operational Update,” May 1, 2020; and LETA/BNS/TBT Staff, “BALTRON command changeover ceremony to take place in Lithuania’s Klaipeda,” Baltic Times, January 8, 2020.
- “Baltic Defense Co-Operation,” Estonian Ministry of Defense, January 2002, https://vm.ee/et/node/2088.
- Olevs Nikers and Otto Tabuns, eds., “Baltic Security Strategy Report: What the Baltics Can Offer For a Stronger Alliance,” Jamestown Foundation, 2019, https://jamestown.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Baltic-Security-Strategy-Report-2019.pdf?x94108#page=56.
- “Enhanced Partnership in Northern Europe (E-PINE), U.S. Department of State, https://www.state.gov/enhanced-partnership-in-northern-europe-e-pine/.
- Sebastian Sprenger, “US-EU cooperation pitch on military mobility gets positive response,” DefenseNews, March 15, 2020, https://www.defensenews.com/global/europe/2021/03/15/us-eu-cooperation-pitch-on-military-mobility-gets-positive-response/.
- “EU Battlegroups,” EEAS, October 9, 2017, https://eeas.europa.eu/headquarters/headquarters-homepage_en/33557/EU%20Battlegroups.
- Nima Khorrami, “Finland, Norway, Sweden and the trilateral military cooperation agreement,” High North News, November 12, 2020, https://www.highnorthnews.com/en/finland-norway-sweden-and-trilateral-military-cooperation-agreement.
- “NB8 wise men report,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia, https://vm.ee/sites/default/files/content-editors/NB8WiseMenReport.pdf.
- Thorvald Stoltenberg, “Nordic Cooperation on Foreign and Security Policy,” Government of Norway, 2009, https://www.regjeringen.no/globalassets/upload/ud/vedlegg/nordicreport.pdf.
- “10 Years On: Reassessing The Stoltenberg Report on Nordic Cooperation,” Norwegian Institute of International Affairs, 2019, https://nupi.brage.unit.no/nupi-xmlui/bitstream/handle/11250/2647813/2019+10+years+on+Reassessing+the+Stoltenberg+report+on+Nordic+cooperation75396.pdf?sequence=2.
- A declaration pledging mutual assistance between the Nordic countries should they suffer natural disaster, foreign invasion, or other external threat was signed by the five foreign ministers in Helsinki in 2011. “Step forward…Nordic Solidarity,” Nordriego, 2011, https://archive.nordregio.se/en/Metameny/About-Nordregio/Journal-of-Nordregio/Journal-of-Nordregio-no-1-2011/Step-forwardNordic-Solidarity/index.html.
- “NORDEFCO: Nordic Defense Cooperation,” https://www.nordefco.org/the-basics-about-nordefco.
- “NORDEFCO’s Vision 2025,” Defense Info, December 2, 2018, https://defense.info/global-dynamics/2018/12/nordefcos-vision-2025/.
- “Nordic cooperation,” Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, https://www.msb.se/en/about-msb/international-co-operation/nordic-co-operations/.
- Rikard Bengtsson, “Nordic Security and Defence Cooperation: Differentiated Integration in Uncertain Times,” Politics and Governance, 2020, https://www.cogitatiopress.com/politicsandgovernance/article/view/3338.
- “Building Resilience in the Nordic Region: A Swedish Perspective,” Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, May 2019, https://rib.msb.se/filer/pdf/28840.pdf.
- As noted above, defense spending now is increasing sharply. Decision-makers recognize, in some cases perhaps belatedly, that the restoration of independence for the Baltic states in 1991 was a major strategic gain for Sweden, and that the preservation of their security is thus a national security priority.
A majority in the Swedish parliament now favors NATO membership. However, an early application is unlikely. The ruling Social Democrat-led coalition is not in favor (the defense spending bill passed only with the help of the conservative and liberal opposition parties). For Sweden to join the alliance unilaterally would risk leaving Finland isolated as the only non-NATO country in the region, and would, therefore, damage, not strengthen, Baltic Sea regional security. The two countries have a “no surprises” agreement to ensure coordination of their approach to NATO membership.
However, much of the new spending has gone into weaponry more suited to other missions or is being spent on buying back land and erecting buildings; this may please influential local municipalities, but it does not directly improve military capability. Swedish officers and defense planners need to make a big mental shift to adjust to the new conditions. For decades, careers have been built on the twin pillars of cost-cutting and United Nations peacekeeping. For several years, new officer training was largely halted, leaving gaps in expertise. Retention and recruitment remain difficult, for pilots and other supporting roles. Territorial defense, alongside regional allies and against Russia, requires a culture and muscle memory that has all but disappeared. Sweden has yet to fully face up to the possibility that its own defense might depend on decision-makers’ willingness to authorize long-range precision strikes on Russian territory.
- Its defense ranges from the JASSM stealthy cruise missile, capable of striking targets hundreds of kilometers inside Russia, through modern artillery, naval, and air forces; the largest army in the Nordic region; universal male conscription; and a whole-of-government system for countering subthreshold threats that includes media education, soft-target protection, and supply chain resilience. Planning centers on territorial defense, a function of the 1,300 km border with Russia, and features a high degree of readiness, including regular mobilization exercises. In a crisis, Finland can mobilize 280,000 troops. Though public opinion would be receptive to NATO membership in the event of a crisis, there is little appetite for membership in normal circumstances. Finland joined (along with Sweden) NATO’s Partnership for Peace program in 1995, gaining (again with Sweden) the status of Enhanced Opportunities Partner, alongside Australia, Georgia, Jordan, and Ukraine.
- “Relations with Finland,” NATO, April 7, 2021, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/topics_49594.htm.
- “The Joint Expeditionary Force 2020: Version 2.0,” Ministry of National Defense of the Republic of Lithuania, 2020, https://kam.lt/download/68774/20191105-jef%20brochure%202020-o.pdf.
- “Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Between the Government of the Republic of Finland and Headquarters, Supreme Allied Commander,” https://www.defmin.fi/files/2898/HNS_MOU_FINLAND.pdf.
- Jari Tanner, “Finland, US to deepen military ties through pact,” AP News, October 7, 2016, https://apnews.com/article/967782b6c665467f9ac096a84bec17d9.
- Jakub Bornio, “US Army’s V Corps Forward Command Inaugurated in Poland,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, Vol. 17 Issue 175, December 9, 2020, https://jamestown.org/program/us-armys-v-corps-forward-command-inaugurated-in-poland/.
- Capt. Matthew St Clair, “1st CAB Soldiers Run Eastern European Logistics Hub,” DVIDS, August 25, 2019, https://www.dvidshub.net/news/337194/1st-cab-soldiers-run-eastern-european-logistics-hub.
- Lukas Milevski, “US-Baltic Defense Cooperation in the Transition from Trump to Biden,” FPRI, December 23, 2020, https://www.fpri.org/article/2020/12/us-baltic-defense-cooperation-in-the-transition-from-trump-to-biden/.
- Jari Tanner, “US grants $169M in military aid to Baltic nations for 2021,” AP News, December 23, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/estonia-appropriations-defense-appropriations-lithuania-latvia-c140bdd0cf580826363ec2d0427e0c02.
- Joseph Trevithick, “SAM System That Guards Washington DC Just Made Its Lower Ever Intercept Of A Mock Cruise Missile,” The Drive, September 24, 2020, https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/36728/sam-system-that-guards-washington-dc-just-made-its-lowest-ever-intercept-of-a-mock-cruise-missile.
- Sylvia Kauffmann, “La divorce Europe-Etats-Unis: la famille occidentale sous tension,” Le Monde, November 9, 2018, https://www.lemonde.fr/long-format/article/2018/11/09/europe-etats-unis-la-famille-occidentale-sous-tension_5380997_5345421.html.