EDF chief: Extra NATO forces do not need to be permanently based in Baltics

Lieutenant General Martin Herem.
Lieutenant General Martin Herem. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

If NATO does not send additional permanent troops to the Baltics, it will not be a problem as long as defense plans are prepared and units are rotated, head of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) Lt. Gen. Martin Herem said, commenting on Germany's plan to station most of its Lithuanian brigade at home on standby.

"Although this is seen as a withdrawal of promises or a disappointment, there is no reason for either. This has been the military's proposal all along. At least for the Estonian Defense Forces," Lt. Gen. Herem wrote on social media in response to an article published by the Financial Times newspaper on Tuesday.

The current number of NATO troops and Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania's own forces are not enough to protect the countries and more defenses are needed, he said.

"The solution is to assign additional forces, assign them tasks as planned and train them, keep the units ready for battle, prepare for deployment and combat operations at different levels," Herem said. 

NATO should assign units for Baltic defense, even if they are not based here permanently. However, the equipment they need to operate should be positioned in the region permanently, he said.

"Now parts of the brigade are starting to rotate in Lithuania with the main goal of practicing their exercises. Getting to know the environment, local conditions and co-operation with other units located in Lithuania or operating there if necessary. These units will be led by the division. It is not important if it is Germany's, Lithuania's or NATO's. It is important that the specific units have been designated which are ready to operate," the commander of the Estonian Defense Forces wrote.

Exactly how many units should be located in Lithuania is a matter of resources and threat level, he said. Relocating a brigade-sized unit of at least 3,000 troops requires a lot of infrastructure, essentially the construction of a military campus similar to Estonia's in Tapa.

"A permanent location, in the case of Germany and Lithuania, means "a little Germany" in Lithuania. Kindergartens, schools, housing. Or does someone think you can keep people away from their homes and families for years? In general, it doesn't work," he explained. 

"Next, such a unit needs a training area. A simplified 10×10 km area where you can practice, from maneuvers to firing artillery. It's more difficult than building Rail Baltic or a wind farm."

Building this kind of infrastructure requires a one-off investment of hundreds of millions of euros, he said, which is then followed by annual maintenance costs totaling tens of millions of euros.

This is money that would be better off used to develop real military capabilities, not lay concrete, Herem said.

Rapid deployment of troops is possible

Herem believes it is also possible to move troops quickly to the Baltics if the threat level rises.

"I think it can be [done]. It has to be organized and it has to be practiced. And it is not just the movement from Germany to Lithuania that needs to be practiced, but cooperation between the units and operating in a specific environment," he added.

The commander said if Lithuania finds itself in a situation where Russian troops are massed on its borders, as Ukraine was in January, then NATO troops would have to be moved to the region sooner.

"All in all, Lithuania and Germany are moving in the direction which we commanders have been talking about for the last few months. A military-wise and resource-efficient solution. This is exactly what the 3B [Baltic states] expect in Madrid," he wrote, referencing the NATO summit in Madrid at the end of June.

"If the military understands, that's fine. However, bystanders should not label every decision that is incomprehensible to them as a failure or disappointment. Besides, we need a solution soon. It takes years to develop any permanent location, and even then this is only a visible but not necessarily militarily effective result," he said.

Prime Minister Kaja Kallas (Reform) has also lately changed her phrasing from requesting permanent troops to a permanent division-level command structure.

Last week, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited Vilnius, Lithuania and said Germany would strengthen its forces in the country to a brigade. On Tuesday it was reported this brigade would mostly remain in Germany on standby, leading to heavy criticism.

Lithuania's public broadcaster LRT lays out the facts here.

Baltic states requesting division framework at Madrid

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will submit a joint statement at the NATO summit later this month for the framework to support a division in each country.

This would give them a permanent command structure and enable them to host additional NATO troops, Lauri Abel, undersecretary of defense readiness, said at a press conference on Friday.

Abel said NATO's transition from deterrence to forward defense will be the main topic of the summit.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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