After years of under-investment, a once-comatose Lithuanian army must now learn to walk again, and do so quickly, say high-ranking officials.
© DELFI / Šarūnas Mažeika

All the statements by Lithuania’s leaders, military officials and experts along with an increasing interest in national defence, annual military exercises in Lithuania’s towns, and new military acquisitions, might lead one to believe that the country is preparing for war.

This ramping up of militarisation, however, is noticeable only because national defence institutions are trying to jump out of a very deep hole that they've found themselves in.

This hole has become an open secret to NATO behind the scenes: with Estonians scoffing at the Lithuania while sceptical Americans could hold Lithuania up as proof that Europeans have no concern for their own defence.

Down to NATO's bottom

The insufficient financing of the Lithuanian military has been stressed before, but it seems like the scale of the problem and its possible consequences remain unnoticed.

Ten years after joining NATO, it was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine that forced Lithuania and the military it had neglected to wake up.

A grim reality set in: when the economic crisis hit in 2009 , Lithuania reached rock bottom. A mere €244 million was allotted for the military, the same amount as after joining NATO in 2004.

That was less than Estonia or tiny Luxembourg, which was the only country that Lithuania overtook by a percentage point by alloting 0,8% of its GDP to defence.

Most people living in Lithuania do not support strengthening the military as a priority, with polls indicating that the most important economic issues are education, social security and health care.

In 2012, Lithuania’s political parties renewed the agreement that, up to 2016, at least 1% of the GDP would be allotted to the military. The president herself, however, publicly stated that the military is allotted more than 1% but that the NATO agreement of 2% was not signed and as such was not binding.

At the same time, however, Lithuania clearly needs the defence guarantees of its allies, who have praised the contributions of Lithuania’s military in international missions. Nevertheless, for an entire decade since joining NATO in 2004, the reduced defence budget has made no provision for defence force development.

In 2014, for example, the new head of the Lithuanian army, Jonas Vytautas Žukas, admitted that the battalions considered to be the main military units in the Lithuanian army are catastrophically lacking in man power – some battalions are only are only 14% full.

Lithuania had planned for a two-brigade system, or a three-brigade system under favourable circumstances, but a shortage of manpower and funds meant Lithuania was hardly able to maintain one brigade.

There’s a shortage of anti-aircraft and anti-tank defense facilities, modern communications systems, transport and even elementary items like tactical vests and helmets.

Biggest jump of all the allies

Russia started occupying Crimea in 2014, and after its military intervention in Eastern Ukraine later, Lithuania hurried to shape up. An analysis of the situation determined that a variety of measures would be needed to strengthen Lithuania’s defences.

Lithuania requested aid from its allies first. The United States was the first to react to Lithuania’s request to reinforce the Baltic States with an air policing mission. That same year, the defence budget received an additional €37.9 million, but that was just the beginning.

With the extra funding, Lithuania began filling the gaps with the “Grom” man-portable air-defence system and started enlarging its army.

At the time, military conscription in Lithuania had been discontinued since 2008, so invitations for the standard three-month basic training were used in an attempt to bolster manpower.

A year later, however, it became clear that this was not working, as the Lithuanian army had dropped to less than 10,000 soldiers. In 2015, Lithuania made a decision it rarely uses – to reinstate conscription. The plan called for 3,000 recruits a year.

Lithuanian society's fear due to Russia’s actions in Ukraine strengthened the ranks of national security supporters. This was especially clear in the swelling ranks of the Riflemen's Union, which had become a part of the Lithuanian defence system.

Many well-known people have joined this armed militarised social organisation. Several famous people or their children have also chosen voluntary military service or conscription to set an example for the public.

In 2015, a poll showed that 54% approved of reinstating compulsory military service. The fact that all 3,000 people who filled the conscripts' ranks came of their own free will mirrored this public support.

The system enjoyed similar popularity in 2016 when almost 3,000 people voluntarily filled the conscription quota by February.

Furthermore, the State Defence Council unanimously approved extending conscription for an indefinite period of time and to increase the number of conscripts every year. In 2017, it is hoped that 4,000 will be called up.

Not only will existing units be filled this way, but new ones will be created as well. In, 2015 a second Lithuanian military brigade was created and a third reserve brigade is already underway. Next year, the Lithuanian army should increase two-fold to up to 24 thousand.

A number like this would be impossible to reach without an increase in the defence budget – €574 million is allocated for the Ministry of National Defence's budget in 2016, which will be 1.48% of GDP or one-third more than last year.

In comparison with statistics from the last decade, it seems like Lithuania has taken a 180-degree turn – the defence budget is the fastest-growing in all of the NATO countries, having increased by 29.8%.

Lithuania hastily arms itself

Next year this figure is set to increase again, and the 2% benchmark should be reached by 2018. The necessity of this change is no longer up for debate, and there are even mentions of an even bigger budget if the security situation in the region deteriorates further.

The budget increases are to be spent on military equipment and weapons, which have been a focal point over the last two years.

In addition to an anti-aircraft defence system, Lithuania is in a rush to get ten self-propelled howitzer PzH2000, which are being upgraded in in Germany. Though the upgrades have not yet been completed, the first class of Lithuanian soldiers have already been trained to use one of the most modern artillery systems in the world.

Another big acquisition was order of armoured infantry vehicles in a contract of up to €0.5 billion. The modern armoured vehicles will be acquired in a very short period of time.

The “Boxer” infantry armoured vehicle, manufactured in Germany, was chosen along with the 30 mm launcher and long-range “Spike” anti-tank missile, manufactured in Israel.

A shipment of G-36 assault rifles, tactical vests, new helmets and a new “Harris” communications system have been purchased for the infantry. Moreover, Lithuania is seeking to acquire the NASAMS medium-air defense system and install new radar.

Lithuania will receive most of this equipment in 2017. However, some may arrive as soon as this year. The military will be trained to use modern systems which Lithuanians could only have dreamed of until now.

Between 2014 and 2016, an impressive number of military exercises were started or planned to perfect the skills and capabilities of the Lithuanian army to react with speed.

Most people living in Lithuania support these knee-jerk changes - in a poll conducted in February, 67% of them said that they supported increased funding of the military to 2% of GDP.

According to NATO's statistics, Lithuania will remain an average spender at 1.5% or 1.8% of GDP, and a decade of statistics won’t hide its shameful past. However, it will be much harder to blame Lithuanians for not being concerned about their defence.

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