Baltics want faster US de­ci­sions on the re­gion’s air de­fence

Baltic News Network - - News -

Ahead of the meet­ing of three Baltic pres­i­dents with U.S. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump on April 3, Lithua­nia, Latvia and Es­to­nia have called on the key ally to make «faster de­ci­sions» on the re­gion’s air de­fence.

The re­quest fol­lows Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s an­nounce­ment that Rus­sia is «speed­ily» de­vel­op­ing a series of nu­clear weapon sys­tems, in­clud­ing a new su­per­sonic cruise mis­sile ca­pa­ble of over­com­ing NATO de­fence sys­tems.

In its quite bel­liger­ent state of the na­tion speech de­liv­ered to fed­eral leg­is­la­tors in early March, Putin said the weapons are both new and unique to Rus­sia.

In early Fe­bru­ary, Rus­sia an­nounced it had de­ployed nu­clear-ca­pa­ble Iskan­der mis­siles in the ex­clave of Kalin­ingrad, tucked in be­tween Poland and Lithua­nia, and in­tends to keep them there per­ma­nently.

Lithua­nian Pres­i­dent Dalia Gry­bauskaitė called the in­stal­ment a «threat» not just to Lithua­nia, but also to a half of Euro­pean coun­tries.

Un­til re­cently, Rus­sia used to bring the mis­sile com­plex to the re­gion for mil­i­tary drills only, how­ever, now the sit­u­a­tion is dif­fer­ent – it is a per­ma­nent sta­tion­ing with all the nec­es­sary in­fra­struc­ture in place, Baltic de­fence strate­gists note.

Lithua­nia’s in­tel­li­gence says that a place­ment of Iskan­der sys­tems in Kalin­ingrad is po­ten­tially more dan­ger­ous for Lithua­nia due to its ca­pac­ity to hin­der NATO ac­tions in the re­gion. The Lithua­nian in­tel­li­gence agen­cies be­lieve how­ever that the mis­sile com­plex is not needed for tar­gets in Lithua­nia’s ter­ri­tory, as, the­o­ret­i­cally, they could be taken down by the ex­ist­ing other Rus­sian mil­i­tary ca­pac­i­ties.

Iskan­der mis­siles in neigh­bour­hood were de­ployed as Lithua­nia marked the first year an­niver­sary of NATO’s en­hanced For­ward Pres­ence Bat­tle Group in the coun­try.

Against the back­drop, the three Baltic states feel in­creas­ingly vul­ner­a­ble as only very lim­ited el­e­ments of air de­fence are said to be sta­tioned in the re­gion.

Not sur­pris­ingly, the Baltic For­eign min­is­ters ad­dressed the is­sue in their meet­ing with the US Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son this Mon­day, March 5.

«Air de­fence is one of the most im­por­tant as­pects of the plan­ning of the de­fence sys­tem of the Baltic states. It is a chal­lenge for all of NATO, which can only be over­come by unit­ing the ef­forts of the US and Euro­pean na­tions. To create ef­fi­cient air de­fence, we need to make im­me­di­ate de­ci­sions and plan both na­tional and NATO in­vest­ments as soon as pos­si­ble,» Lithua­nia’s For­eign Min­is­ter Li­nas Linke­vičius said on Tues­day, March 6, at the open­ing of a Wash­ing­ton con­fer­ence on air de­fence of the Baltic re­gion or­ga­nized by Lithua­nia and the US.

Af­ter Rus­sia an­nexed Ukraine’s re­gion of Crimea in 2014, the US im­me­di­ately sent sev­eral hun­dreds of troops to each Baltic coun­try.

«We un­der­lined that we are very grate­ful for what is hap­pen­ing, but we would like to see a per­ma­nent pres­ence — ei­ther in the form of train­ing or vis­its or ex­er­cises,» the Lithua­nian min­is­ter said. Linke­vičius also said that he had pre­sented a Lithua­nia-pro­posed plan for EU fi­nan­cial aid for Ukraine, dubbed as the «Mar­shall plan» to Tiller­son.

The need for co­or­di­nat­ing US and EU sanc­tions on Rus­sia was also dis­cussed dur­ing the meet­ing, he said.

Air de­fence is widely be­lieved to be of the weak spots of the Baltic states in the mil­i­tary sense. Lithua­nia, Latvia and Es­to­nia cur­rently only have short-range mis­sile de­fence sys­tems, which can reach tar­gets within 3-5 km. The coun­tries are buy­ing Nor­we­gian mis­siles that will cover dis­tances of a few dozen km and take down tar­gets at an al­ti­tude of 15 km.

In order to en­sure pro­tec­tion of the airspace, the Baltic states would need a shield of long-range de­fence sys­tems, such as Pa­triot, in the third phase. Last sum­mer, the United States sta­tioned the mis­siles in Lithua­nia for the first time for train­ing. De­fence of­fi­cials are con­sid­er­ing a pos­si­bil­ity of cov­er­ing Lithua­nia’s airspace with the Pa­triot sys­tems to be pur­chased by Poland.

In late Fe­bru­ary, the United States mil­i­tary pre­sented the Pa­triot long-range air de­fence mis­sile sys­tem in the ter­ri­tory of the Lo­gis­tics Com­mand of the Es­to­nian de­fence forces in Tallinn.

The pri­mary aim of bring­ing the mis­sile sys­tem to Es­to­nia was to re­hearse co­op­er­a­tion with the Es­to­nian Air Force.

The unit of the Pa­triot sys­tem that ar­rived in Es­to­nia be­longed to the 10th Army Air and Mis­sile De­fence Com­mand and is part of the air and mis­sile de­fence sys­tem of US Army Eu­rope.

The mo­bile sur­face-to-air mis­sile sys­tem MIM 104 Pa­triot is among the most ad­vanced such sys­tems in the world. It has a range of up to 160 kilo­me­tres de­pend­ing on the type of mis­sile and a max­i­mum flight al­ti­tude of 25 kilo­me­tres.

Latvia has also raised mul­ti­ple times the is­sue of ne­ces­sity of an anti-mis­sile air de­fence sys­tem in the re­gion.

In a meet­ing with Fin­nish De­fence min­is­ter Jussi Ni­in­istro in midFe­bru­ary, Lat­vian De­fence Min­is­ter Rai­monds Bergma­nis un­der­lined the ne­ces­sity to strengthen Lat­vian-Fin­nish de­fence co­op­er­a­tion. Last year, Fin­land’s armed forces started teach­ing Lat­vian sol­diers to use Stinger air-de­fence sys­tems.

As re­ported, the Lat­vian and Dan­ish de­fence min­istries last year signed an agree­ment un­der which Latvia will pur­chase Stingers from the Dan­ish armed forces. Fin­land is one of Latvia’s al­lies that are al­ready us­ing these air-de­fence mis­sile sys­tems and has ex­pressed readi­ness to share its ex­pe­ri­ence with the Lat­vian armed forces. Al­though cer­tain mis­sile de­fence el­e­ments are in­stalled in the Baltics now, how­ever, they are not able to with­stand the risks stem­ming from the Iskan­der sys­tem de­ploy­ment in Kalin­ingrad.

«The Redzikowo AEGIS Ashore bal­lis­tic mis­sile de­fence site in Poland should be op­er­a­tional this year and the US nu­clear pos­ture and plans to deal with Rus­sia’s of­fen­sive ca­pa­bil­i­ties are clear sig­nals that de­ter­rence is on top of the list for the pri­or­i­ties by the United States,» Vaidas Saldžiū­nas, a renown Lithua­nian de­fence an­a­lyst, told BNN re­cently.

He, how­ever, ad­mit­ted that the cur­rent Baltic de­fence ca­pac­i­ties and those by the NATO do not al­low to «100 per cent» de­fend in­fra­struc­ture of the fixed Baltic sites, like the air­ports, am­mu­ni­tion de­pos, mil­i­tary bases and ob­jects of the kind.

Asked whether the US and the NATO should have by now sta­tioned an anti-bal­lis­tic mis­sile sys­tem in the Baltics, Saldžiū­nas rea­soned that even with such a sys­tem on the ground, its abil­ity to take down a launched Iskan­der mis­sile could be «a dif­fi­cult task.» «More pro­duc­tive is to threaten Iskan­ders, so they are not launched. This is in the first place,» the ex­pert em­pha­sised.

It is clear, how­ever, that in the Baltic pres­i­dents’ meet­ing with the US Pres­i­dent next month and in the next NATO Sum­mit to be held on July 11-12, 2018, in Brus­sels, Bel­gium, the is­sue of the Baltics’ air de­fence will be talked up to the core.

«The key top­ics (of the meet­ing with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump) will be se­cu­rity and (…) the up­com­ing NATO sum­mit,» an ad­vi­sor to Pres­i­dent Gry­bauskaitė said this week.

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