NATO integration on the move

  • 2000-10-05
  • Jorgen Johansson
RIGA - When Latvia restored its independence, politicians looked westward for safety and support. In order to obtain certain measures of security, Latvia engaged in an intensive cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and is today willing to do whatever it is asked.

In 1999, the NATO Integration Council determined that Latvia's defense budget should be gradually increased, reaching the benchmark for NATO admission of 2 percent of the gross domestic product in 2003. This requirement for the NATO candidate states was announced during the Washington summit in April last year when Latvia was involved in the annual membership action plan.

Latvia's Membership Action Plan was approved by the Cabinet of Ministers on Sept. 21, 1999 and on Sept. 27 it was submitted to NATO's deputy secretary general.

Last year the Ministry of Defense received 0.85 percent of GDP, and this year it will collect 1.05 percent. The budget for 2000 will land close to 43.05 million lats ($70 million) and the total defense budget is estimated to reach 104.05 million lats in 2003.

One of the items on NATO's wish list is more cooperation between the Baltic countries, such as a joint Baltic radar system, BALTNET.

"In the beginning after the regained independence, there was a lot of work on how to set up air surveillance in Latvia," the Latvian air force head commander, Ojars Ivanovs, said. "In 1996 the idea of having a joint Baltic air surveillance system took form."

Ivanovs said each of the Baltic countries has its own system for watching the sky, but they have a shared center outside of Kaunas in Lithuania.

"Radar units are very important components to this system but also flight data," Ivanovs said. "Today BALTNET has one radar in Latvia connected to it, the P18 - old Russian-style radar."

There are more radar units connected in Estonia and Lithuania, Ivanovs said. He spoke of two civilian radar units in Estonia, and one civilian and one military radar in Lithuania. "There's also flight plan data connected to the system, but this system still needs to be developed further."

Ivanovs said Latvia will need one long-range radar and two medium-range radar units in order to have full radar coverage of the country.

"Now we can only see planes which have transponders," Ivanovs said. "Still, a primary radar can see everything in the air even if it doesn't have transponders."

The Latvian air force is not much to fill the sky with. There are no Latvian fighter planes, only four helicopters, which are mainly used for search and rescue operations and transports, and one larger plane used for transportation. Latvia had two such planes, but one crashed in 1995, killing both pilots.

When asked how Latvia would respond today to an invasion of its airspace, Ivanovs said Latvia would have to go via its diplomatic channels in the Foreign Ministry, and send a letter of complaint to the perpetrating country.

"In the beginning of November there will be a NATO air defense meeting where Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will participate," Ivanovs said. "There are discussions with NATO about providing Latvia with fighter planes. Today Latvia doesn't have the means to buy or sustain fighter planes."

Instead of seeking planes to cover the Latvian air- space, Latvia just bought 18 anti-aircraft guns from Sweden, for a symbolic sum far below market value.

Just a week before Latvia bought the guns, Lithuania bought the same kind of package from Sweden. Most likely these weapons will be integrated into BALTNET.

Jelena Subenkova, deputy head of Latvia's NATO division in the Ministry of Defense, said the joint Baltic radar system, BALTNET, is a NATO request, and that Latvia is already involved in several other NATO-related projects in order to reach membership status.

"We (Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania) should not work in different directions but more together in the same direction," Subenkova said. "We hope NATO will invite us in 2002. We are doing a lot of work to achieve this aim."

Currently, the U.S. military NATO representative, David Weisman, who is touring NATO aspirant countries, told reporters that Lithuania is one of the best prepared countries for NATO membership, according to BNS.

Weisman was surprised to see the progress of Lithuania's air defense achieved in a rather short time. Still, Weisman refused to make any comments on when any of the Baltic countries could join the organization.

"I am a military officer, and NATO enlargement is a political issue," Weisman told BNS.