NATO's supreme allied commander of Europe, U.S. General Joseph Ralston, said April 25 during a tour of the Baltic countries that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania should consider specializing their militaries to better meet the needs of the alliance.
Ralston said he was satisfied with the progress that the Baltic countries have made in restructuring and reforming their militaries ahead of NATO's summit in Prague later this year.
In his last tour of the Baltics before the Prague summit later this year, Ralston met with defense ministers from all three Baltic countries to assess how well the countries are adhering to the NATO Membership Action Plan. His visit comes ahead of a possible visit to the region in June by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for a meeting of Nordic and Baltic defense ministers in Tallinn.
Ralston praised all three countries for their contributions to the peacekeeping mission in the Balkans.
"I have personally seen them, worked with them and they are doing a magnificent job," he told reporters in the Latvian capital.
Ralston said it wasn't worthwhile for smaller nations like Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia to copy larger countries examples when creating a military force, and he emphasized the need for all three countries to specialize their militaries
"It was suggested that we think about what kinds of specialized units Lithuania could set to work on and more clearly train," said Lithuanian Defense Minister Linas Linkevicius about his meeting with Ralston. "Lithuania is thinking about the participation of military medical personnel on missions."
Linkevicius noted that it was entirely up to the Lithuanian government to determine what function the country would serve in the alliance, but he believes that they could serve as translators between Eastern and Western European militaries.
"The regional experience that we gained over the years could be a very useful aspect of NATO foreign policy," said Linkevicius. "It is something that we know how to do well."
Latvian Defense Minister Girts Kristovskis said that Latvia was concentrating on creating effective bomb squads and mine sweeping units and that they are training divers. He added that Latvia might play an effective role in reducing the threat of nuclear, biological and chemical weapon attacks.Estonia also aims to form specialized mine-sweeping units, and Estonian Defense Minister Sven Mikser said that the country was working on forming an efficient air space surveillance system.
Last year, Estonia and Latvia made a joint purchase of two Lockheed Martin 3D radar stations, which cost 8 million lats ($12.9 million) each.
The stations are to be running by 2003 and are to be used for controlling the airspace around the two countries.
They are expected to be integrated into the NATO system should the countries gain acceptance.
At the Prague summit in November NATO's member states will vote on whether or not to accept any of the 10 countries, including the three Baltic countries, that are applying for membership in the alliance.