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A nation must think before it acts.
Defense cooperation rarely enters the public eye. Although sometimes highlighted by politicians, generals, or major headline-making military exercises, much of it takes place under the radar as fairly mundane military financing and contact. However, it recently has entered the headlines once again with U.S. President Donald Trump’s piqued demand that the U.S. military presence in Germany be reduced. The prospect of withdrawal was met with mixed reactions from both Americans and Germans. But some alarm was also felt on NATO’s eastern flank, whose constituent countries always view any potential withdrawal of U.S. forces from Europe as a source of worry — not only due to the reduced combat forces, but also to the concomitant weakening of U.S. logistical capacity as may hypothetically become necessary to reinforce Europe. Latvia, however, found Defense Secretary Mark Esper’s July 29 comments to be positive, as about half the forces would be redeployed elsewhere in Europe, including eastward. Latvian Defense Minister Artis Pabriks is leaping at the opportunity to lure a longstanding U.S. military presence to Latvia. In this immediate context, it is worthwhile to understand the overall picture of U.S.-Latvian defense cooperation.
Since Latvia regained its independence after the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War, the U.S. and Latvia have had a longstanding defense partnership. In the earliest years, the U.S. helped Latvia form its own armed forces from nought, but after 2014 and the illegal Russian invasion and annexation of Crimea, the relationship experienced major growth, of which the 2014-16 period was the most intense. This intensification began with the immediate deployment of company-sized U.S. forces into all three Baltic states and Poland by mid-April 2014, less than two months after the events in Crimea, while a slowly grinding NATO eventually delivered multinational forces three years later. U.S.-Latvia cooperation has involved both high level political and military visits — including U.S. Army Europe Commander Ben Hodges (2014), Supreme Allied Commander Europe Philip Breedlove (2015), Vice President Joe Biden (2016), and many Congressional parties — as well as staff exchanges and other forms of military cooperation.
In a stellar example of lower-level consistent ongoing defense cooperation with the United States, the Latvian armed forces are partnered with the Michigan National Guard (NG). These programs, now part of the much broader U.S. European Command State Partnership Program, which itself is part of the global U.S. State Partnership Program (SPP), were initiated in direct response to Latvia’s 1991 post-independence request for U.S. assistance in developing a military. The Michigan NG has thus played a considerable historical role in the Latvian armed forces over the past 30 years, while the relationship inspired the entire SPP program and became a model for subsequent U.S. collaborations with other countries.
The comparative benefits of the early U.S.-Latvia model stem from the advantage that NG units experience a substantially slower rotation of personnel than Army units, allowing greater continuity of personal contact over many years as the same individuals remain in their organizational roles. This cooperation includes exercise participation, operational experience, and technical advice. Latvia regularly participates in Michigan’s annual Northern Strike exercises (including in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic, albeit at smaller scale). Latvia and the Michigan NG operated together in Afghanistan, deploying joint Operational Mentoring and Liaison Teams in 2008, 2009, and 2010. The Michigan NG, which flies UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters, has been sharing its technical experience from pre-purchase and delivery through use and maintenance, beginning from Latvia’s 2018 order of four Black Hawks.
It is crucial to contextualize U.S.-Latvian defense cooperation within Latvia’s overall defense effort since 2014, when Latvia’s defense budget grew from below $258 million, 1% of GDP to $629 million, just over 2%, in 2018. Latvia has ever since maintained the 2% mark. Over those years it was on a major spending spree and purchased military equipment (including some anti-air capabilities, artillery, and helicopters) in substantial amounts for a small country. Latvia has also implemented new national security laws and published a handbook to inform citizens about how to act in the first 72 hours of a crisis, among other actions that contribute to its posture of total defense.
Given the United States’ political and military weight within NATO, U.S.-Latvian defense cooperation is an important part of Latvia’s full national effort to create a total defense posture. In terms of that cooperation, Latvia has a number of policy objectives. One is simply to enable a U.S. military presence in the region by providing the necessary conditions. Another key objective is on the informational front: to acquaint the United States with the Baltic region (and Latvia in particular), and to induce Americans, in and out of the armed forces and defense, to think of Latvia and the Baltic states both informally and in terms of defense. The defense relationship has even already received some publicity through the film The Outpost, about the battle of Kamdesh, where Latvian soldiers fought alongside Americans in Afghanistan.
A key Latvian policy objective is securing a U.S. presence. Although at a baseline level any U.S. military presence is desirable, Latvia understands its own defense needs, including what it cannot afford to buy or to man. On its territory it particularly hopes to base American enablers — key combat services such as longer-range anti-air capabilities, anti-armor capabilities, surveillance, and so forth. Lielvārde Air Base has already hosted U.S. helicopters in rotation since 2014, with the most recent Black Hawk deployment at the end of July. All three Baltic countries have also been benefiting from U.S. military investment via both Defense and State Department funding instruments such as Foreign Military Funding (FMF) and the Countering Russian Influence Fund. Since fiscal year 2015, FMF funding to the three states exceeded $250 million, as well as $1.2 million in International Military Education and Training and $2 million in professional military education (this last for approximately 150 mid-level or senior officers from all three countries). Much of the dispersed FMF funding is returned to the United States via purchase of U.S.-made military equipment, such as Latvia’s order of four Black Hawks for $173 million. Of particular note, as a result of its long and intense cooperation with the United States, Latvia is one of just seven countries in the world that is certified to call in U.S. airstrikes; it has its own joint terminal attack controllers (JTAC) and trains other NATO-nation JTACs.
Although Latvia undoubtedly gains more from the relationship than the United States for understandable reasons of sheer size disparity and geopolitical position, U.S.-Latvian defense cooperation is not a mere one-way relationship. Latvia has supported NATO missions, most notably participating in both wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Latvia also offers the U.S. armed forces interesting training opportunities. While the training area and firing range at Ādaži near the capital Rīga is the largest in the region, the U.S. has also expressed interest in Skrunda-1, a ghost town that once housed Soviet personnel serving at the since-dismantled radar station. Skrunda-1 is now dedicated to training for urban warfare and, having been originally built as a real town to house military families, is quite authentic for the region. This training option crucially supplements U.S. military urban warfare doctrine JP 3-06, Joint Urban Operations, which is specifically premised on the scenario of attacking urban centers, whereas in any hypothetical Baltic scenario, the initial circumstance is necessarily one of urban defense. Finally, Latvia’s skies are less crowded than those of European nations to its west, which may allow aerial exercises that would be unlikely or even unthinkable in German, French, or British airspace.
As unfortunate as the withdrawal of about one-third of U.S. forces from Germany is, eastern flank countries such as Latvia also see opportunity to advance their own security and defense, along with overall military cooperation with the United States. Little is as yet settled. The United States is currently working through the many layers of planning inherent in any major, permanent move of its armed forces. Latvia is wooing the U.S. to draw some of those forces eastward, onto its soil. This may be Latvia’s best opportunity since 2014 to enable a possibly permanent U.S. military presence on its soil. A new chapter in U.S.-Latvian defense cooperation may open as a result of Trump’s command that some U.S. forces vacate Germany.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.