The United States plans to allocate a total of $100 million to the Baltic countries over the coming years to improve weaponry on NATO’s eastern flank. This means Estonia will be able to achieve some important capacities two to four years ahead of schedule.
Even though increased support for the Baltics has been talked about since September, the decision was given shape last week. That is when the Senate Armed Forces Committee approved the 2018 defense budget proposal. The bill still needs to be approved by the Congress and President Trump.
The decision will be finalized in January, when it will become clear what type of arms the Baltics will procure.
The document already has relevance on the eastern shore of the Baltic Sea as it dedicates an entire chapter to boosting deterrence in the Baltic region. The latter states that Defense Secretary James Mattis has up to $100 million to spend on Baltic defense in 2018.
Support would be divided equally between the three countries. The focus would be on developing interoperability, with emphasis on certain types of weapons. More specifically: real-time surveillance equipment, unmanned aircraft, anti-tank weapons, squad weapons, handguns, ammunition, air defense radars or anti-aircraft weapons.
The list is based on existing agreements with the Baltic states and considers the position of the US armed forces on what kind of equipment to use to better defend the area and promote interoperability.
Pentagon to pay the bills
The support will not be made available to the Baltics in cash but will instead be tied to specific procurements. This usually means that the recipient country will have to procure arms or ammunition from US defense contractors, with the bill going to the Pentagon.
The money would come from the $4.8 billion European Deterrence Initiative (EDI) the largest item of expenditure in which is the US European Command’s 7,000-strong presence in Europe. Baltic countries would have until the end of 2020 to procure weaponry.
The godfather of the bill is US Armed Forces Committee Chairman John McCain who is known as a friend to Estonia, and who recently visited Tallinn last December.
“It is the result of constant efforts, explanation, and pointing out the capacities we need: we have explained our shortcomings to the US, that these are the areas where you can help if you want to,” said Kusti Salm, head of the defense investments department of the Estonian Ministry of Defense.
America has supported the development of Estonian defense force since the country regained its independence. Estonia has received Harris radios on which the country’s tactical battle communications are based, as well as night-vision equipment and training.
The first major contribution was made following the annexation in Ukraine in 2014, when the US supported Baltic defense forces with $100 million. Estonia was given the chance to acquire Javelin anti-tank systems of which it procured more from the US later. Latvia used the aid for radar systems.
In the meantime, US has invested directly, most often into the Ämari air base. Americans have supported the construction of nearly €30 million worth of structures, including a munitions storage access road, arresting gear for landing fighters, airstrip improvements, air operations command building, service hangars, fuel structures and tanks.
Purchasing plan still outstanding
The Estonian Ministry of Defense is keeping procurement plans close. The defense development plan includes numerous weapons and systems that are waiting their time.
For example, Estonia will need a lot of ammunition over the next three years and will spend €166.5 procuring it. The Scouts Battalion’s 44 CV90 IFVs will need support vehicles by 2020. Delivery of K9 Thunder mobile artillery vehicles should start in 2021 by which time the entire 1st Infantry Brigade should have new small arms. Looking ahead, Estonia would also like to have long-range anti-tank systems.
Support will probably deliver a boost to Estonian defense development no matter what it will end up buying. Defense procurements are planned as a four-year cycle in Estonia. “Of course – an additional €30 million will give us elbowroom. We can move things up from the final years of the development plan,” Salm said.