Tomas Jermalavicius, ICDS
In the run-up to the national elections, Estonia’s political parties are on a look-out for new items for their agendas. Commendably, defence policy is not overlooked in the political debate. Equally commendably, parties are assuming positions congruent with their political ideologies: the liberals are advocating gradual transition to all-volunteer force format (often wrongly termed as “professional force”), while the conservatives are defending the “two-tier” format (or mix of full-time volunteers and conscripts) currently in place. Whatever the practical outcome of this debate, the Estonian society will benefit if this sensitive issue will have been discussed thoroughly and intelligently. The last thing you want to do is to imitate what others (Sweden, Germany, Lithuania etc.) do without understanding your own aims, needs and assumptions – this would be simply a counter-productive “strategic parroting”.
There are signs, however, that this debate is about to be shaped by populist clichés and ideological grand-standing (continuing in a “business as usual” manner afterwards) rather than by enlightened arguments. One such a cliché thrown around (and readily accepted by less open-minded members of the Estonian public) is the notion that Latvia and Lithuania committed a huge mistake by switching to all-volunteer force format. For a start, you cannot know it until the model is tested in practice by war – a contingency which tends to brutally expose all the faulty or naïve strategic assumptions, systemic deficiencies and organisational failures. Without such a test, the entire discussion is purely theoretical. It is just a matter of mastery of words and arguments in making comparisons which determines if someone is seen as mistaken or not.
Second, one has to understand that different approaches to force format can be (and usually are) based on a different reading of the strategic environment, future uncertainties, societal preferences and utility of military force. Latvia and Lithuania opted for what is more in line with their reading and understanding of how they fit into the collective defence system of the Alliance or should manage various security risks, which does not make the choice for an all-volunteer force model right or wrong in itself. It just stems from a different set of assumptions than those on the basis of which Estonia’s defence system is constructed.
If Estonia feels more threatened from the East militarily, less confident in the readiness of the allies to come to assistance in time and with a required force, more optimistic (some would say – delusional) about its ability to defend itself on its own, more self-demanding in what it takes to prove to the allies its resolve to defend itself, or desires to use conscription for nation-building purposes, it can very plausibly argue for sticking with a “two-tier” force format and focusing on building large mobilisation reserves. But if you suggest that Lithuania and Latvia have made a mistake abolishing it, you either have to invalidate their fundamental strategic assumptions (and prove that yours are correct) or demonstrate that all-volunteer format is an inadequate choice in the context of Latvia’s and Lithuania’s (not your own) reading of the world. As I said, the former is quite impossible without the test of war (or, at least, its clear and unequivocal threat) and a solid understanding of those assumptions (apparently, missing over here), while the latter has not been applied by the Estonian critics of Latvia and Lithuania in any meaningful way.
And, third, it is very easy to confuse complaints about the organisational difficulties of switching to the all-volunteer force with the perception of the model’s utter failure. Persistent whinging from some Lithuanian politicians, for example, is a case in point (and is a factor reinforcing the view of some Estonian counterparts that it was a wrong thing to do altogether). Having miserably failed in their duty to ensure adequate funding for defence in the times of economic hardship, these politicians are now lashing around blaming earlier decisions rather than own failures. And, needless to say, they also get distracted from ensuring that the new model works properly.
At least in Lithuania, mistakes in transition were abundant. First and foremost, the timing was adjusted to an electoral cycle rather than organisation’s readiness. Thus, transition period, during which intensive across-the-board preparations are made, was minimal. As a result, for instance, the capacity which is so crucial to any all-volunteer force – that of attracting and recruiting suitable cadre – was and remains abysmal. It just does not fit the purpose once the coercive means of access to the “labour force” in the form of conscription has been taken away. Adjustment of personnel structure as well as various organisational processes and functions (especially personnel management) is severely lagging. All this is made even more difficult when “easy money” of boom years is not available to throw at the transition problems. Furthermore, political consensus behind the underlying strategic assumptions proves to have been rather feeble, which always constitutes an obstacle to the continuity of the chosen defence policy course. The Lithuanian ruling conservatives are in two minds about the all-volunteer force, while the liberals who also participate in the coalition warned against returning to conscription. This bodes ill for the stability of a ship called “defence” even without the funding problems factored in.
Does this all mean that the model (as opposed to its implementation) has discredited itself? Certainly not, looking from the standpoint of what Lithuania as a strategic community (minus some hardcore nationalist conservatives) wants. And the practical benefits are already emerging, both in Latvia and Lithuania – not least in terms of the pool available to generate contingents for deployments or increased professionalism and conceptual sophistication of the military. (By the way, every senior Lithuanian officer I spoke with over a few years – which is quite a lot of them — preferred commanding an all-volunteer unit, not a conscript-based. In their view, quality of work, level of achievement and retention of skill were much greater with the full-time volunteer soldiers).
Maybe, at some point, we will have to go back to conscription, when we start observing that our security environment took a dramatic turn for a worse (or, as it may happen, financial stranglehold on defence becomes a permanent condition – but this would qualify as deliberate sabotage of national security). This is the option that every nation which switched to all-volunteer force format retained in its law books. For the time being, and as long as their strategic assumptions hold, the Lithuanians and Latvians have to focus on improving the format they chose on a basis of their evolving worldview and assessments.
The important consequence is that a set of issues and challenges present in the Latvian or Lithuanian armed forces is steadily getting very different from what the Estonian Defence Forces are confronted with. With time, comparing them will turn into even more populist and futile exercise of comparing apples and oranges. It would be much more productive to focus the debate on what Estonia feels, wants, needs, is comfortable with and can realistically get with its resources, instead of employing hubristic clichés about its neighbours as a part of some superficial political debate.
Choosing what's right for your country in defence: futility of hasty comparisons