Latvian national security, economic welfare and development opportunities are determined by its geographical position, historic relations with neighbouring countries and nations, status of national economy, culture traditions and defence capabilities. There are several reasons related to the Latvian history, why the Latvian security should be viewed within the context of becoming a member of the international security and economic systems – European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
At the end of World War I Latvia managed to win the battle for its independence. Latvian soldiers were known for a great experience and praised for their courage and military skills. Despite the successful establishment of the Latvian state, the further history of Latvia proved that the policy of neutrality and abdication from the military resistance to the occupation powers did not ensure the existence of the state and preservation of the nation’s physical strength and self-respect.
Insufficient armament and lack of military cooperation agreements signed between the Baltic States together with the international political situation were the causes of extermination of the Latvian armed forces of almost 20,000 men who were forcefully exploited to serve the interests of the Soviet and fascistic occupation powers. In addition, these powers have illegally conscripted over 200,000 Latvian residents of Latvian and other ethnical backgrounds to their occupation forces. A large part of them were killed in the battles, a part emigrated to the West and a part were deported to the “death camps” in Siberia. This is how the Latvian military potential and traditions accumulated during the first half of the 20th century were lost.
After the Latvian independence was reestablished in the early 1990s, it was necessary to substantially reform all the state administration institutions. Establishing of the national defence system was particularly complicated due to the lack of the defence concept, armament and relevant infrastructure, and what was of the greatest importance – lack of the experienced military personnel. These were the consequences of the Soviet occupation, which halted the national military system for half a century.
Latvia's defense concept is based upon four basic pillars: collective defense as a member of NATO, professionalization of the armed forces, support and coordination with civil society, and international military cooperation.
In 1994 the armed forces totaled 6,600, including 1,650 in the army, 630 in the navy, 180 in the air force, and 4,140 in the border guard. Plans called for 9,000 active members in the armed forces. Latvia also had the security service of the Ministry of Interior and the reserve Home Guard (Zemessardze). In addition to serving as a national guard, the Home Guard, with an estimated 17,000 members, assists the border guard and the police.
Latvia abolished conscription in 2006. Previously, when they reached the age of nineteen, men served a mandatory one-year period of active military duty, but men and women at least eighteen years of age might volunteer for military service. Alternative service for conscientious objectors was available.
Presently, the armed forces consist of the regular forces, a home guard called "Zemessardze", and the Reserve. The regular forces are composed of the land forces, an air force focused on air surveillance and search and rescue, and naval forces focused on coastal surveillance, assertion of sovereignty, mine countermeasures, search and rescue, and environmental protection. There are some other minor units adding to the total armed forces personnel of 4,500-5,000. the Zemessardze is an autonomous 8,500-10,600-man-strong volunteer reserve organization which performs traditional national-guard duties such as crisis response and support for military operations.
Orbat.com further reports 27,000 Mobile Reserve Battalion troops and 17,000 Territorial Reserve Battalion troops, with five Territorial Defense Military Regions of 5 brigades, each with 2-7 battalions. But official Latvian sources make no mention of such massive reserve formations, which might have been envisioned as territorial defense units when Latvia based its defense on the Finnish [and Swedish / Austiran / Swiss] integrated total defense model, but they would seem to have no place within the conext of a military oriented towards token-scale participation in NATO peacekeeping operaations.
Latvian Defense Minister Raimond Veionis said in March 2014 that Latvia was planning to increase the size of its professional armed forces, and the voluntary home guard, Zemessardze. The professional army will increase by 1,000 soldiers to 6,000. Veionis said the move comes in light of the changing security situation. Zemessardze numbers are expected to increase to 8,000, from the current 5,000.
Defense spending had risen following joining NATO in 2004, and the government had committed 2% of its GDP to defense spending through 2013. However, in view of current economic problems, spending in the military sector is unlikely to reach that goal, and in fact has been slashed more severely than almost any other country. Latvia and Lithuania spent in the neighborhood of 1.4 percent in recent years.
The Latvian National Armed Forces became fully professional in November 2006. The goals stated in the Chapter on National Defence and Security of the Government’s Declaration, adopted on 9 March 2004, included a decision that by the end of 2006, Latvia will only maintain a professional army. Provision of enhancement of professionalism of the National Armed Forces (NAF) and cancellation of the compulsory military service. Creation of an efficient system for selection and training of personnel, as well as ensuring a competitive salary system and a social guarantees programme for soldiers of the professional military service. The year 2006 saw the end of conscription and a relatively smooth transfer of the NAF to a professional army. However, a few individual cases which raised public concern about leadership and professionalism in the NAF in 2006 (among them the death of two parachutists due to lack of training and co-ordination) probably contributed to some negative evaluation. General statistical data on poor health conditions and short life expectancy of Latvian men explain the poor health conditions of young men as one of the biggest problems in recruiting. In 2006, almost 30 percent of applicants failed physical tests.
Participation of the Latvian National Armed Forces (NAF) in international operations has both political and military significance. By joining international operations, Latvia strengthens the internal security of the country and demonstrates that it is an active member of the international community. Significance of international operations has increased after Latvia has joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the European Union (EU), which makes our country jointly responsible for consolidation of the global security processes.
International operations are considered to be the following:
- international peacekeeping operations, the purpose of which is to re-establish and maintain peace in conflict zones and in which the personnel engaged have the right to participate in hostilities;
- international peacekeeping operations, the purpose of which is to re-establish and maintain peace in conflict zones and in which the personnel engaged does not have the right to participate in hostilities, except in cases when it is necessary for the purposes of self-defence;
- international rescue operations, the purpose of which is to eliminate the consequences of natural disasters, evacuate civilians from dangerous locations or perform activities of similar nature;
- international humanitarian operations, the purpose of which is to render assistance to civilians who have suffered as a result of hostilities or other extreme circumstances;
- international military operations, which aim is to exercise the inherent rights of the United Nations member states to collective self-defence which are fixed in Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. The National Armed Forces units participate in international operations on the basis of: a resolution, recommendation or request of such international organisations of which the Republic of Latvia is a member state or with which the Republic of Latvia co-operates; a request of a NATO or EU member state.
Decision on participation of the Latvian NAF units in international operations is taken by the Parliament. The length of international operation term is 6 months; and only soldiers of professional military service are entitled to participate in them. Soldiers' suitability for international operations is assessed on the basis of their physical condition, health condition, professional skills and experiences, characteristics from their place of service and knowledge of foreign languages. Before their deployment to international operations, soldiers must complete a special training course, where they learn skills required for co-operation with soldiers of other countries, enhance their professional skills, as well as learn more about the country and residents of the respective international operation. During international operations, the Latvian soldiers obtain valuable experiences, which cannot be obtained otherwise. Preparation of soldiers for deployment to international operations is also one of the ways to prepare able soldiers and test efficiency of their training programs.
An annual opinion poll commissioned by the Ministry of Defense (MoD) in December 2006/January 2007 confirmed the tendency shown by previous polls commissioned by the MoD since 2000: the majority of Latvian residents consider Latvia a safe country and in general support the government's policies in the area of security. Contrary to the poll commissioned by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in September 2006, the poll commissioned by the Ministry of Defense shows rather small support for participation of Latvian soldiers in international peace-keeping missions. The discrepancy might be explained by death of two Latvian soldiers in Iraq at the time the MoD's poll was carried out. The data is very difficult to compare as the questions on Latvia's involvement in peacekeeping operations were phrased differently in each poll, with the MOD asking a positive "do you support" and MFA asking the negative "do you oppose." In addition, the availability of only excerpts of both polls hampers deeper analysis of the contradictory results. Though the poll shows low public support for Latvia's involvement in international stability operations, there is no evidence that the poll's result has changed the generally strong political support for international deployments.
The deaths of two Latvian soldiers in Iraq 27 December 2006 topped all news in Latvia in the aftermath. Despite nearly 80 percent public opposition to the mission, senior officials have clearly stated that Latvia will remain in Iraq. Opposition political leaders, and even some members of the coalition, have suggested that parliament should review Latvia's deployment in Iraq and consider an exit strategy, but appear to favor a deliberate and considered approach over an immediate withdrawal. Press coverage of the incident has been factual and editorial writing has been predictable. Those who supported the deployment wanted it to continue, those who always opposed it, wanted to see it ended.
In 2011, there was 15th anniversary since Latvian soldiers participating in international peace-keeping operations. During these years, the participation of the NAF in international operations has become a significant development task of the Latvian armed forces. The Latvian NAF soldiers have been participating in the peace-keeping operations in the Balkan region since 1996; the participation in the international monitoring mission to Georgia was commenced in 2000, but in 2003, soldiers have commenced their participation in the international operations in the Persian Gulf region.
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