The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has not affected the combat readiness of the Lithuanian military and NATO, Lieutenant General Roger Cloutier, the commander of NATO Allied Land Command (LANDCOM), said during his recent visit to the country.
"What I am most encouraged about is that in spite of the Covid and in spite of the challenges that Covid causes, [...] we are able [...] to maintain our combat readiness,” he said in an interview with BNS. “The Lithuanian Land Forces are combat ready and so is NATO.”
General, first of all, what are your main takeaways from your visit in Lithuania?
Let me give you a little bit of context, You know as the NATO LANDCOM commander I'm responsible for combat readiness of NATO's land forces, I am responsible for the interoperability and standardisation and then I'm responsible for, in the event that deterrence fails, or there's crisis or conflict, I am responsible for providing command and control in land domain.
With that as a backdrop, coming to the Baltics was very very important to me and coming to Lithuania was very important to me. I met with the key leaders across the Lithuanian Land Forces and my takeaways are – I am extremely impressed.
I am impressed with the professionalism of Lithuanian soldiers, I am impressed with their confidence, I am impressed with the spirit of the Iron Wolf that permeates everyone that I talked to.
I was very impressed with Lithuanian soldiers' understanding of how they fit in to the broader alliance, so I walk away from my visit to Lithuania really hopeful and excited about what I am seeing on the ground, because I see Lithuania as a very very strong NATO ally, very competent, very professional, committed to interoperability and so this has been a very good visit for me and I walk away very very impressed and happy with the visit.
In the context of LANDCOM's mission – readiness, interoperability and standardisation, what would you say are the main strengths and the main weaknesses of the Lithuanian military? Where do we need to improve, what still needs to be done and where are we strong enough already?
First of all again I would like to say that Lithuanian Land Forces are extremely professional, they are committed and I think one of the huge strengths is what I said before, it's that spirit of the Iron Wolf that I see in every Lithuanian soldier.
Let me give you an example.
I got news recently that the Lithuanian 21st Dragoon battalion was training with some US Army counterparts and the Lithuanian soldiers in that exercise were outnumbered and they were facing armoured US force and those Lithuanian soldiers knew the terrain, they were agile and the were adaptable and they made it very, very hard for the US forces to accomplish their mission. So the Lithuanian forces learned from training with the US forces and the US forces learned a lot from training with the Lithuanians.
I think that speaks to the strength of Lithuanian armed forces.
And then in terms of areas that need improvement, every military has areas that need improvement and that is why training is never-ending. You have new people who enter the military, you have people who leave the military, there is constant rotation and that is why training has to be continuous. Training has to be continuous, militaries have to focus on modernisation. And so I think the Lithuanian army and the folks that I met with face similar challenges to other NATO allies.
– You also mentioned one of the missions of LANDCOM is to provide command and control if the need arises, if there is a contingency or an armed conflict or even all-out war. If you knew you had to provide it, say in a month or two, what would be the jobs that had to be done in Lithuania to prepare the ground? In terms of infrastructure or in terms of human resources.
You know that is a really good question. It's something that we kind of put under a larger umbrella term that we call theatre enablement and it is something that we at LANDCOM have been involved with since about 2017 when SACEUR recognised the importance of more focused control over a great part of the European theatre.
When you boil it down to the simplest point, it's how do you get NATO's warfighters and warfighting capabilities to the fight as quickly as possible, so if you have troops that are ready to move on a short notice but the means by which they are going to travel to the crisis zone are not able to get them there, that is a challenge.
Through this theatre enablement it drove the creation of a bunch of new organisations, such as the Joint Sustainment and Enabling Command, the Standing Joint Logistics Support Group, the NATO Force Integration Units like the one that's right here in Lithuania.
And so those are things that NATO has put into place since we really started looking at this, since 2017. And I, as the NATO LANDCOM commander, it's important that I come here to the Baltic states and I look at the infrastructure, I understand what the terrain is, I talk to the host nations, so that I understand their perspectives and challenges. And then I can go to my headquarters and as the headquarters that's responsible for the standardisation, interoperability and planning,
I can make sure that we pool the NATO plans, the host nation plans and the other ally plans together, so we have a coherent way of responding.
– Did you discuss with representatives of the Lithuanian Armed Forces the infrastructure that's already in place? For example, the under-construction Rail Baltica railway would be very important in this manner. Also the Lithuanian port of Klaipėda would be very important.
Yes, we absolutely spoke about both of those, we spoke about things like airfields, rail lines, ports, road networks, all the things that would come to your mind if you were looking at how do you move large amounts of personnel and equipment through an area or to an area.
– Did you talk with NATOs' Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) troops in Lithuania and with the US battalion which is currently stationed in Lithuania? Are they able at this moment to operate together with the Lithuanian army, is there enough standardisation, is there enough interoperability?
Yes, actually I did meet with them, I met with the commander and I met with soldiers on the ground and in fact we spent a pretty significant amount of time together. Yes, they are absolutely interoperable, from a technical aspect.
[...] I think that the short answer is yes, they are interoperable, they are adaptable, they are working great together and I left the EFP impressed and very happy with what I saw.
As far as I know, you also visited the Suwalki gap on your trip?
I did visit the Suwalki gap while I was travelling through the region. It is an important piece of terrain, I've seen the Suwalki gap on maps, I looked at satellite imagery, I have even seen it in the digital exercises but until you walk the ground, until you see the complexity of the terrain and what it looks like when you are on the ground, you don't have a full appreciation for it.
This is a key terrain and important to NATO because, as you know, the Suwalki gap is NATO's' physical link between the Baltic lateral from north to south and so it is a really really interesting area that has major advantages for the defence and really significant obstacles for offensive operations.
Are there any specific improvements that need to be done in the near future to ensure the Alliance's capability to defend it properly, now that you understand it from the ground?
You know, nothing major, there's always some fine-tuning and adjustments that we need to make but as I toured the area and I walked over the ground, it was the intimate understanding that the commanders that operate that area have of the terrain.
And I want to go back to the exercise that I talked to you about earlier, with the 21st Lithuanian Dragoon soldiers that knew the terrain intimately and used that to their advantage.
Well that is what I saw when I toured the Suwalki area, the commanders that I was with, they knew that area like the back of their hand. They knew the weaknesses, they knew the strengths, they knew the areas that are favourable to the defense and I was very, very impressed with their knowledge. So nothing really major, no.
For us, Lithuanians, the main concerns always include stronger air defence and the ability to quickly deploy NATO troops if the need arises. Do you think that right now everything is done that can be done to meet those concerns or do you think that maybe something could be improved in that area, in providing stronger air defence in Lithuania or quicker troop deployment?
We look at what we see in the armies' warfighting functions and air defence is one of many warfighting functions that we look at. And we have to look holistically across the entire Alliance.
In our exercise programmes, we always train as we are going to fight, so we bring together those systems to ensure that we can employ and should, in case deterrence fails.
In terms of rapid deployment, as you know, we have the NATO response forces and we have what we call the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, who are specifically identified NATO units, who are on a much higher readiness status and prepared to deploy at a moment's notice to anywhere in SACEUR's area of responsibility.
So I feel very, very comfortable with the readiness of the forces that would come, I feel very comfortable with the planning that we have done and then we, collectively, Lithuania as the host nation, me, as the LANDCOM commander and some of the other allied nations are coming together to work on specific planning to make sure that we can work out the small details in making this happen.
I would like to go a little bit further from the Baltics and maybe to other countries, aspiring countries, NATO partners, like Ukraine and Georgia. How would you describe your mission there, how can you get them closer to NATO and safer as well?
I'm glad you asked that question because I failed to mention before another, major aspect of LANDCOM's mission includes enabling readiness of partner nations' land forces.
And so, those are non-NATO nations like Ukraine and Georgia that are signed up for participation in NATO missions. So we at LANDCOM help to build their capabilities and support NATO operations, through enabling interoperability – we do training with them, we look at their systems. I have personally been to Georgia and LANDCOM and Georgia are doing staff talks, I have a trip planned to go to Ukraine and so that's kind of our goal.
The last question is how do you think Covid impacts the readiness of the forces? Are there any specific points for the Baltics?
Covid has forced us to optimise and streamline the way we do training. [...] Each individual nation like Lithuania has figured out how to maintain readiness in the Covid environment.
[...] What I am most encouraged about is that in spite of the Covid and in spite of the challenges that Covid causes, we are able to train or able to maintain our combat readiness and I can tell you that the Lithuanian Land Forces are combat ready and so is NATO.