Opinion: Main challenges of hybrid war – army reserve and local self-defence guard

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Andrius Kubilius

Military action in Ukraine is subsiding. Perhaps we can afford a sigh of relief. However, it would be definitely wrong to calm down without attempting at long-term conclusions for ourselves. These should be the conclusions on whether we are prepared to defend ourselves against such hybrid wars as the one that Russia has been fighting in Ukraine.

I have written before that over the next twenty years we are doomed to see, in our neighbourhood, the same sort of Putin’s power that will be weakening and getting more aggressive. This means that we will have to live in the vicinity of the front line with all its implications for at least twenty years.

This also means that we have to transform the paradigm of our military defence rather than just the paradigm of our further economic development. We have to realise that manifestations of Russian aggression towards us are practically inevitable (which means that the least we can do is not to allow ourselves the luxury of thinking that this aggression may be avoided). The aggression can take many different forms: from traditional military aggression to local destabilisation inherent in hybrid wars, from Vilnius Region or transit trains to Königsberg to opposition to shale gas exploration in Tauragė Region. Civil and supposedly legitimate protest rallies, as evidenced in Ukraine, can quickly culminate in seizures of local administrative buildings and police stations, thus getting access to armaments. Such actions may be publicly portrayed as local patriotic campaigns, even though they would have a local GRU mercenary behind them.

We could be almost equally imperilled by Moscow’s attempts to destabilise some Latvian or Estonian region, as there are probably even more and easier possibilities there than there are in Lithuania.

Potential hybrid aggression must be seen as very real, and we must very openly talk about our readiness to counter it. We might be painfully disappointed if we take comfort in Article 5 of the Washington Treaty and NATO defence plans for our region. It is not that NATO would not defend us, but it is that we may have to pay a high price if we ourselves are not ready to withstand hybrid aggression until NATO mechanisms are put into operation.

Is it enough to just increase the defence budget? How will we spend defence funds?

It seems that we could possibly breathe a sigh of relief because the Russian aggression in Ukraine opened the eyes of all politicians in Lithuania, and therefore we will enjoy a much larger national defence budget next year. Obviously, there will be no proper defence without proper funding. However, the concern is that, having agreed on increased funding for defence, politicians seem to calm down and do not break their heads on how the money will be spent. Even if the political community further discusses defence matters, the discussions are very superficial and limited only to the question on whether Lithuania should return to universal military conscription instead of having only the professional army. This issue is an important element in the debate, but our defence has certainly other problems, which have been made explicit by Russia’s hybrid aggression in Ukraine. It is welcome that Juozas Olekas, as an ordinary Member of Parliament, submitted to the Seimas the draft law (though it is strange that it is not the Government that proposes such an important matter for consideration) that would allow Lithuania to have a rapid reaction force and use it for self-defence even in peacetime. Nevertheless, this draft law, of course, does not cover all the issues that need to be considered.

Will we have a new concept of self-defence?

I am convinced that our politicians need to agree on a much broader approach to the transformation of defence after it has become clear how hybrid wars are fought. Basically, Lithuania needs a completely new national self-defence concept: it has to be new not because we have been doing something wrong so far, but because we have plainly faced entirely new threats necessitating a proper response. And this discussion cannot be limited to the military community not because Lithuanian politicians have any reason to distrust the military, but because it has turned out that hybrid wars extend far beyond the traditional sphere of military activities. In addition to the traditional military self-defence, a new concept of self-defence must give a clue as to how to defend ourselves against information wars and how to ensure national self-defence against hybrid aggression, which may initially seem like simple tumultuous civil disobedience and hardly remind of military aggression but can quickly turn into aggression by “little green men”.

How to solve a futile dispute between the champions of a professional army and of mandatory military service?

I do not feel I am an expert in military matters. Therefore, I am not going to discuss the issues within the sole competence of professionals in military affairs: how big an army Lithuania must have at a peaceful time, whether 8 000 professionals and 4 000 volunteers are enough for now or whether the number of professionals should be increased to 12 000. And I am much less ready to discuss the type of armoured vehicles that the Lithuanian armed forces must purchase. However, I see that the important dispute (where politicians are also intensively engaged) on the need to return to mandatory military service in Lithuania is usually completely superficial and leads to a dead end.

Proponents of conscription usually appeal to a human emotion rooted in the subconscious –– if there is a military threat on the horizon, it is necessary to do something special that is nearly real mobilisation, and thus all eyes turn to universal military service as something that is most similar to mobilisation. Meanwhile, opponents of conscription refer to a different human emotion – we would be better defended by true professionals than greenhorns herded forcibly from villages. Both approaches are correct in their own way, but at the same time they show the lack of understanding of an essential traditional problem of human resources in the army. And that problem, contrary to what the incumbent MEP, Valentinas Mazuronis, claims, is not related to whether a professional military or a conscript is more proficient with a traditional martial weapon.

Do we have the army reserve? How to create it?

The fundamental problem of military human resources is not about who will be better –– a professional or a conscript –– at shooting an enemy. As shown by the example of Israel, both can shoot well, if need be. The fundamental question is how quickly military human resources can be increased several fold in the event of war or other aggression without losing their professional battle and defence skills.

This raises the question of what is referred to as the army reserve. The command of our armed forces says that in peacetime the reserve should exceed the number of the armed forces three times. If Lithuania is going to have 20 000 troops in peacetime, it would then need up to 70 000 reservists. They must not only be registered as reservists, but also be ready to promptly and professionally join the armed forces during mobilisation in case of war. Therefore, the system must be worked out to provide them with special training and upgrade their skills on a regular basis every few years.

A properly structured system of the army reserve is probably more important than what type of armoured vehicles and anti-tank missiles the army is equipped with. However, it has to be admitted that Lithuanian politicians have poor understanding of the importance of the reserve and practically do not speak about it. In the meantime, our neighbours Finns, though with just a slightly bigger population, say that in peacetime they have 30 000 troops and over 230 000 reservists whose skills are regularly upgraded. History has taught Finns that such an army structure allows them to withstand a much stronger enemy. Keen on maintaining the same structure of the army and the army reserve, they do not think about abandoning conscription. Just like Finns, our neighbours Estonians, who we have been trying to catch up with and overtake in many areas, have retained compulsory military service to this day. Every year they increase the number of conscripts by 3 000 and summon about 10 000 reservists for regular training. Sadly, we are far behind in this respect.

We have to understand that Lithuania’s reckless abandoning of conscription hit the army reserve harder than the peacetime armed forces. Normally, the army reserve consists of the people who served in the army and were discharged, who are highly skilled in military matters, and who, as part of the reserve, have to regularly upgrade these skills. The reserve cannot simply be made of young patriotic men without military experience. Neither can the reserve be built of enthusiastic shooters or hunters with combative spirit.

Before Lithuania abandoned conscription, former conscripts, as in Finland, had made up the core of the army reserve. One can argue whether the reserve was properly managed, but it existed and it was clear that every year it was supplemented by at least several thousand new reservists (former conscripts) to maintain the constant number of people. Without supplementing the reserve, it consistently decreases when men quit at a set age.

After abandoning conscription, the system of consistently supplementing the army reserve ceased to exist. It can hardly be replaced by voluntary basic military training introduced by Rasa Juknevičienė in an attempt to somehow remedy the disastrous situation. The command of the army says that the reserve must be annually supplemented by 3 000 newly trained people to keep it at the size needed. Currently the course of basic military training is annually taken by less than a thousand resolute volunteers, and it does not look like it would be easy to increase the number of volunteers to the 3 000 needed. In addition, the current basic military training is really only basic and elementary, and a young person gets to know only simple weapons and basic information, but does not get professional military education – such training does not provide for a person becoming a real gunner, sniper or artillerist. The reason is simple – the course is too short. Meanwhile, the army reserve needs those who already have a military background and who will not need any training in the event of aggression.

Therefore, the fundamental problem of building up the army reserve must be solved either by expanding voluntary basic military training in scope, duration and content, or by returning some sort of compulsory military service as the only realistic opportunity for creating a functioning system of the army reserve. Both substantive and financial logic says that the return of compulsory military service would be the most effective, systematic and cheapest way to address the challenge of forming the army reserve.

Politicians should immediately solve the problem of forming the army reserve rather than considering the artificial problem of what is better – a professional or conscript army. The army reserve is the most important element of self-defence, and we, politicians, must finally understand that. It would be wise to do so without waiting for the next round of aggression from Moscow because that next round can be in Lithuania.

Have we drawn a lesson from wars going on elsewhere? Will we have a local self-defence guard?

Russian military experts admit that hybrid aggression differs from usual military aggression because it is difficult, at least at an initial stage, to identify hybrid aggression and distinguish it from any seemingly peaceful civil protests that suddenly lead to the capture of administrative buildings and police stations. We have seen all of this in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Similar hybrid wars are and were going on not only in Ukraine. The wars that have moved away from the traditional concept of war are taking or took place in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.

Yet such wars point to a simple conclusion – if any “little green men”, mercenaries or ostensibly peaceful protesters are allowed to take over any buildings, arm themselves and then occupy the whole area of any city, it is then particularly difficult, if not nearly impossible, to drive them out using conventional military force. A good thing is that in response to the situation created by Russia’s hybrid aggression in Ukraine, as announced by the Chief of Defence and the Minister of National Defence, Lithuania has started building up a rapid reaction force for national self-defence. Nevertheless, it may be quite complicated for the army or special police force to respond to local hybrid aggression in an appropriate and timely manner. A case in point here is other countries that went through a tragic experience of similar aggression. Self-defence against hybrid aggression can be much more effective in its infancy, preventing aggression from materialising.

Again, as shown by the successes of other countries, hybrid aggression in its infancy is most effectively stopped by a local self-defence guard that was stated in our article posted earlier. The local self-defence guard is a system of local groups that, aided by the army, are properly prepared for such self-defence.

When we talk about the constitutional duty of universal self-defence against the enemy, we also have to talk about creating a local self-defence guard and its general framework. Universal self-defence enables the country to much easier withstand the first moves of hybrid aggression, thus making a more difficult but later step – organising of universal, armed, partisan resistance in the area occupied – unnecessary. Contrary to what had happened in Donetsk and Luhansk (Ukraine), separatist rallies and attempts to take over administrative buildings in Odessa and Dnepropetrovsk were stopped, first and foremost, by local Maidan activists from Kharkov and Dnepropetrovsk, who have gathered in crowds outnumbering separatists, instead of the Ukrainian army or special rapid reaction forces.

Speaking of a “local self-defence guard”, I use the word “guard” not to emphasise the military aspect of self-defence, but to underscore that the military has to undertake to develop the country-wide network of guard units forming them from local civic- and patriotic-minded people on a voluntary basis in each major Lithuanian town or village. Local army reservists, military volunteers, and riflemen should make up the core of local guard units; retired police officers, security staff, and even aforementioned hunters could join up. Even those who are now desperately asking a naive question as to where the one willing to defend his/her Homeland should go in case of aggression could join the ranks of the guard.

Serving as local guards, reservists or volunteers would not be released from their duty in the national armed forces. They would be further summoned to reserve or volunteer training and mobilised by the national forces in the event of military aggression. Furthermore, assisted by the military, they could voluntarily gather in their communities for discussing and learning how to prevent possible hybrid aggression, first of all, by peaceful means in their neighbourhoods. Switzerland does it in a similar way, and we wanted to copy its pattern of universal local resistance when we just started building up our armed forces. Time has come now when it is really worth doing so and it can be done.

Some time ago, perhaps as far back as in 1995, I proposed taking Canada’s safe neighbourhood initiative to Lithuania. Accordingly, the police have to see to it that a town or street community is prepared to jointly defend itself against stray thieves or street hooligans by just systematically monitoring the environment. Though these practices in Lithuania have not become as widespread and common as in Canada, I am glad seeing the sign “safe neighbourhood” – a stylised vigilant and watchful neighbour’s eye – in Vilnius and other cities. This is enough for thieves and hooligans to shun rampaging in such a street. Both the police and neighbours benefit.

The local self-defence guard is also necessary for a hybrid aggressor to know that not only will it be faced with a small well-equipped army and a large, efficiently mobilised and well-trained reserve in Lithuania, but that its “little green men” will meet firm resistance from the local self-defence guard in every town right at the beginning. Like with a street thief, this knowledge would be very powerful in deterring any hybrid aggressor.

If additionally we realised that the guard could easily become a national backbone of civic awareness and patriotism underpinning true civic awareness in each town or village, we would regard the creation of the guard as one of the key principles of the new concept of the national self-defence, which should be applied without delay. Even a paradoxical question – whether the guard can be created in Šalčininkai or Visaginas – can receive an unexpected answer in reality when it appears that Polish- and Russian-speaking residents are ready to join in the civil self-defence in large numbers. This exercise may prove that they truly care more than just about street names or spelling of personal names. However, no one has ever asked them properly...

I urgently call for a discussion on the essential elements pointed above and development of a new national self-defence strategy. Of course, my reflections do not cover everything what should be agreed in the strategy. Some of my suggestions may sound unprofessional or even naive, but it would be criminally naive to neither talk about new challenges, nor discuss them, nor finally take any action. It would be tiring to continue seeing the Government’s indifference that has been predominant so far – no action or almost no action while hiding behind the mask of indifference and saying “we know everything and do everything possible”. The government, pressed by the President and the accord between the political parties, provided for a substantial increase in the next year’s defence budget, which is a good thing and the government deserves praise, but this is not enough.

We will have to live in the vicinity of the front line with all its implications for at least twenty years. We need to understand it very clearly today and have no illusions. Having realised that, we must immediately change our economic policies as well as the principles of military and civil self-defence.

Hannibal at the gates!

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Andrius Kubilius is Lithuania’s former prime minister and current leader of the opposition at the Seimas. He is the leader of the conservative Homeland Union-Lithuanian Christian Democrats.

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