WASHINGTON ― The defense minister of Baltic ally Lithuania voiced skepticism over the recent Pentagon assessment that Russia, after months of fighting Ukraine and slapped with western sanctions, would deplete its fully-serviceable ammunition stockpiles by early 2023.
Arvydas Anušauskas, following visits with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other U.S. officials here, said in an interview that any appraisals of Russia’s weapons stockpiles ought to also factor in Lithuania’s Russian-allied neighbor Belarus, which sent Russia more than 20,000 tons of ammunition earlier this year.
Anušauskas also discussed Lithuania’s deal to buy the Lockheed Martin-made M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS, reports the U.S. plans to send the Patriot missile defense system to Ukraine, and recent plans to increase the defense ministry’s budget.
This interview, from Dec. 16, was edited for length and clarity.
The big news from your visit to Washington is the the HIMARS deal finalized this week. How does that connect to Latvia and Estonia also buying HIMARS?
A year ago, we agreed with Latvia and Estonia about our joint capability development. The Estonians have already concluded their agreement [to buy HIMARS] a month ago, Lithuania is completing and signing it now, and the Latvians just formed a new government but will probably finalize this deal soon.
To summarize, HIMARS allows us to develop new division-level capabilities and will help us to create a division-level, command-and-control element.
It’s an enabler for us regionally. Current and future regional plans actually link all of our countries into one entity, into one unit. With Latvia and Estonia, our HIMARS will be integrated into NATO defense plans and be interoperable with other elements.
What’s the timing for deliveries?
Delivery for Lithuania will start in 2025 and will be complete in 2026, and for Estonia, deliveries start in 2024 and finish in 2025.
European defense leaders are worried about balancing Ukraine aid, their own readiness and industry’s ability to backfill. What’s Lithuania’s experience, and where is the biggest pinch?
Capability restoration is the major rule we follow when we provide support to Ukraine. If we transfer certain equipment or weapons, we have to have an agreement to replenish our stocks. For example, if we agree to transfer 120mm mortars, we have an agreement with Spain on acquiring more of them. Practically all the support we have sent we have already restored or will restore in the near future.
Of course, the industrial capacities in Europe [alone], because we have some weaponry purchased in Europe, are not sufficient.
Lithuania finalized its HIMARS deal weeks after Estonia, and its deliveries will come a year after Estonia’s. Is that a sign of stretched industrial capacity?
As far as I know, the industry has doubled its pace in producing HIMARS, including launchers and ammunition. But in terms of orders, Poland also ordered them so the waiting list is rather long.
Lithuania is sandwiched between Kaliningrad and Belarus. Do you feel the threat has degraded at all?
I would say that their threat-level remains unchanged; capability is diminished on Kaliningrad but the overall threat level has not changed.
Diminished but unchanged, how?
Some part of the capabilities were deployed to Ukraine from Kaliningrad. The Ukrainians destroyed them, as we know. But the recent mobilization in Russia allowed it restore its human resources. And we have to bear in mind that only land forces were used for fighting in Ukraine, so the aviation capabilities, the navy, Iskanders, remained in Kaliningrad.
The U.S. government just assessed that Russia will run out of serviceable ammunition in 2023. Do you agree?
The people in the hotspots, at the frontline, cannot confirm this information. And as far as we know, Russia has sufficient artillery capabilities and ammunition. We’re not sure about stocks, but some experts calculate that by spring next year, it may run out of it. We are not sure about their industrial capacity, which would allow for replenishing their stocks, and that’s the question.
You think they have the ability to replenish their stocks?
They have the possibility to restore some of their stocks.
Is there some particular information that makes you think that and is there a specific kind of ammunition that they might be able to restore?
No, I do not have such detailed information about as we are well aware, Russia is using the ammunition in line with the old standards: 152mm and 122mm ammunition, so it may be able to restore it or it may be receiving it from North Korea.
We should also count ammunition from Belarus, from which Russia has taken more than 20,000 tons of ammunition. We don’t know how large stocks are in Belarus, but by transferring its armored equipment and ammunition to Russia, Belarus remains a major resource.
The U.S. is expected to send Patriot air defenses to Ukraine, which Russia may see as an escalation. Is that a weapon that the U.S. should not send, and are there new weapons that the U.S. should be sending?
The major challenge in this issue is training of personnel using this equipment, and Lithuania along with other European countries do not care, so to speak‚ about the position of Russia. There is a great need to protect Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure by all means, and I believe that the transfer of this capability should be treated as a deescalation measure that does not allow Russia to escalate.
In February, when we transferred Stingers to Ukraine, the talk was that this transfer would escalate the situation and we had a different position. Our position was that the stronger Ukraine would have been, the fewer possibilities Russia would have had to implement its aggressive policy. If more countries supported Ukraine at that point in time, this was done then by only several countries, we probably wouldn’t have had a war.
What decisions do you think need to be pushed forward?
Looking back at support Ukraine from March until now, the process probably was not as fast as we would have liked, but it is going on and now we’re start speaking about the transfer of air defense systems and Western-type armored equipment. Even now Lithuania is now transferring to Ukraine sniper equipment, night vision equipment, optics, to contribute to creating an advantage for the Ukrainians on the battlefield at night.
The U.S. earlier this month announced that it would change the status of its forces in in Lithuania to a persistent rotational presence. What is what does that mean and how does it relate to NATO plans to increase its presence on its eastern edge?
NATO’s Madrid summit took this decision, but this is an additional step made in the Baltic region. Along with other Baltic States, Lithuania has actively aimed for persistent rotations of U.S. troops. And along with the NATO Enhanced Forward Presence forces, it’s an additional capability which is very important in my opinion.
And are there any capability gaps that you see that allies still need to plug?
Our priorities are strong air defense and anti-missile defense, prepositioning of weapons and ammunition, the greater presence of NATO allies in Lithuania, and we work actively on this with our European partners, especially in Germany.
In the area of military capability development, there is still a lot of work to be done and we see no end. If we want to reach a presence of our allies in Lithuania, we need to do our homework as well, we have to build infrastructure, and we started establishing a new training range we have to complete. All of our allies are saying the same thing, that these forces cannot just be present in Lithuania, the forces have to train here.
Has Lithuania has been seeking the creation of rotational air defenses, and how does that relate to its push to expanding Baltic air policing?
Indeed Lithuania is aiming for this and in the near future we will circulate a white paper to our allies because we need more clarity on how to implement. They’re tied together, it’s the transition from air policing to air defense. I wouldn’t be able to explain that now because we ourselves are not very clear about it yet.
Beyond HIMARS, what investments is Lithuania planning after the decision earlier this year to expand defense spending?
Indeed, we increased defense spending on acquisitions. Next year we are completing the acquisition of Boxer infantry fighting vehicles with Spike missiles, and we will enter the next stage of the acquisitions to procure more of them.
Some time ago, we procured from Germany self-propelled howitzers, but because production stopped in Germany, we are in a week’s time going to finalize a contract with France for the Caesar self-propelled howitzer.
We are also implementing projects related to electronic and digital security, counter-UAV capabilities and we will conclude another contract in several days to purchase the Switchblade 600.
We aim at having modern troops, and we want to supply our troops not only with fragmentation vests or helmets but also with weapons equipped with optics, thermal-vision and night vision.
How does Lithuania regard a new entrant into the defense market like South Korea, which also makes self-propelled howitzers, and is known for marketing itself pretty aggressively?
Yes, we were looking into this possibility, and what concerns us and what we learned from Ukraine is that the logistical supply chain should be as short as possible. Maybe when Poland opens a factory for these Korean howitzers, we might consider this possibility, but now we do not have these plans and we’re focused more on European manufacturers. We established contacts with South Korea because it has equipment which might [eventually] be purchased.
Some European officials recently have talked about the importance of reinvigorating the continent’s defense industry and we also hear about coordination between between EU partners. How is that playing out?
At the ministerial level we discuss this very often because money is available, but industry has not responded clearly to the opportunity that has opened up for it. I have heard that industry is saying that that these orders would be short term and what they need to see is a 10-year perspective.
Is that a reasonable request, and will we see 10 years of orders?
Yes, I believe that it’s quite feasible to meet this requirement because some companies already have orders for a decade. That applies to HIMARS and Javelins. And Germany also promised to restore its industrial capacity to produce Panzerhaubitze 2000 howitzers, and they would have long-term orders. The famous Bayraktar, a tactical drone used in Ukraine, has orders for five years.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.