Fearing Russia, One of Europe’s Smallest Armies Just Bought a Bunch of Armored Vehicles
Latvia scoops up a hundred surplus British CVR(T)s
At a time when militaries around the world continue to ditch expensive, heavy, inflexible armored forces in favor of cheaper, lighter and more transportable combat vehicles, the Baltic state of Latvia has just picked up more than 100 surplus armored vehicles from the United Kingdom.
The British Ministry of Defense confirmed the deal earlier this month.
The sale comes at a time when Latvia—and its Baltic neighbors Estonia and Lithuania—find themselves facing the most significant threat to their security since their independence in 1990 and ’91.
In fact, Latvia and the United Kingdom drafted the armor deal back in February, perhaps with an eye on Russia’s activities in Crimea. The Latvian Ministry of Defense announced the transfer of 123 ex-British Army CVR(T) tracked armored vehicles on Feb. 27.
At the time, pro-Russian forces had already begun to occupy the Crimean peninsula, leading to its eventual annexation by Moscow.
As the British Army continues to withdraw troops and armor from Germany and streamline its forces, it’s shedding surplus equipment, like the CVR(T)s.
The CVR(T), or Alvis Combat Vehicle Reconnaissance (Tracked) is now four decades old. According to current manufacturer BAE Systems, 23 countries have bought a total of 3,500 of the vehicles since 1972.
The CVR(T) was produced in a range of variants to fulfill different tasks with the Cold War British Army. Those currently in service with the British Army include the Scimitar, a light reconnaissance tank armed with a 30-millimeter RARDEN cannon, and also the Spartan, an armored personnel carrier capable of carrying four soldiers.
The British Army also uses the Samson, an armored recovery vehicle equipped with a rear winch, the Sultan command-and-control vehicle and the Samaritan, an armored ambulance.
The Scorpion, a light tank armed with either a 76-millimeter or 90-millimeter main gun, is no longer in the United Kingdom’s arsenal but continues to serve with export operators.
The exact breakdown of the future Latvian CVR(T) fleet is unclear. In a statement to the press, the British Ministry of Defense noted that the vehicles would “transport infantry, reconnaissance teams, air defense sections and mortar fire controllers as well as provide vital battlefield capabilities including ambulances, armored command vehicles and armored recovery vehicles.”
That suggests that Latvia will be getting Spartan, Samson, Sultan and Samaritan models. However, it seems likely that Scimitars—the most potent of the five current models—are also included. The Brits have demonstrated these armored reconnaissance vehicles—together with Samson recovery vehicles—to the Latvian Ministry of Defense.
For a tracked armored fighting vehicle, the Scimitar is relatively small. Its low ground pressure and diminutive size make it ideal for difficult terrain and confined areas—although neither of those is a particular concern in the Baltic region.
Should it meet hostile forces, the Scimitar can defend itself with its 30-millimeter gun … and then scoot away at a speedy 50 miles per hour.
The CVR(T) contract is worth $64.6 million and this price includes overhaul. Refurbishment will certainly be necessary for vehicles that have seen punishing service in successive British campaigns in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan.
The first CVR(T)s should arrive in 2016, and the Latvian Ministry of Defense has promised that a significant proportion of the required upgrade work will take place in Latvia. Upgrading and maintaining the vehicles locally should boost the national economy.
Although Russia’s aggressive new posture has prompted defense budget increases, with the Baltic States leading the way, the Latvian military still needs to keep an eye on expenditures.
In Europe, only Luxembourg and Lithuania spend less on defense than Latvia does. Both Latvia and Lithuania plan to more than double their defense budgets, but this will take time. While Latvia currently spends 0.9 percent of its GDP on defense, this should reach the NATO target of 2 percent by 2020.
Just how useful will the British-made armor be for its new owner? Latvia, sandwiched between Lithuania to the south and Estonia to the north, is a small country—a little larger than West Virginia. Significantly, it shares a land border with Russia, as well as Moscow’s close military ally Belarus.
The Latvian National Armed Forces protect the country’s population of a fewer than 2 million. Within the LNAF, the Land Forces numbers only around 1,000 troops. Currently, their most capable “combat” vehicles are some 60 Humvees that the United States provided.
Latvia possesses a mere three Soviet-era T-55 main battle tanks strictly for training purposes.
The acquisition of the CVR(T)s isn’t really meant to blunt a potential Russian military advance on Latvian soil. As a NATO member, Latvia has less to worry about in that regard than Ukraine does.
Rather, it’s a statement of intent for a country that’s in the process of bolstering its defensive firepower. It’s also a way of increasing Latvian participation in NATO exercises, the scale and tempo of which have increased in the region as the alliance sends out a message to the hawks in Moscow.
Such exercises include the Saber Strike war game, which Latvia hosted in June this year. The U.S.-led Saber Strike 2014 was the biggest of its type yet, involving around 4,700 soldiers, including more than 500 from the Latvian National Armed Forces.
Joint exercises might just be the start of NATO’s expanded commitment to the Baltic states. As the United Kingdom signed off on the CVR(T) contract, Secretary of State for Defense Michael Fallon said the deal was just “one way we are supporting our Baltic NATO allies.”
“As a leading member of NATO, the U.K. is keen to restate publicly our support for the collective security of its members,” Fallon added.
Now Latvia and other the northern European nations, including the United Kingdom, have signed a letter of intent to form a Joint Expeditionary Force. Other signatories are Estonia, Denmark, Lithuania, The Netherlands and Norway.
Latvian Minister of Defense Raimonds V?jonis is even pushing for the establishment of a NATO base in the Baltics. Noting Russia’s increased military activities near the borders of the Baltic states and the crisis in Ukraine, this summer V?jonis called for a permanent presence of alliance forces, and in particular ground elements, in the region.
There exists something of a precedent for this, in the alliance’s provision of Baltic Air Policing, which involves rotating detachments of jet fighters based in Lithuania. Buying tracked armored vehicles also shows Latvia’s NATO allies that the tiny country is equally serious about contributing to local security.
While deliveries of the CVR(T)s are due to end in 2019, Latvia’s ground forces are already looking ahead to the next stage of modernization. Ultimately, the country aims to field more than 100 wheeled armored vehicles to fight alongside the second-hand tracked vehicles.