Into a Whirlpool of Change
“Our army is ready to become a part of Nato forces,” says the commander-in-chief, Major General Jonas Kronkaitis
In June this year Istanbul will host a Nato summit. The event will welcome Lithuania and six other nations as fully-fledged members of the Alliance. The country was invited to join in November 2002.
For over a decade the nation has been preparing itself for this important step. Major General Jonas Algirdas Kronkaitis, 69, who returned to Lithuania in 1997 and was appointed commander-in-chief of the armed forces in 1999, was one of the most important people to help the army adapt to the standards of Western armies.
Two Different Worlds
Kronkaitis left Lithuania as a nine-year-old boy in 1944, and moved to the USA at the age of 14. He gained a BA in industrial management from the University of Connecticut.
Later, he became a lieutenant in the US army, served in the Vietnam War and built an outstanding career in the United States. He attended infantry, ranger and military equipment control courses, studied at several colleges, and held responsible positions in various military structures in the army. He even managed to earn an MA in Business Administration. He retired from the army in 1985 with the rank of colonel.
When in the spring of 1997, Kronkaitis came to Lithuania and started working at the Ministry of Defence, at first he found it difficult to work with many of the officers and army chiefs. Most of the personnel in the armed forces at that time were former Soviet army officers or newly appointed civilians; very few had had a Western education or experience.
At that time no one in Lithuania had any doubt about the need to create a Western army. The only problem was that there were few people who knew how to.
For Kronkaitis, who had never lived in the Soviet Union, it was difficult to understand how difficult it was for local officers to adopt Western-style procedures.
“At the beginning, we often spoke at the top of our voices or shouted at one another,” he recalls. “Soon, however, we realised that we all shared the same ideas, and that our quarrels were not personal at all. We were all trying to reach the same goal, only our methods were different.
Finally we managed to find common ground, learned more about each other, and started working successfully.
“In 1997 the army lacked everything, from military rules and regulations to adequate financing. Society had a negative view of the armed forces. How could the military get better if the attitude of the people was so critical?
We had to win respect, to bring about improvements in many areas so that this remnant of Soviet times could disappear.”
Sometimes people, when referring to his efforts to implement reforms, say that Kronkaitis has managed to build up the armed forces to a Western-level from scratch. He says this is not true.
“This statement is an exaggeration. Those who joined the armed forces at the beginning did a great job. They worked through the most difficult period. I had experience of being in the US army, and it was easier for me to see then what had to be done.
“Those who started building the army had neither money nor experience. Nevertheless, they managed to achieve a lot. By the time I arrived, the armed forces were already there, they only needed some improvements.”
One of the most evident transformations was the change in attitude towards the ranks, especially among the corps of sergeants. Previously, sergeants were appointed to keep order in military formations; now they are the main assistants to the officers, conducting drills, and become direct commanders in the field. This helped to solve many psychological problems within the army.
At the beginning of the year Kronkaitis and the Danish chief of defence General Hans Jesper Helso visited Iraq where Lithuanian troops have been serving in the operation Iraqi Freedom as part of the US-led coalition since spring last year.
After talking to the 54 Lithuanian troops from the Grand Duke Algirdas Mechanised Infantry Battalion, the commander-in-chief said he was glad that they were well trained. He said he was also especially happy that their way of thinking was different.
“They no longer suffer from any inferiority complex,” Kronkaitis says. “They have no doubts about their abilities, and are confident that they are even better than others. This was not the case several years ago. Maybe it is in the Lithuanian nature to feel inferior to others?
“Besides being well trained, our men are also very tough and fit. Last summer many soldiers from other countries couldn’t take the heat. Our troops persevered through all the difficulties.”
Privates on Parade
Kronkaitis initiated many other serious reforms. One of them was the introduction of a new pay structure. The old system was based on the Soviet model under which, in addition to the basic salary, officers were paid bonuses for the number of years of service, their rank and position.
Under the new system salary depends on rank only, because that shows the level of expertise of a serviceman. After introducing this reform, the pay of sergeants and other non-commissioned officers increased, and that of higher ranking officers decreased.
“Last year 1.3 per cent of GDP went on defence. This is not much, but we try to use the funds as well as we can.
“We do not spend it on constructing luxurious headquarters or increasing pay for generals. We spend it on the training and education of our personnel. My aim is to see that each soldier is treated with dignity and respect, and feels that his achievements are noticed and acknowledged.”
Kronkaitis has put a lot of effort into reviewing the structure of the military. The number of senior officers has been reduced, and at the same time the system of unit staffs has been adapted to Nato standards.
“We introduced some important changes between 1997 and 1999. Now we need to continue implementing our personnel training programmes, and make it possible for personnel to improve their skills and learn English. Compared to other Nato candidate countries, Lithuania is one of the frontrunners.
“Of course, the quality of the equipment we have is still lower than in Nato countries. But I think equipment is less important than skills and experience. We will be able to procure equipment later, step by step.”
The commander-in-chief is glad that with each year more and more young men go abroad to military academies and colleges to study and troops participate in training activities in Western countries.
Lithuania is on the threshold of joining Nato. Kronkaitis believes that the most important task in the period before joining is to improve existing structures. There are no more unfulfilled requirements that might prevent the country from joining. Despite the fact that the deadline for completing some of the tasks is 2008, the country plans to implement them now, on the eve of membership.
“Nato is very different from Soviet Moscow. It does not direct or dictate. Although it can suggest or offer advice, in the Alliance each of its members is a sovereign state. The Alliance is interested in security and provides recommendations on the level of our input,” says Kronkaitis.
The commander-in-chief adds that on joining Nato there will be no major changes in the armed forces. Some small changes, however, are to be expected. Once Lithuania becomes a fully-fledged member, it will find itself in a new geopolitical and strategic position, and the role of its armed forces will be slightly different.
Although the main purpose of the armed forces will remain the same, namely the defence of the country, they will also have to be prepared for collective defence.
Nato recommends that Lithuania should maintain one reaction brigade. This brigade will make it possible to participate in Nato operations. Two combat battalions, therefore, will have to be reorganised as logistics units. The army will become more flexible.
“We are required to have only one battalion capable of being deployed in other countries for Nato operations. Nato does not have requirements related to matters of an individual country’s defence. It only requires us to give priority to the brigade because it is the Alliance that will ensure our security.
“This provision applies to all member states, but what is Nato? It is we ourselves. We have to ensure our own security. We will have a better chance of achieving this goal because today the threat is not big and it is offset against the Nato countries,” Kronkaitis maintains.
He believes that for Lithuania it will be easy to adopt Nato procedures. He says that Poland and the Czech Republic, for instance, prior to joining Nato, maintained large armies which had to be reformed in accordance with Nato standards. The Lithuanian army, on the other hand, is relatively new, it was built up from scratch, and it is much easier to establish new structures than to modernise old ones.
Military Service is Useful
What will the armed forces look like in five years from now?
“I think the army will be more professional and patriotically motivated,” the general says.
Nato recommendations give priority to professional armed forces, because they are more easily deployable. There are many Western countries, however, which still believe that conscription is useful to the state. Kronkaitis supports this position. He believes that the armed forces must be based on compulsory service, because this system has many social advantages.
“Sometimes young people cannot get into university. What would they do if there was no military? In the army young people acquire skills and undergo training. They become more mature, better disciplined, and better citizens in general. I think that conscription is an effective means of educating youth and fostering a national spirit.
“Besides, the army needs to stay young. It is important to rotate personnel. The state prepares young people for the reserves and, if needs be, they can be called up.”
Kronkaitis admits that while serving in the armed forces he has had to work very hard and there have been several occasions when he started wondering whether it was right to leave the USA and return to his homeland.
“When I made the decision to work in Lithuania I knew it wouldn’t be easy. And difficult it was. Sometimes very difficult. But I thought I had to finish my job, I couldn’t give up halfway.
“I was surrounded by people who spared no effort and trusted me fully. Therefore, these moments of despair quickly passed over. I truly enjoy serving and working with soldiers. They progress and develop before my very eyes, and this gives me a lot of pleasure,” he admits.
After a hard day’s work, the general returns home where his wife Rūta is waiting for him. The couple have two adult children, a daughter and a son, and previously enjoyed travelling abroad with a video camera.
Now the commander-in-chief is so busy that he does not find the time to watch these videos. As Lithuania prepares itself to become a fully-fledged member of Nato, his service in the armed forces takes up all his time and energy.
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