Minister of Defense: First lessons from the coronavirus crisis

Minister of Defence Jüri Luik (Isamaa).
Minister of Defence Jüri Luik (Isamaa). Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

To implement the treatment of broad-based national defense, we should take steps to improve our readiness for future crises based on lessons learned from this one, Minister of Defense Jüri Luik writes.

The coronavirus epidemic has been referred to as the greatest global crisis management exercise in history. While crises can be unpleasant and frightening, they help test our preparedness under real circumstances.

The administrative area of the Ministry of Defense has decisively supported crisis management, from dispatching a field hospital to Kuressaare to Defense League and police joint patrols. But we also believe it is important to look to the future and help society prepare for future crises.

Estonia lacked necessary stockpiles

The most visible shortcoming of Estonia's crisis management capacity has been lack of basic continuity supplies. Had the Defense Forces not been in possession of roughly one million protective masks, Estonia would not have had a week to wait for new deliveries of personal protective equipment. By now, we have managed to crawl out of the hole and equip front line staff with masks at least.

The usefulness of stockpiling certain vital things despite what it costs should be brought home today. Goods needed in a crisis will become both scarce and expensive once that crisis hits, and what is paramount – their shortage might put human lives at risk.

And yet, Estonia did not have the necessary stockpiles. The reasons are only human and can be found in planning psychology. A quick glance at the international situation tells us that insufficient stockpiles have rather been the norm because humans are by nature optimistic when making plans.

This intrinsic optimism allows us to postpone acquiring crisis stockpiles when drawing up budgets. The decision is an easy one to make as the world is used to relying on normally highly accurate supply chains even when ensuring vital services, while a million euros needed for masks can always be used for something more pressing during peacetime.

To implement the treatment of broad-based national defense, we should take steps to improve our readiness for future crises based on lessons learned from this one. No two crises are alike, while we can be absolutely sure there will be more in the future. The next crisis might not be epidemiological and could instead be caused by chemical or radioactive fallout.

Experience from elsewhere

Different countries have compensated for human nature's optimistic tendencies by attaching separate significance to the topic of crisis stockpiles in legislation and funding. The Finns created their National Emergency Supply Agency (Huoltovarmuuskeskus) back in 1993. The agency is tasked with preparing for national emergency and crisis situations, including disruption of food supply, power outages military threats, natural and environmental disasters and communications disruptions.

Responsibility aside, what I deem especially important is independent funding that ensures a stable budget for public and private sector cooperation that is mildly reminiscent of how our Cultural Endowment operates.

In Switzerland, the state is obligated to prepare for vital commodities' supply disruptions according to section 102 of the constitution. In charge of it is the Federal Office for National Economic Supply (BWL) that works with local governments and the private sector. Crisis preparations concentrate on two main fields – strengthening existing supply chains and preparing for shortages of vital goods.

Switzerland offers companies tax breaks on goods the stockpiling of which is mandatory and helps secure financing for creating stockpiles in the form of low-interest loans guaranteed by the government.

It is cooperation with the private sector that ensures the effectiveness of the system, making it possible to continuously replenish stocks at an annual cost of around €11.4 per resident. Maintaining stockpiles is a long-time tradition – awareness campaigns for stockpiling food and basic household commodities have been made for over 50 years in Switzerland.

Similar awareness work has begun in Estonia. Women's voluntary defense organization Naiskodukaitse's mobile application "Ole valmis" (Be Prepared) provides guidelines for creating personal stockpiles, crisis preparedness and activities.

Also of interest is Sweden's Cold War system that was based on experience from the first and second world wars when the neutral country was cut off from the rest of the world.

Until 2002, the Ministry of Defense's administrative area included as a separate agency the civil readiness board the main task of which was management and coordination of civil preparedness for both peace- and wartime. The agency coordinated the activities of other state agencies, state companies and county governments that were responsible for certain peace- and wartime civil functions.

National foundation

It is another matter whether every extensive crisis should result in new state agencies cropping up. Rather, we should always consider whether an existing institution could be a good fit for new functions. Of course, we could also make sums aimed at ensuring social continuity in the state budget visible to everyone by altering the structure of the budget and hope that it will be enough to bring about change.

However, the crisis at hand seems to suggest otherwise. COVID-19 has also revealed organizational shortcomings in that as soon as crisis procurement needs went beyond the scope of a single field, the government had to appoint a minister (Jaak Aab) to take charge of tenders.

It is quite clear that it would be safer going into the next crisis, whether we're talking about a natural or a manmade emergency – such as an armed conflict – with such an agency already in place, working pre-emptively and independently and without having to wait for appointment of procurement managers.

Provided we can find a model for determining nationwide needs and financing, different options for a crisis stockpiles manager could be weighed. One such option would be giving the ask to the Center for Defense Investments that operates in the administrative area of the Ministry of Defense.

The Defense Forces wartime stockpiles cover ten years, include thousands of articles and are worth dozens of millions of euros, with everything needed to wage war planned, procured and stockpiled for every single day. Special warehouses have been constructed based on how certain goods need to be stored.

NATO's defense spending concept suggests the creation of a so-called firewall between Defense Forces and Defense League and civil needs on the level of budgets, while the defense ministry's administrative area has enough experience for managing complicated and substantial procurements, stockpiling supplies and building necessary infrastructure. As it should be since we are tasked with being professional pessimists so to speak whose daily task is preparing for the worse.

In the future, we should consider having a separate state foundation to take charge of procurement and management of crisis supplies following the example of Finland. However, for now, we are prepared to help and offer access to our staff, skills and national defense logistics.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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