Defense ministry in fear of defense costs decreasing due to COVID-19

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Maj. Gen. Martin Herem.
Maj. Gen. Martin Herem. Source: Anna Aurelia Minev/ERR

Ministry of Defense representatives fear the recession stemming from the coronavirus crisis could begin to damage Estonia's defense capabilities if the rate of defense costs in the country's gross domestic product (GDP) dips below the current rate of 2 percent.

The current national defense development plan is based on a Ministry of Finance forecast conducted in 2019, but as defense costs are measured as part of the GDP, they could also go down as a result of the recession stemming from the coronavirus crisis. To avoid that happening, the defense ministry and commander-in-chief of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) Maj. Gen. Martin Herem call on the government and Riigikogu to increase the rate of defense costs in the state budget.

"The economic picture we know today has changed so much that as all our proposals were based on an economic forecast conducted in 2019 and fit the 2 percent rate in the GDP, then today's forecast would see [defense costs] fill 2.23 percent of the GDP," said defense ministry undersecretary Kristjan Prikk.

The ministry's Vice-Chancellor of Defense Planning, Meelis Oidsalu, explained that based on the economic movement during the coronavirus crisis, national defense would lose €95 million by the year 2030, the final year of the ministry's long-term plan. The current defense budget is around €600 million a year, but that number is planned to be increased to €900 million.

Oidsalu pointed out that the EDF's 2nd Infantry Brigade costs €50 million in upkeep yearly, EDF's operating grants in the budget however only reach €40 million.

"If we were given a goal to remain in the 2 percent limit as of the economic forecast today, we would have to make cuts in the already agreed to national defense," Prikk admitted.

Maj. Gen. Martin Herem said this would mean Estonia would freeze some of its wartime capabilities. "For example, some support units of the 2nd Infantry Brigade - we would not develop those further and would not take them into account in national defense. The magnitude of €50 million, which is the 1st Infantry Brigade's upkeep costs, is far more than that of the Navy or Special Operations Forces. We could close the Navy and that would still not leave us with enough of a buffer. This means we would have to freeze some units," Herem explained.

Oidsalu echoed Herem's notes and said there would be structural changes made to the EDF if the defense budget cannot continue on its planned course. "Then we could not speak of a development plan, but rather defense maintenance. And during that, we would have to think about how to organize Estonia's military defense in a new way. It would be possible, this resource reality would not be the end of the world on its own, but it would mean a different defense force, it would mean one without as many large structural units, it would mean smaller units, lesser kinetic capabilities, a simpler war and different results - in case it would go bad and we were attacked," Oidsalu said.

The vice-chancellor noted: "In these conditions, we could tell EDF that yes, we are freezing with the winter and thawing with the spring, should our economic picture improve. But this would mean a lot of lost time. Military developments have a long way to go."

Oidsalu emphasized that Estonia's danger is still serious - Russia spends close to 4 percent of its GDP on defense. "They are continuing to increase their defense budget, they are improving capabilities that are obviously not for defense purposes and Russia has shown that they like to participate in a game of discrediting the West, which brings more creativity and unpredictability to their military actions," he said.

The defense ministry will present their development plan to the government on February 8 and the government should confirm it in either March or April. The plan establishes goals for national defense for the next ten years, until 2030. The development toward these goals goes through the ministry's four-year development plan, that establishes the actions and financing of the goals in detail. These are also a part of the yearly defense budget bill.

The current development plan is set for 2017-2026 and the new one runs from 2021 to 2030.

EDF to improve long range capabilities in cooperation with Baltic states

The keyword for the next decade in defense planning is regional coordination. All three Baltic nations are looking to improve on their long range firing capabilities, allowing one to defend its neighbor by firing from their own territory, essentialy making up a 360-degree bubble, which would allow for the region to defend itself independently in case of conflict.

"It would change the game if we could take our firing effects further than our borders and to not only do that on land, by endangering the devices that are endangering us, but are not on our territory," Herem explained.

The anti-ship missiles Herem is speaking of have a range of up to 200 kilometers, which means that, for example, in order to protect Hiiumaa, the weapons system does not have to be located on the island, but a hostile ship can be neutralized from the mainland.

"I do not know which manufacturer we will pick, but together with Latvia, we will be visiting Poland this week, which has such systems, for example," Herem said, according to BNS.

If the government's decision last year to allocate €45 million for the development of maritime defense capabilities in 2022 is still valid, the systems may be present in Estonia in 2023 and part of the armament of the defense forces in 2024. According to the defense chief, the Baltic states should also develop a rocket artillery, the range of which is 70-350 kilometers, depending on the firing system and ammunition.

Herem added that in a situation of military conflict, the Baltic countries could support each other much better with anti-ship missile systems and rocket artillery than with tank battalions, which are intended to operate within one's own country.

"If we need to act quickly to support each other, we should have far-reaching capabilities. I do not want to say here that we should necessarily start defending Latvia, it could also be vice versa. Why not protect the Estonian islands from Liepaja, for example," Herem said.

Naval defenses and sea mines

In the course of developing the maritime defense capability, Estonia also plans to develop the capability to install sea mines in the coming years. The development of maritime defense and rocket artillery is included in the national defense development plan for 2021-2030.

The document is currently in the coordination phase and should reach the government for discussion in March. According to Herem, the main difficulty of the development plan is to maintain the existing capabilities. "I am glad that we are not engaging in the nonsense of starting to develop shiny things at the expense of existing capabilities in this document," he said.

The development plan envisages, among other things, that in this decade the involvement of members of the Kaitseliit (Defense League) volunteer corps in the territorial defense force will increase by 3,000 people, together with equipment and other necessary resources. The plan also envisages the provision of up-to-date communications and radar to the Estonian Navy. There are plans to develop air surveillance radars to detect drones and shoot them down. The 2nd Infantry Brigade will also receive self-propelled artillery.

Estonia has decided to procure six more units from South Korea in addition to the already agreed 18 self-propelled howitzers. Altogether 12 self-propelled artillery units will be included in the armament of the 1st Infantry Brigade and the same number of units in the armament the 2nd Infantry Brigade. According to the plan, both infantry brigades will be ready to operate with self-propelled artillery by 2026, which means that there will be ammunition and the teams will be trained together with the reserve.

Editor's note: This article was updated with additional details about future plans at 11.22 p.m.


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Editor: Kristjan Kallaste

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