Minister of Defense Kalle Laanet (Reform) and Estonian Defense Forces commander Lt. Gen. Martin Herem spoke with restraint about the Riigikogu's national defense committee's a proposal to take out a defense loan to develop a medium-range air defense system.
"It is possible to implement several different options to ensure Estonian air security, but taking out a loan might just be too premature," defense minister Kalle Laanet told ERR on Tuesday.
He said the government is attempting to achieve medium-range air defense capabilities in the next decade, but reaching that point is largely a technical question. "The minister is working toward Estonia having that capacity," Laanet added.
The Riigikogu's national defense committee presented a proposal to the government on November 25, which called the government to significantly increase the share of defense spending in gross domestic product (GDP) and to make a decision on developing medium-range air defense capabilities by 2025, taking out a national defense loan, if necessary.
Committee member Leo Kunnas (EKRE) told ERR that since the committee's decision came at a consensus and the proposal's period is set to have two different governments manage it, it shows the wide-spread support for the proposal.
Medium-range air defense systems should be placed on systems with 2-4 rocket complexes. Such batteries would ensure air security in certain regions, such as Tallinn and its surroundings, Kunnas said. He added that Estonia should have at least two air defense rocket systems, perhaps even four.
Since developing such capabilities is not stated in the current national defense development plan, the next state budget should also take the medium-range air defense systems into consideration, either planning to increase the defense budget or even taking out a national defense loan, Kunnas said.
The development plan is set to be discussed in the government on Thursday and there is no talk of the defense system, he added. Kunnas said it would not be able to develop such systems without cutting costs in other sectors, as of the current defense spending framework.
The price of two air defense batteries would be around €150 million, Kunnas said, adding that prices can also exceed €200 million in some cases. Two rocket systems would be the absolute minimum Estonia should have, four systems would be ideal, the defense committee member noted.
Responding to a question about depending on allies for air defense, who would set up systems in a few days, Kunnas responded negatively and pointed out that allies, including the U.S. do not have enough systems. While destroyers can be used to achieve short-range air defenses, there are not as many resources for medium-range and long-range air defense systems, he said.
MEP: We could take out a loan, but let EDF commander make decisions
Former Estonian Defense Forces commander and current Isamaa Party MEP Riho Terras told ERR that he would certainly support a national defense loan, but the decision of taking one should be left up to the current EDF commander Lt. Gen. Martin Herem.
"I would not want to give the EDF commander orders about what capabilities must be developed. These decisions must be made by the commander, since he knows what is necessary to protect Estonia," Terras said. "Picking one thing is not correct."
The MEP said there are multiple critical sectors in ensuring Estonia's security, which is why he would even support a major defense loan, to liquidate some gaps in national defense. "I would not be ashamed to take €1 billion over three-four years," Terras noted.
Defense forces consider other sectors more important
EDF commander Lt. Gen. Martin Herem told daily Postimees (link in Estonian) in late October that the sums pointed out in the proposal being drawn up by the Riigikogu national defense committee do not reflect the actual maintenance costs of air defense systems, nor do they reflect acquisition costs.
"What is also unfortunate, is that I and the defense minister have not been consulted with while making this proposal," Herem noted. "If they do not wish to talk to EDF management, you could ask a simple soldier about what they consider more important - an anti-tank missile launcher for each unit tomorrow or air defense against drones and rockets in the capital city in a few years," Herem wrote in an opinion article.
He said the committee's statement about being able to defend all of Estonia with medium-range air defense systems is also incorrect, since the rocket flight radius is too short. "The lack of a medium-range air defense system is an important gap in Estonian national defense. But this cannot be created at the expense of other capabilities," the lieutenant general said.
Herem also pointed out that NATO allies have never requested Estonia to develop medium-range air defense systems in order to come help Estonia. In addition, air defense systems are among the fastest arriving armaments, the EDF commander noted.
Former Center for Defense Investment head Kusti Salm told daily Õhtuleht (link in Estonian) last September that although developing medium-range air defenses has been a priority since 2012, there are other more important areas.
"If we are asked if air defenses are necessary, the answer is 'yes'. But we need to improve the mobility, security and combat capability of our infantry units," said Salm, currently a Permanent Secretary at the defense ministry.
He added that the EDF has prioritized armor capabilities for the 1st Infantry Brigade and increasing the artillery and ammunition stockpiles, which have given Estonia more defense than air defense procurements.
Editor: Kristjan Kallaste