Commander of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) Lt. Gen. Martin Herem said that Estonia should presently concentrate on developing short-range anti-aircraft and anti-tank capacity instead of medium-range air defense because it is cheaper and faster. Developing nationwide medium-range air defense capacity would cost approximately €1 billion.
Lt. Gen. Herem told ERR that while short-range air defense could be developed in two years, it would take longer to adopt medium-range systems.
The latter would also be hugely expensive, requiring €400 million to cover an area the size of Harju and Rapla counties, Herem suggested.
"And even then, it would be good against planes and helicopters, less so against cruise and ballistic missiles. Spending this amount on comprehensive medium-range air defense would leave all other parts of Estonia without any kind of air defense, including short-range. They would also miss out on other capacities that the money could buy," the general said.
The Center Party holds Estonia's proposed additional defense funding package unambitious and feels that medium-range air defense should be added, next to tripling Defense League funding and considerably boosting artillery capacity.
Minister of Defense Kalle Laanet (Reform) said around noon on Monday that medium-range air defense will not fit in the package that prioritizes capabilities that can be developed inside two years. The minister got in touch again in the evening and said that while medium-range air defense is part of the package, the proposal is to include the necessary expenses in the 2023-2026 state budget strategy.
Center deputy head Jaanus Karilaid suggested contributing at least a billion euros to national defense.
Herem said that if the government agrees to up the funding and provide medium-range air defense cover for all major settlements and EDF units all over Estonia, the package to ward off enemy planes and helicopters would cost around €1 billion.
"Including missile defense in that particular package would land on the other side of €1 billion in terms of cost," he added.
"Longer-range air defense and systems capable of intercepting various kinds of weapons is something our allies can provide us with. We must not forget that we have allies," Herem said.
The general said it all depends on how much additional funding the government is willing to pledge. Extra funding of €100-200 million would not be enough for medium-range air defense, while €1 billion would get the job done.
Expert: No sense in maintaining capabilities for which you have ammo for three days
Research fellow at the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS) Martin Hurt said that developing medium-range air defense has not been a priority so far because it is hugely expensive and the money can be used to fill much more pressing gaps in capabilities. Planning has also counted on allied contribution from NATO in situations where medium-range air defense could prove necessary.
"I understand the logic of the EDF commander in that the important thing is to ensure the sustainability of existing capacity over the coming years. It makes no sense to maintain capacity for which we will run out of ammunition on the third day. The first priority is to procure more munitions, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, so we could hold out longer. That said, developing medium-range air defense should definitely be considered in the long run," Hurt offered.
Medium-range air defense used to protect cities or strategic targets
Hurt explained that medium-range air defense systems serve the purpose of protecting an area against enemy airstrikes. It could be a city or a strategic target, such as a port or airport, adding that modern medium-range anti-aircraft systems can hit targets flying at an altitude of 20 kilometers and from 25 km away.
"Medium-range air defense is usually effective against planes, helicopters and cruise missiles. It is not much use against ballistic missiles. It is a component in a comprehensive air defense system, and while it cannot create an impenetrable protective bubble so to speak, it would be a major step forward in terms of Estonia's air defense capacity," the research fellow explained.
Estonia's existing Stinger close-range air defense systems are meant to protect the battle activities of its infantry brigades. But short-range systems cannot ward off cruise missiles and aircraft flying at high altitude, Hurt said.
The ICDS expert pointed out that it has taken Sweden four years to go from the procurement contract to deliveries in their Patriot missile system tender, while the state will have to have trained air defense officers and experts.
"Every new capability creates the need for immediate training of new personnel at the Defense Forces Academy," he said.
Hurt added, however, that an increasing number of NATO allies are in the process of developing or restoring medium-range air defense capability. Lithuania took delivery of Norwegian NASAMS systems in 2020 following months of training. The same air defense system has been adopted in Finland and was used at a training exercise in Estonia last week.
Editor: Marcus Turovski