Lauri Läänemets: National defense begins with people

Lauri Läänemets.
Lauri Läänemets. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Everyone agrees that Estonia needs to up its preparedness and defense spending. However, the context of the war in Ukraine means there is a real danger of hundreds of millions of euros being spent on filling armories to the brim while overlooking the fact that arms are little use without trained personnel to wield them, Lauri Läänemets writes.

While the previous 2 percent of GDP defense spending was a consensus that transcended parties, the new level of 2.5 percent of GDP is the result of a public spat between the ruling Reform and Center parties.

We hear nothing on whether this is a one-off investment or a long-term funding proposal. While boosting funding is no doubt important, recent decisions hardly inspire confidence, with new sums putting additional strain on the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) and the Defense League in a situation where funds haven not been allocated for personnel expenses and boosting the number of professional EDF members.

Ministers and coalition MPs are eager to paint the funding hike as a victory, while everyone seems to have forgotten about fixed costs.

We have prioritized new capabilities in national defense but are, either unconsciously or willfully, ignoring the fact that relevant developments require more than arms and equipment. Matters of personnel might become the bottleneck.

Simply put, the same person cannot simultaneously function as a machine gunner, comms officer and a grenadier in a battle situation. The use of whichever weapon system requires thorough training and experience, and jacks of all trade are of little use in strategic planning and execution of battle plans.

Government taking the axe to Defense League operational expenses

Both officials and politicians responsible for the field of defense should be clear in stating which important developments will be paused as a result of new spending. I asked Minister of Defense Kalle Laanet (Reform) for the meaning of "doubling" territorial defense or the Defense League for which €600 million have been earmarked. The minister had no answer for me, appearing in front of the Riigikogu National Defense Committee.

Whether this doubling would take place through volunteers or reservists? I doubt the state is planning to recruit 10,000 volunteers in the next two years, which is why we can presume we are talking about reservists and reserve training.

Involving reservists and organizing exercises is labor-intensive business that requires full-time personnel in charge of processes. The government has not provided for additional staff.

The Defense League has not been in charge of reserve trainings until now, with the task falling to the EDF. There is a realistic risk of these additional tasks taking up much of available territorial defense action and planning capacity.

Let us compare ourselves to Latvia the territorial defense system of which has one superior per 30 volunteers. Our Defense League has a single instructor for 70 people. A difference of more than two times and growing. Over 1,000 volunteers have joined the Defense League in the last month and the recruitment campaign is ongoing. But how can we involve and motivate these people without instructors to handle training?

Unless we bolster the ranks of professional armed forces members, we will simply be drowning the heads of the Defense League in red tape instead of allowing them to shape, train and motivate their units.

Growing workload is only half the problem. Kaja Kallas' government has ordered the Defense League to cut 5 percent from its budget this year, and since two-thirds of the league's budget is staff expenses, it was done at the expense of personnel.

The Defense League needs to cut a further 2 percent in 2023. The result is an absurd situation where the government piles on the league's workload, while at the same time reducing its capacity.

A classically right-wing understanding of reducing the state to veneer – laying off two out of four workers and expecting the remaining two to get done the same amount of work. That is not how it works, certainly not in the field of national defense.

If Russia's aggression in Ukraine has told us anything, it is the importance of citizens' will to defend themselves and the state ability to involve and coordinate it. There is war in Europe, while our government and defense ministry are squeezing the Defense League for its budget and scope.

Worshipping steel and concrete overlooks people

Let us give another example of equipment and logistics. Additional anti-tank weapons and mines will need to be stored, while many of the Defense League's staff and rear area centers have not been finished. This virtually means storing all of our weapons and munitions in a single place that is not in accordance with the principles of broad-based national defense but instead constitutes a very real supply security and resilience risk.

Defense League infrastructure investments are subject to political targeted financing that has been so modest in recent years that procured arms will expire long before the centers to house them will be finished. The very idea of territorial defense is for human resources, equipment and weapons to be distributed evenly across the country.

I am left with the impression that despite pledges of extra funding, Estonia's number one vulnerability is the practice of investing only in steel, gunpowder and concrete, leaving the soldier out of the picture.

The year 2020 marked the end of EDF and Defense League special pensions system, while no alternative has been introduced in six years. Our active servicemen and women are on par with employees of any agency or company, and even though the average salary in the field of defense is 30 percent bigger than the national average, it is no longer enough to motivate people over long periods.

But national defense is all about experience from training and acting in conflict zones. If our public sector fails to offer competitive salary, comms, logistics and other strategic fields' specialists will simply be poached.

Steel and concrete are means and not the end. Allow me to make four proposals for better aiming growing defense spending.

  1. Let us restore active servicemen's special pension or create an alternative that would allow us to keep people, their know-how and experience in the service of our armed forces. National defense starts with the person.
  2. All manner of additional defense investments need to be backed up by personnel contributions for both the EDF and the Defense League.
  3. Defense League budget cuts need to be canceled immediately and the organization allocated additional funds for construction to support the use of additional weaponry in territorial defense.
  4. Let us have trans-party consensus on defense spending in a way that includes, honesty and transparently, personnel expenses both in terms of additional staff and special pensions.

No matter whether we pledge 2, 2.5 or 25 percent of GDP for defense, we need to remember that people, their training and will to defend themselves are the primary investment.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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