Minister: Estonia's national defense among the most cost-effective in NATO

Minister of Defense Kalle Laanet (Reform).
Minister of Defense Kalle Laanet (Reform). Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

While Russia can still boost its military capacity by quite some margin and expand acts of war against NATO, it has absolutely no chance of emerging successful in the ensuing confrontation. Unfortunately, a small country like Estonia needs to consider the possibility of becoming a target, Minister of Defense Kalle Laanet writes.

The last two months have changed more in terms of European, Estonian and global security than the past few decades. Unfortunately, it took a war of conquest and massive casualties to spark change.

Estonia and its close neighbors have been repeating the mantra that we need to reinforce ourselves against Russia to our bigger friends in Europe and elsewhere. While we were not strictly called paranoid, corresponding attitudes were all too widespread and implied without saying.

We are heeded today, especially Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, and everyone is paying attention. But for how long? Eerik-Niiles Kross gave a good answer in a recent interview:

"The continued telling of our story is important. At least it is heeded today. I hope our efforts are sufficient, whereas we must refrain from sugarcoating things. Thinking that the BBC talking about Estonia three times in one week is enough is dangerous false-modesty. A country like Estonia can never have too much international media coverage. It would still be too little even if coverage was ten times what it is now.

People in Estonia fail to recognize the importance of what we tell the Western world as a border country. These things need to be repeated and repeated and repeated again. Constantly. Kaja Kallas makes for a textbook example today, having demonstrated she is someone who needs to be heard – that her message is important."

What about in Estonia? In addition to opening our allies' eyes, the new situation has allowed us to develop our own defensive capacity. Of course, these are not emotional decisions but an inevitable reality check for a small country and people.

From millions to billions

Our allies have recognized our foresight in hindsight. In a situation where many experts still did not believe war was possible on February 23, the Estonian leadership held a serious discussion and decided to boost defense spending by €103 million compared to 2021 to €750 million in the 2022 state budget.

Tensions continued to mount, and the government allocated another €380 for broad-based national defense of which €340 million for munitions and improved early warning.

The Ministry of Defense was convinced that demand for munitions, for example, would grow in the new security situation, which is why we prioritized reaching the contract phase of tenders inside a few months.

Precisely one month after Russia attacked Ukraine, the government decided to bolster military national defense by a further €476 million, plus another €86 million for broad-based national defense.

These additional sums, totaling almost a billion euros, exceed our recent years' defense budgets. Once sums for procuring medium-range air defense are added this summer, we will have done our best to defend our independence together with our allies in terms of planning expenses.

But more important than money is what it buys. Our motto is getting as much defense as possible for our people and country for each euro spent. I'm glad to report that experts agree that based on Estonia's international position, "as much as possible" is also effective and sufficient to ensure our independence and freedom.

On Estonia's defensive capacity today

Estonia's national defense is among the most cost-effective in NATO. We can quickly muster ca 30,000 reservists and a battle-ready defense force, complemented by Defense League volunteers. We have achieved a lot in the last ten years, while I dare say new sums allocated mean we are only getting started.

New capabilities either in the works or already secured include naval mines, a complete anti-ship missile defense system, single-use medium-range anti-tank missiles, new generation Carl-Gustav anti-tank recoilless rifles, new assault rifles R20 Rahe (Hail).

"Defense experts" keen on repeating the mantra that assault rifles are no longer relevant today would do well to engage in conversation with soldiers who have risked their lives in combat situations. As concerns the R20 Rahe, rumor has it more than a few countries have rendered their shooting tests more stringent after adopting the rifle.

New resource allocations are aimed at munitions, anti-aircraft systems, new comms systems. Let us recall how the enemy's poor communications have often helped the Ukrainian army defend its country and people. We will be procuring multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) with Latvians and Lithuanians, armoring the 2nd Infantry Brigade, modernizing the Ämari Air Base and procuring more air surveillance radars.

Let us move on to more modern things. No matter how good our howitzers, missiles and other equipment, all of it is known from past decades. I am talking about Estonia boosting its cyber command headquarters that will have over 200 conscripts from 2023.

The development of the Defense League as a well-equipped and trained territorial defense network continues to be an important part of the national defense concept.

War in Ukraine is not just war in Ukraine. It is dictatorial Russia's war on the free world that it dares not declare against NATO. Development of national defense is based on situational and threat assessments. As we can see in Ukraine, Russia's conventional forces are largely deployed and we have the capacity to credibly monitor maneuvers in Russia, the movement of military units in this case, together with our allies.

Without wishing to sound cynical, the aggression in Ukraine has and continues to benefit the free world by giving us a realistic picture of Russia's military capacity.

Full-blown war was preceded by years of influence activities both in the form of information warfare and cyberattacks as the modern component in waging war.

While Russia can still boost its military capacity by quite some margin and expand acts of war against NATO, it has absolutely no chance of emerging successful in the ensuing confrontation.

Unfortunately, a small country like Estonia needs to consider the possibility of becoming a target. Success in the case of such a regrettable development, winning a potential war, would depend on our capacity for foresight and our powerful allies.

Intelligence is tasked with providing decisionmakers with early warning of several weeks to give us time to ready our reserves-based armed forces and allied units for battle. We can take courage in recalling one of Russian forces' main problems in Ukraine: how do they know our positions so well?

More on foresight

Estonia had more foresight than its European peers in other regards than financial decisions made on the eve of Russia's recent aggression. Deliberations on whether to give Ukraine military aid were launched back in December. After heated debate in defense structures, government and on the Riigikogu floor, Estonia's first donation of Javelin anti-tank missile systems reached Ukraine on February 18.

The aforementioned €476 million for immediate development of military national defense includes short-range air defense, additional anti-tank weapons, infrastructure necessary for hosting allies and doubling Defense League territorial defense. The important thing is to do it practically overnight, inside two years, instead of the previously planned longer period.

Estonia has decided to develop medium-range air defense capacity by 2025 at the latest – a very short time in the context of defense developments.

The global village

The concept of "global village" was introduced to the wider public by Canadian media scholar and philosopher Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s and has now made its way into everyone's awareness, at least in the security dimension. The internet era has added a whole new dimension to globalization, also in modern conflicts, cold or otherwise.

We will have to react to events not in our immediate vicinity that seriously impact our security also in the future in terms of strategic national defense. We cannot wait for conflicts to start or expand and must instead participate in prevention and de-escalation.

It is also what Estonia has done in international military operations to ensure allied presence in Estonia to keep in check our hostile, paranoid and unpredictable neighbor. Estonia was the first to join France in Mali and Portugal in Mozambique. Portugal has participated in the Baltic Air Policing mission four times.

Two European nuclear powers, France and the United Kingdom, are contributing to the eFP mission in Estonia. The Brits have over 1,500 troops as part of the NATO battlegroup in Estonia, in addition to Challenger tanks and other armored machinery. French and Belgian fighter jets are policing the Baltic airspace.

Neighbors and threats

On top of NATO allied relations, we have a close defense relationship with friendly neighbors. Aforementioned joint tenders with Latvia and Lithuania allow the Baltics to support one another in a crisis without crossing national borders.

In addition to MLRS systems, we prioritize developing integrated naval situational awareness. Increased NATO contribution in our region has been talked and written about so thoroughly that we can skip reiterating the details here.

NATO is boosting its defensive and especially technical presence on its so-called eastern flank, including in Estonia. As an example of regional cooperation, major training exercise Siil 2022 (Hedgehog) will take place in southern Estonia and northern Latvia from mid-May to early June and involve 20,000 conscripts, reservists, Defense League members, allied soldiers and active servicemen.

The cross-border exercise will prepare our soldiers for defending the entire Baltic region. Regional exercises should become an annual activity.

Domestic cooperation is also coming along nicely. Russia has also considered the Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Finland of crucial importance, which is understandable both strategically and tactically. On the other hand, what would it mean for Estonia to have no control over free movement in nearby waters. That is why our fleets will be merged into a single unit in the defense ministry's administrative area so we can better control our sea alongside the Finns and other allies.

Belarus, Finland and Sweden

The situation south of our Baltic neighbors has changed dramatically because a country has virtually ceased to exist. Lithuania and Latvia border Belarus. Rather, they did, because Belarus has ceased to function as a de facto independent country. At the very least, it constitutes hostile territory under Russian military command the location of which in no uncertain terms threatens the Suwalki Gap.

We would do well to remember the Kremlin-coordinated Belarus hybrid attack on the EU foreign border last year. Estonia was among the first to lend its neighbors aid, sending Lithuania hundreds of kilometers of razor wire the moment the country asked, with Estonian Defense Forces units helping out on the Polish-Belarusian border to this day.

Therefore, hostile vicinity has moved 800 kilometers west along the Latvian and Lithuanian borders – 400 kilometers as the crow flies.

On the other hand, Russia's brutal aggression, especially the part where the criminal modus operandi of the Russian Federation, lawlessness, violence and cruelty is revealed, has brought Finland and Sweden's NATO accession closer than ever. The former could join the alliance as early as this summer. This would considerably reinforce Estonian and Baltic security and would certainly outweigh Belarus effectively becoming a part of Russia in terms of the balance of power.

The most striking innovation is our military cyberdefense unit and its structures. I would add the dimensions of energy security, climate neutrality and protection of Estonians' living environment as new facets of military thinking. These fields need to be populated with content post haste.

In closing

It has been almost two months since Russia launched a full-blown attack against fee and independent Ukraine. The brutal offensive that seemed impossible in the 21st century and coincided with Estonia's Independence Day changed the world. By defending our country's freedom, we can make sure the blue, black and white will fly on top of the Tall Hermann Tower in 2035 and 2135.

Forceful efforts have ensured what we can confidently call efficient development of our national defense.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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