Estonian defense chief explains need for military service extension

Commander of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) Lieutenant General Martin Herem
Commander of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) Lieutenant General Martin Herem Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

In an interview with Vikerraadio program "Uudis +," Commander of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) Lieutenant General Martin Herem said, that in the future, it will be necessary to keep Estonia's defense systems on constant standby.

According to Herem, one way to do this would be to use conscripts to man certain defense systems, move which would also necessitate extending the duration of conscription.

"Some of the systems, which it makes sense to keep in a state of permanent readiness, could be partially manned by conscripts," said Herem. "The objective is not to extend (the duration of) training. Conscripts will get their training for either four or eight months, and after that, they will be on combat watch, so to speak, in the same way that we have units on permanent standby at the moment in the Air Force, Special Operations Force, Scout Battalion and elsewhere," he explained.

According to Herem, air defense, rocket launchers and anti-ship missile systems are among those which ought to be manned permanently.

However, Herem emphasized, that his preference would be for this to be done by specialists. "There are different approaches (we could take). Either we train (specialists) ourselves from beginning to end in the defense academy and elsewhere, or instead, we recruit civil engineers and technicians ourselves, give them some very quick military training and then use them to operate these systems. Those are the primary options really," Herem said.

However, Herem believes the shortage of specialists is a major drawback. "Because we train (people on) these systems during military service anyway, then send these people to the reserves, in the case of a threat, it would make sense, having trained them, to deploy them in a combat situation at some point," Herem said.

Herem also explained what 12 months of military service would look like in practice. "The logic of 12 months (of military service) is simply that, we would take in conscripts twice a year, train them for six months, and then for the next six months some of them would be put onto so-called combat watch, in accordance with the training they have completed. Then, while they are no longer in training, they are serving the country for six months, during which time the next round of conscripts would do their training," explained Herem.

"When their 12 months are up, some will go into the reserves and those who have completed their six months of training will do six months of combat watch. Training would go on all the time," Herem said.

Herem said, that a possible extension to the duration of military service had not yet been discussed by the government, the Ministry of Defense, nor the Headquarters of the Defense Forces.

According to Herem, the main reason for this, is the time needed to develop new systems, with none currently able to be kept constantly on standby.

"This is why the issue has not been dealt with too intensively (up to now). However, we are working on it at the moment. There are a lot of decisions that will be taken in the next two years. Most likely, in the next six months, I will have to make some kind of concrete proposal to the Ministry of Defense regarding how we go about building new weapons systems. After all, these systems are being developed at the moment, and that includes staffing. In this respect, I don't see any reason to suggest that we're behind schedule, or that anybody anywhere should suddenly be surprised," Herem said.

Herem said, that the Defense Forces viewed plans to extend the length of military service in a positive light, especially given the current circumstances.

The deployment of conscripts as system operators would also require a rethink of the payment system, according to Herem.

Herem pointed out, that anti-ship missiles will be added to the Defense Forces' arsenal as early as 2024, with other important systems to follow over the next two years.

Next year will see a record number of reserve training exercises in Estonia, though Herem hopes this will be something of an exception rather than the normal state of affairs in the future.

"I hope it will be more of an exception, where we have about 10,000 people who have done their military service, have had basic training, and who we are now bringing into wartime formations to give them refresher and additional training. All the other numbers that fall outside of that are likely to remain the same every year from then on. The number will no doubt be higher than it has been before, and will depend on the actions of our neighbor Russia, but it is possible that in 2024 it will fall," Herem said.

Last Thursday, the government invited 2,861 reservists along with members of the Defense League to participate in the additional week-long "Okas 2022" snap training exercise. However, Herem expressed disappointment that only 65 percent of those called upon turned out for the exercise.

"We're trying to figure out what we need to do to get more reservists to show up. We don't have a shortage for military units, but every time we have to call up so many additional recruits, it creates extra administrative work and that affects the speed of our work. We need to keep improving that. I don't have a very satisfying answer at the moment as to why the participation rate hasn't increased faster. However, in both Switzerland and Finland, a participation rate of 60 percent is quite normal," said Herem.

Herem was encouraged by the positive attitude and high skill levels demonstrated by the reservists who joined the Okas exercise, highlighting that this meant cooperation between the ground forces, the Scout Battalion and the air defense therefore got underway quickly. "If this training had been poor, we would have seen a situation like the one happening in the Russian army around Kharkiv today. We don't have anything like that," Herem said.

"The main issue for me is how we can improve our participation rate, which will make us faster, and also how we can speed up our management of personnel as a result," Herem added.


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Editor: Michael Cole

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