Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur (Reform) tells ERR in an interview that the initiative signed last week to create an integrated European air defense system could end up protecting Estonia from ballistic missiles, while the entire project's time frame is five or six years.
You joined colleagues from 13 NATO member states and Finland in signing an initiative for an integrated European air defense system on Thursday. What would that entail for Estonia? After all, we are in the process of procuring medium-range air defense ourselves.
Let me be clear straight away in that this does not affect Estonia's own efforts to develop air defense. We are expecting bids today or tomorrow and will hopefully be on schedule with Estonia's independent medium-range air defense project. The initiative will also have no effect on short-range air defense that we are pursuing together with Poland, and that is also on schedule.
What it could affect in the future is whether Estonia will be able to protect itself against ballistic missiles and to what extent. And if we want to expand our medium-range air defense capacity. In other words, what European states are after by working together is to achieve integration of air defense systems, joint tenders and better prices. That is what solutions will be aimed at. However, we have little reason to believe this will happen quickly, because finding consensus even between the 15 members who have joined so far will take a fair bit of time.
What could be the initiative's time frame for complementing European air defense and rectifying any shortcomings?
Right now, we are working with an initiative. The latter will need to be populated with content by the 15 members meeting to discuss individual needs and decide whether a joint tender is possible or whether integration is the way to go instead. Further steps will then become clear. I dare say that if we can agree on the next steps to be taken in the first half of next year, whether to aim straight for joint tenders or integration, we will have done well. But future discussions will have to reveal what could be a realistic pace. We have provided the political input that something like this is needed, with experts set to meet and agree how it could be implemented next.
Which institution or institutions will be in charge of the process. Are we talking about the European Union, NATO, or will countries represent themselves?
It is a NATO-level agreement promoted by Germany, meaning that is where the next steps will start. The Germans will have to hold the first expert meeting. No date has been set.
What could be the target or intended outcome of this next meeting?
Like I said, our main aim is to agree on the 15 participants' common interests. Such initiatives usually seek minimal common ground first that can then be expanded. We need to keep in mind that states already have air defense systems and understand whether they will be integrated or whether the initiative will concentrate on joint tenders.
Progress would be faster in the latter case. If the aim is to integrate existing systems, including Estonia's upcoming medium-range capability, European countries currently use a lot of different solutions. It will be more difficult to find common ground then.
I believe that in order to make practical progress, the 15 participants could first map what they need. In Estonia's case, we are primarily talking about medium-range air defense, protection against ballistic missiles. After that, we could see whether and how to prepare joint tenders.
Are we talking 5-10 or rather 15 years?
That will depend on what we will be procuring. As we can see firsthand, a medium-range air defense system can be procured inside a few years. However, should these volumes turn out bigger, we can expect it to take over a year simply to agree on general principles. Provided there will be agreements on which tenders can be based, I believe we are still talking five-six years at minimum.
You said that today or tomorrow could bring news on the medium-range air defense procurement. How far have we come in creating this particular capacity?
We should receive the initial bids today and hope they are on time. The main news today will be their number. We will set about analyzing the bids once they arrive. Negotiations will follow, where we will be aiming for signing contracts in the first quarter of next year in order to have medium-range air defense by late 2024, early 2025.
However, could this European initiative bring Estonia defense against ballistic missiles? In other words, are we talking about adding a long-range air defense battery in Estonia after a number of years?
That is what we need on top of medium-range air defense, while the next meetings will decide which systems will be procured jointly, which needs are the most urgent. It is possible that adding medium-range air defense capacity in other countries will be prioritized, which could push back ballistic missile defense. Estonia has its own interests here too. Let us wait for the initial discussions after which we will have more details.
The initiative is serious and constitutes a landmark decision. But considering how there is a universal shortage of missile systems in the world, that it is difficult to ramp up production and that integrating and implementing them takes a very long time, how realistic are the vision and its execution?
The feedback we've received from manufacturers is that they are waiting for orders. While there has been a lot of talk about shortages and great need, defense contractors have little initiative to ramp up manufacturing without concrete orders. Should a major Europe-wide order be decided, interest among contractors in Germany, France, UK or some other country to hike production will surely be created. It is something of a "chicken or the egg" situation where the private sector needs orders to ramp up production, while states expect production capacity to exist before committing to procurements. But the reality today is that the former is waiting for the latter.
Editor: Marcus Turovski