Interview: Borders of Nursipalu Training Area expansion to depend on locals

EDF troops training at Nursipalu.
EDF troops training at Nursipalu. Source: mil.ee

In an interview with ERR on Wednesday, Estonian Center for Defense Investment (ECDI) Director Magnus-Valdemar Saar said that what weapons the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) will be able to fire at Nursipalu Training Area in the country's southeast following a planned quadrupling of its size will ultimately depend on the agreements reached with local residents. The exact details of the expansion will be settled over a matter of years.

Col. Tarmo Metsa, commander of the 2nd Infantry Brigade, said in June that Southern Estonia needs a new training area for armored vehicles. Among other things, he said that other options beyond expanding Nursipalu are being weighed in Southern Estonia as well. What options were on the table at the time?

Our current training areas have been developed precisely following the needs the EDF had prior to Russia's aggression against its neighbor. Our training areas were practically 100 percent in use in 2021 as well. Following February 2022, the security situation has of course changed significantly.

Our biggest predicament is in Southern Estonia. We considered all options. The best and essentially the only option in Southern Estonia is actually Nursipalu Training Area and its immediate vicinity.

The 2nd Infantry Brigade will be getting into armored vehicles within the next few years. For a battalion, that means around 40 armored vehicles. What does that change in training that makes them need more room? If you line the armored vehicles up, they have plenty of room to drive around the current training area's just over 3,000 hectares [of land].

There are many more factors involved. The frequency and intensity of allies' activity in Estonia will definitely be increasing in the years ahead. We ourselves likewise have various support weapons coming in as well. So I'd say that this development shouldn't be tied exclusively to the armoring of the 2nd Infantry Brigade.

But let's try to get into the substance a bit as well. Why does the 2nd Infantry Brigade specifically need more room?

The 2nd Brigade could certainly conduct certain exercises within the current boundaries even after being armored ⁠— with very small units or statically, that is. But sooner or later, in order to achieve interoperability between these units, it's also necessary to train as part of a larger unit, and also actually together with support weapons.

That means that the armored vehicles have to be able to move in larger formations. You have to be able to fire both northward and eastward from them ⁠— cover and attack.

Generally you're right, but not necessarily fire in all directions. All of the specific training [we] want to conduct at Nursipalu Training Area is only just being specified. And of course quite a lot of exercises can ultimately be conducted under certain restrictions as well.

The 2nd Brigade wants to conduct the same exercises that the 1st [Infantry] Brigade can at the Central Training Area.

And even at the Central Training Area today, with a lot of exercises, significant limitations have to be taken into account in planning the exercise already.

Nevermind that it's around 12,000 hectares in size.

Yes, even despite that. Believe it or not, significant limitations have to be taken into account even on the battlefield. There are civilians moving around there, there are units of your own there, and all of that coordination is complex.

In terms of indirect fire, currently you can fire 81mm and 120mm mortars at Nursipalu. The range of ones bigger than that is 7 kilometers max. Is it vital to the EDF to be able to fire artillery there as well?

The armoring of the 2nd Brigade as well as an increase in the number of various support weapons are certainly a factor in why Nursipalu Training Area needs to be expanded. But it's still a bit too early to discuss exactly what we're actually going to start firing at Nursipalu Training Area and how.

The 2nd Brigade has an artillery battalion of its own.

It does, and it will be receiving additional artillery as well.

And it would be pretty lousy if they had to head up to the Central Training Area to train each time.

It's still too early to discuss.

What is that dependent on then ⁠— is it necessary to fire artillery in Nursi too, or can the 2nd Brigade roll up to the Central Training Area each time?

We certainly want to reach the point where an approximately battalion-sized unit can train together with maneuvers and together with certain support weapons. Because what's most important is the fact that the coordination of all fire is a very complex science on the battlefield as well. And in order for a unit to be able to say that they're combat-ready, they have to be able to rehearse it.

What decides whether a support weapon is a 120mm mortar or a support weapon is artillery in Nursipalu?

That depends precisely on how we'll end up expanding this training area, within what boundaries, and what restrictions we have to take into account. It's actually these restrictions that will dictate what exactly we can eventually do there.

ERR: Maybe locals have gotten the impression that the EDF is going to establish its wishlist, then the expansion of Nursipalu will be placed on the map and then locals will be notified and told, "Look, this is where it's coming." And thereafter negotiations will begin about how to make all of this as painless as possible for locals.

There's likely a certain grain of truth in your description. But the sequence goes like this: first there's some kind of long list of requirements. And many specialists are already currently working on what so-called alternatives could be used to satisfy this whole list of requirements. There are various alternatives for simulations, as well as for doing current things differently, for the use of all kinds of training tools that support exercises and so on.

In other words, the EDF has submitted their requirements, and now specialists will very thoroughly analyze these requirements, take all kinds of potential hazards into account. Then we will enter into a discussion or dialogue with the local government, but also with residents who live in that area, and will attempt to reach solutions that will ultimately leave all parties satisfied.

Could that mean that when you stand before the locals on November 21, or afterward, and they tell you "Everything else is okay, but see, you won't fit this shooting range onto our map," will the EDF then say "Okay, we won't practice that here then"?

A lot of restrictions will ultimately just have to be accepted. Even in an ideal solution, we'd have to take some restrictions into account one way or another anyway. There are surely many opportunities to improve training conditions based purely on state lands alone.

There are plans to build a new base in Southern Estonia to receive allies. Is it crucial that the base is within walking distance of Võru?

One of the most important criteria regarding the location of this base is that it's in close proximity to training conditions. In other words, it will be tied in any case to the development of that training area. But its precise location will be determined in the course of the design process.

Still, Võru business owners are asking how much more pizza they'll be able to sell.

What's clear is that the share of allies in Southern Estonia will increase to some degree, via exercises but also via units located there as well. But it's too soon to discuss how exactly, how many and whether they'll go — as you said — order pizza in Võru or somewhere else.

Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur wrote to MP Anneli Ott [on Tuesday] that the area of the new training area is comparable to the current area of the Central Training Area.

Yes, it's comparable, yes.

Approximately 12,000 hectares.

Yes.

And when I place these approximately 12,000 hectares on the map, then it brings together the EDF's warehouses in Sänna, the Tsiatsungõlmaa Training Area and the current territory of Nursipalu.

Yes. But you have to take into account that there are state lands in yet other directions in that region as well.

So it may not end up being some sort of circle or square? It may extend out as far as the reaches of state lands and forests?

Yes, I agree. But once again, it's too soon to discuss what exactly the training area will end up being like. We're going to enter into a dialogue with local governments, with the local community, we'll reach agreements that satisfy both parties and after that we can start developing.

What's your timeline?

It will take years to develop the training area. This month, we're contacting all of the private landowners that fall within the area of interest. And after that, it may take years until we reach an actual agreement that satisfies both parties.

Will the official plan, i.e. the procedure on paper, follow years from now? Or will this agreement be sought during planning?

These processes will largely be in parallel.

ERR: The EDF rarely plans things or issues orders involving a matter of hours, minutes or years. I'm sure there are some kind of more specific targets there as well.

This involves both the base as well as the training area — of course the security situation is what it is. And the needs are sooner rather than later. All of that is understood. But on the other hand, the solutions we have to reach must ultimately satisfy all parties involved. We don't actually have any sort of red line in this process.

You don't have an assignment that "We want to start carrying out these exercise by this year"?

No, we don't expressly have such a deadline for this at the moment.

What is your budget for next year as far as the expansion of Nursipalu and the new base are concerned?

As far as covering the need for real estate developments included in decisions made at the Madrid summit, the package for that is currently €30 million in size. The bulk of that will indeed be going toward improving ally reception conditions and training conditions in Southern Estonia.

Will planning or also construction of the new base begin next year for that money?

We'll definitely start planning the new base. And we'll also definitely invest in improving reception conditions for allies beyond the planning of this new base as well.

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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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