Russia's war in Ukraine recently spilled over into NATO territory and killed two allied citizens. NATO will react, while Article 3 of the Washington Treaty also obligates all allies to develop their defensive capacity. Estonia must create credible air defense as it can deter Russia, Peeter Tali and Kalev Stoicescu write.
Russia is barbarically attacking Ukrainian residents and civilian infrastructure as the Ukrainians have taken the initiative on the battlefield. Russian ground forces are losing occupied territory and coming up short in artillery duels as they cannot match Western weapons systems.
This inability to stand up to Ukrainian forces has seen Russia use various types of missiles, artillery and cheap Iranian drones to hit power plants, electricity and water grids and residential buildings. Around 200 hospitals have been wiped off the face of the Earth. Yes, it constitutes a war crime and genocide against the Ukrainian people but when have the Russians ever cared about treaties?
Their tactic is to try and break Ukrainian resistance, leaving its cities without power, water and heating in winter. This will likely not work as the Ukrainians will not tire or break. But we have no reason to hope Russia would conduct itself differently were it to attack Estonia.
Estonian people deserve certainty
Estonia needs to be protected with a multilayer air and missile defense system the working title for which could the "Kalevipoeg Dome" as our people and vital infrastructure must be protected. Our people need certainty that our state and defense forces will protect everyone.
Confining ourselves to ground maneuver units or protecting the airspace around a few key military objects is not enough. Concentrating on ground forces operations is the past as modern warfare is multimodal, taking places in six theaters simultaneously: ground, air, sea, space, cyber and information.
The air defense dome must provide effective protection against ballistic and cruise missiles, planes, unguided rockets, unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) and helicopters. Missiles could strike from the ground, air and sea all at once. We need to defend ourselves against everything Russia has used in Ukraine, including S-300 anti-aircraft missiles used to destroy ground targets, and cheap Iranian Shabad-136 drones.
Developing this defensive dome requires time and resources, both of which are in relatively short supply. But it can be done because everything that is necessary is also possible, provided there is political will and a good long-term plan. It is a matter of choices.
Critics might suggest that even the most technically developed defense systems (such as Israel's multilayer solution made up of the Iron Dome, David's Sling and Arrow-3 anti-ballistic missiles) cannot destroy all enemy missiles and shells in the case of a saturation attack. Besides, such systems are so expensive and complicated that no small country can afford to buy or develop them.
Israel is an exception as the country's very existence depends on military power, innovation and the people's will to defend themselves, in addition to receiving billion of dollars in military aid from USA. Israeli Prime Minister Benny Gantz presented the country's new Keren Barzel (Iron Beam) laser air defense system in April of this year. Israel is currently talking about a 100-kilowatt laser the beam of which can bring down drones and smaller missiles.
Estonia not big enough for operational-tactical dimension
Estonia is in a similar situation to Israel in that we basically lack the strategic and operative-tactical dimension. The Soviet army's offensive operations against a strong enemy were planned to last a week and gain 50 kilometers in 24 hours.
The depth of enemy defenses was measured in terms of unit placement. Tactical depth was 300 kilometers, which is about the span of Estonia. From there came operational-tactical strategic depth.
Russia is evidently still using tactics and convictions from the previous century, with modern operational planning nowhere to be seen. Rather, we are seeing WWII-era barbarity and robust tactics: a wall of artillery fire, followed by an infantry charge. The Ukrainians destroy the Russian infantry units before the exact same thing is repeated with dumb persistence and at the cost of massive losses.
In Estonia, we will need to start fighting immediately – starting with the Tahkuna Peninsula and Narva River. The Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) commander's position that Estonia will fight and from the first moment is not just worthy of commendation but is also the only possible way to seize the initiative.
Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur has worriedly told us that there is no money and Estonia should develop two medium-range air defense bubbles, whatever that means, pointing to military advice from the EDF commander.
It is the task of the armed forces commander to prepare military defense with the pieces, meaning resources, they are given before fighting and winning. But war inevitably means losses for which every commander must be prepared. However this is where our political leaders must give clear orders to defend all of our people and critical infrastructure from enemy airstrikes.
The Kalevipoeg Dome would render a mobilization much safer as the mobilization period and troops make for tempting so as not to say soft targets even if one were to empty the armories.
The good news is that a part of the work has already been done. The Estonian Air Force is operational 24/7 and integrated in NATO air operations command through Link 16. The latter is a military data network that allows command centers, military aircraft, ships and ground forces to exchange their tactical pictures in real time. Adding a new weapon system to Link 16 is rather a technical matter. We have no reason to doubt the professional ability of our air force personnel and would rather do well to trust their know-how and experience.
In order to boost the Air Force's reconnaissance, rescue and battle capacity, border guard aircraft should be brought under its command. The Air Force must, in addition to air defense, take over search and rescue functions, which is an organic part of aerial operations. The border guard can continue using tactical drones.
Situational awareness and speed of decision
Situational awareness and speed of decision-making are key. In other words, intelligence/reconnaissance (space, radars, signals intelligence etc.), processing and analysis, as well as the speed at which decisions are made, putting together an aerial picture and battle command. The faster decision-making chain survives and wins. We are sure the process can be expedited further; for example, by using innovative solutions by our defense startups.
Estonia is the most innovative and digitized nation on the planet, and if we can phrase the problem and set a task for our defense industry, we can deliver unconventional and nasty surprises for Russia.
Our ground forces have considerable short-range air defense capabilities –Mistrals, Piorun systems we're procuring from Poland and 23-millimeter Sergei anti-aircraft cannons. It makes sense to try and find new ways of developing multilayer air defense and seizing the aerial initiative as drone defense must also become multilayer, similarly to anti-tank, coastal and air defenses.
Estonian defense contractor Marduk Technologies has finished a drone catcher prototype versions of which can hopefully be adopted in the near future. Ideally, we need both jamming and the ability to shoot down drones, and we need them on the basic tactical level.
Estonia's medium-range air defense procurement is in the works, and it is to be hoped that the decision-makers will pick suitable systems and reserve the right to buy more in the future.
Most medium-range air defense systems are not designed to counter ballistic missiles, while we must continue and expedite first and second layer – short and medium-range – air and missile defense development all over Estonia. Estonian cities and vital infrastructure must be protected.
We have reason to believe other NATO border states are worried – learning from Russia's war in Ukraine – and are thinking along the same lines. Joint military and technological solutions and tenders benefit everyone.
Cooperation helps save
Fourteen NATO countries, including Estonia, and Finland that is soon to join the alliance, signed a mutual intentions protocol in Brussels in October for the European Sky Shield Initiative. Its largest contributor Germany is set to buy Arrow-3 anti-missile systems from Israel that the country's representatives say will be used to defend not just Germany but NATO's entire eastern flank against Russian ballistic and cruise missiles.
The new capability will be fully interoperable with the integrated NATO air and missile defense system. We cannot be sure whether we have enough time to bet on the initiative or whether we should try and find a temporary solution based on mutual agreements with individual allies by no later than February 24, 2024. One possibility is to convince the Americans to station Patriot systems in the Baltic Sea area.
The fighter planes layer of the Kalevipoeg Dome already includes allied aircraft stationed at Ämari and potential placements elsewhere.
Eventually, all NATO members, from Norway to Bulgaria, need to have effective air and missile defense but that doesn't mean Estonia has the luxury to wait until someone builds their own Kalevipoeg Dome that also reaches here. We need to consider all technical and financial possibilities, working with our neighbors and allies who have the necessary military capabilities.
The Russian general staff will not like the Kalevipoeg Dome as it will take away Russia's hope of dreaming of and wielding offensive missile superiority to intimidate our people.
Editor: Marcus Turovski