Defense Minister Hanno Pevkur (Reform) has proposed the government extend the maximum duration of compulsory Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) service from the current 11 months, to 12 months, in certain areas, including within the under-formation air defense and anti-shipping defense capabilities.
Conscripts in some important EDF branches will be assigned a wartime position halfway through their service period.
Current law already allows for a one year-long military service, but this has so far been limited to a maximum of 11 months by government regulation.
The new draft removes this restriction, for some specialties. Defense Minister Pevkur said that the change is needed precisely for staffing new and more complex weapon systems.
Pevkur said: "First of all, this concerns the artillery, as new weaponry is coming there in the form of the K9 [Thunder self-propelled howitzer]. It also concerns the navy, where anti-shipping missiles are due to enter service, plus the air force, where medium-range air defense capabilities are coming."
"These are the kind of systems that, first, require slightly longer training, and second, a slightly longer … military service."
Critical weapon systems must be combat-ready, 24/7. Immediately after taking office in 2018, EDF commander Martin Herem said that the growing staffing problem could be solved via the use of conscripts, who would be assigned to a wartime posting during their military service. The amendment to the regulation proposed to the government provides an opportunity to do this, while the draft would happen twice in a year.
Herem said: "When we call up those conscripts who are to serve in combat readiness units, in January and in July, we train them for about half a year, then they are at combat readiness for the second half of the year."
This is very different from the training of the standard infantryman, Herem added. "Whereas, in the case of infantry, we continue unit cooperation from the sixth month - that is, sections start cooperating within a platoon, and later in platoons within a company - in the case of artillery, anti-shipping missiles or medium-range air defense systems and radars, cooperation levels will already gave been been acquired by that time," said Herem.
"These units will have reached the minimum level by this point. However, they will definitely need to hone their skills through to the end of their military service," Herem went on.
Service to mirror that of Scouts Battalion
Finland also employs a similar system, Herem said. "However, there are countries where the time-frame is even longer, for example, South Korea and Israel," he added.
Herem said that the service of conscripts at combat readiness would be exactly the same as that of soldiers of the Scouts Battalion (Scoutspataljon) or the Estonian Special Operations Force.
"They can enjoy, for example, much more freedom than those conscripts who are studying somewhere. On the other hand, on certain days they will have less freedom. It all depends on their schedule and how they have to fulfill their tasks," Herem went on, adding that the conscripts in the units in question would likely be fairly mobile within Estonia during their period of service.
"They may cooperate with various units of ours, and of our allies or, for example, with land defense units," he went on, referring to planned light infantry formations consisting both of EDF reservists and of volunteer Defense League (Kaitseliit) members.
At the same time, the majority of conscripts will not be affected by the changes, Herem went on.
The plans will start to be put into place from summer, Herem added.
"This will start with our anti-ship missile unit, which will arrive in July 2023. After that we can deploy [conscripts] for up to 12 months," Herem said, noting that if the next batch of conscripts, in January 2024, will be combat-ready quicker than in six months, the first batch's service may be shorter.
"This means it could be 11 months and 1 day, and it could also be 11 months and 29 days," Herem added.
Until now, conscripts had served either eight-month or 11-month terms, depending on the area of the EDF they went into (which includes the navy, but not the air force, which does not employ conscripts).
After finishing their terms, conscripts remain on reserve lists and are liable for reservist service.
Exemptions from conscription categories include tertiary study, health reasons and reasons of conscience.
Editor: Andrew Whyte, Mirjam Mäekivi