Col. Mati Tikerpuu, commander of the EDF's 2nd Infantry Brigade, told ERR in an interview that if Estonia wants to boost the level of preparedness of the 2nd Infantry Brigade, tasked with defending Southern Estonia, the unit needs to be able to set up its weapons where it is based.
You are a multiple EDF orienteering champion – how adept are you when it comes to navigating the current situation regarding the Nursipalu Training Area expansion?
They are not quite the same thing – running around in the woods holding a map and looking at the [expansion] process. I have attended meetings with locals to explain what the EDF needs. I have also explained it to politicians. And I have felt the locals' reactions and understand there are problems.
How has the information been received?
It varies depending on how closely the project affects people. Those whose lands or houses fall inside the planned expansion area are understandably affected much more directly. It would be very difficult emotionally if my own house was in those bounds and I was asked to vacate it, move out of my home. People also do not like the noise. While there is noise [coming from Nursipalu] now, there could be more of it in the future. Not all the time but once in a while. Everyone would rather enjoy the silence and natural beauty that Southern Estonia has to offer.
However, it is the task of the EDF to be prepared to defend the nation, and we need to make ready. We need to prepare our troops and tasks for ourselves, which causes a conflict of interest that can only be solved through cooperation.
Col. Eero Rebo, then commander of the 2nd Infantry Brigade, said in 2018: "In order to be more than just a frontier post that one can simply roll over, we need more heavy weapons, additional tools for stopping enemy armor and troops." Do we have that capacity today?
We had it then, while it has since improved. As concerns anti-tank capabilities, new weapons have greatly improved our ability to eliminate enemy armor. The next thing we're working on is mobile artillery. The 1st Infantry Brigade is switching to K9 [Thunder] self-propelled howitzers. This process will reach the 2nd Infantry Brigade this summer when our artillery battalion will undergo relevant training. The 2nd Infantry Brigade is also looking at securing APC capacity in the near future, in addition to using trucks. We will be getting bigger fire support guns. This will require extra maneuver room, different firing positions, which in turn means we need more from Nursipalu.
What new mechanized capacity will you be getting?
The tender is ongoing. I cannot tell you because I do not know who will win it.
But what are you procuring?
We are procuring armored transports to give our troops fragmentation protection and a measure of additional close fire support to help them join the battle in one piece, bring them as close to the object they need to defend or capture as possible.
Put in simpler terms, a machine that can drive and shoot.
A wheeled armored transport with a machine gun on top. For example, an M2 Browning 12.7 millimeter. The name of the APC will depend on whose bid will come out on top.
How many will there be?
I cannot give you an exact number. But there will be enough to rearm all three maneuver battalions plus a few command elements.
Where will you be getting them from?
When will they arrive?
They will start arriving next year.
I understand there will be hundreds.
Will they need their own techno park?
Will you be able to use them in Nursipalu as it is now?
There are things we can do now. The question is how useful these are. We could train individual soldiers, sections or even squads, while that is not enough to prepare a company or a battalion for an offensive. Looking at the numbers, the Nursipalu Training Area spans 31 square kilometers today. To carry out a battalion maneuver, offensive exercise, even without firing a single gun, would require 75 square kilometers. If we want a battalion fire exercise and a fire safety zone, we're talking about 100 square kilometers. We need three times the space to practice our APCs' full capacity.
Is what the Ministry of Defense and the Defense Investments Center are planning enough to satisfy your needs?
It would not satisfy all of our needs. There would still be plenty of limitations even with the planned borders, while the process is still ongoing, which is why I cannot say anything specific about what those limitations could be. We will have room to maneuver the battalion, while there will be a limited number of scenarios. It is possible we will only have a single corridor, maybe two.
We have a limited number of firing positions, and there will always be some restrictions. Also, talking about the K9 self-propelled howitzer with its range of dozens of kilometers, even the expanded version of Nursipalu would stretch just 17 kilometers end-to-end. This means that we cannot have it fire inside the training area, with the shell still falling within its bounds.
We still see the need for firing positions outside the training area, to fire from a distance and have the shells fall in the target area without risking hurting anyone.
What might be some of your other needs? Perhaps a part of the confusion is due to people not knowing what you need and want.
We must also take into account 1st Infantry Brigade units. For example, the CV90 IFVs of the Scouts Battalion if they can no longer go to Latvia to train or if the EDF Central Training Area is fully booked. The CV90s are equipped with a 35-millimeter main gun, which has a far greater range and cannot fit in the training area's fire safety zone, or the expanded zone based on current plans for that matter. Luckily, there is less powerful training ammunition we can use for drills.
We also mustn't overlook our allies. We want them to come here, which means they will need to be able to train as well. Another important aspect is being able to train with them. The more often we train together, the better our ability to fight side-by-side should it come to it.
Which of those weapon systems might be the most unpleasant for civilians to put up with?
I think the K9 is the loudest to fire, while I would emphasize that they are expensive weapon systems, which we will not be firing on a daily or weekly basis.
How often do you plan to fire them?
We might fire the K9s maybe five times a year.
Is that a fact or just something meant to pacify the locals?
I cannot promise you it will be five times. It might be four times or six.
But fewer than ten times?
Indeed. I would ask people to remember that we operate as a reserve army. Those 4-6 times a year is what we need to train our conscripts. Reserve trainings would add a very more days of firing.
As brigade commander, I'm sure you've kept an eye on Russian tactics and actions in its war with Ukraine and analyzed it on the level of your unit. What can you tell us about the 2ns Infantry Brigade's capacity for repulsing a potential Russian offensive?
Our situation is great. Based on last year's Siil (Hedgehog) training exercise where the brigade was found to be fit for battle, we are ready. We are ready to respond as soon as we get the call.
You have mortars, men with Rahe [R20] assault rifles, what else have you got?
We have anti-tank weapons, heavy machine guns, anti-aircraft weapons, howitzers.
Is that enough?
It is enough for the 2nd Infantry Brigade to go into battle with confidence.
How long will you last?
For as long as we have ammunition. And for as long as necessary.
You were looking at increasing your munitions stores. Did that happen?
Yes, we have and will be getting more. This leads to other infrastructure needs –we need to up our capacity for storing munitions.
But if you're great, as you said, why this whole circus around Nursipalu?
It is not all great. The 2nd Infantry Brigade is very confident, but looking at what Russia is doing in Ukraine where tens of thousands of shells are fired every day for almost a year now... Russia is big – it has a lot of people, a lot of iron, more of everything.
What would the APCs and K9s and what have you change?
It would change the estimate, give us a greater chance at winning.
Couldn't it be a matter of compromise with the locals – that you will get your expanded training area, get to maneuver your armor, while you go somewhere else for the loud bangs?
But where else? Room and resources aren't endless somewhere else. Let us look at the occupancy of the central training area. It is close to capacity – exercises are conducted on 300+ days a year.
But you can all fit today.
We can right now; however, we need to consider peacetime conscript training and the fact that reserves need to be prepared very quickly in wartime. We talked about response time, when you have enemy units stationed on the border, ready to move in a matter of hours. We have early warning systems in place and won't be caught with our pants down, but if we want to set up quickly, put together an artillery battalion here and for it to be ready to move to its positions in a matter of hours, we need to test the weapons first. Just like when we form an infantry company or battalion, we want it to fire its weapons at least once before undertaking battle tasks. The same goes for artillery. If we form that battalion, we want it to be able to get its shots in here, make sure their weapons are operational and accurate before we send them on their mission. We lose at least a day if we have to send them to the central training grounds first.
Are you seriously suggesting we need to fire practice shots before we can turn the barrels of our K9s towards the enemy?
Of course. Weapons must always be checked before use. It is elementary. You also check whether the lights are working okay before taking your car on a long trip after it has spent a long time standing in the driveway. Weapons have different checks, but you need to run through them before going to war.
In November of 2017, nearly 100 hectares of forest was cut down virtually overnight in Nursipalu to make room for a mortar fire zone. The plan prescribed clearing a total of 470 hectares. Are these developments ready and how much have they changed the nature of training?
I doubt it is even possible to clearcut 100 hectares of forest overnight, it was a longer process of expanding the training area. However, today, we can fire all battalion weapons in Nursipalu, including 120-millimeter mortars and anti-tank recoilless rifles. These can be used to destroy enemy armor from a distance. We still travel to the central training area or Sirgala. But having a mortar zone in Nursipalu means we don't have to travel quite as far anymore.
What is your training schedule like – how often do you have to travel to the central training area (Harju County) or to Sirgala in Ida-Viru County?
Last year, the Kuperjanov Infantry Battalion had to travel to the central training grounds on 25 days. I cannot tell you exactly how much a single excursion like that costs, but it is a considerable expense. Even more important is the time it takes. We have a set conscription period, and if we use it for traveling to training areas instead of actual training, it is not making effective use of time.
Going to Sirgala with the entire battery takes half a day, plus getting back later.
Where else do you practice, in addition to Sirgala, Nursipalu and the central training area?
We have not had to go anywhere else.
It has been suggested that the EDF is also using a training grounds in Latvia.
Yes, but not the 2nd Infantry Brigade. The Scouts Battalion has rather visited the training field in Adaži.
Could you do everything you want to do here in Adaži?
There is more room and additional possibilities in Adaži, while they're not ideal either. Another problem with Adazi is that it's completely booked. Close cooperation meant that Estonians were allocated one week per year at Adaži. However, looking at increased allied presence and their own needs, there is no more room in Adaži, neither in terms of free time slots nor kilometers.
Therefore, developing the mortar training area was a great help?
What about allies? I'm sure you also want to train with them.
We do, while these are bigger exercises we're talking about. They take place once or twice a year. Looking at the U.S. company based in Võru, they can practice with what they have in Nursipalu. The problem is that we only have a few firing ranges. If we need to train 800 soldiers a year, a single battalion, and we need 140 fire days, bringing in another allied battalion means they need to practice the same amount. This creates double demand for the firing zone. We need to expand simply to get more ranges and fire areas. It does not necessarily facilitate bigger guns, while there are more units with the same types of weapons that want to train. Other units also come here, for example, territorial defense, who want to fire their mortars and could only do so in Sirgala in the past. Looking at the occupancy of Nursipalu based on last year, it came to over 287 days.
How many allies are currently based in Võru?
Around 300 right now.
Can they all fit in the barracks?
No, they can't.
Where do they sleep?
Some are sleeping over at the training grounds. It has a service campus where units can be temporarily stationed. Some are sleeping in barracks, while others are sleeping in classrooms in the study building.
What are some of your joint activities?
Swapping single soldier and squad-level training experiences, with their men advising ours, for example. Professional exchange of experience. The other thing we're doing takes place on the command level. Our brigade headquarters and their battalion headquarters – we are planning a military operation together, setting up command posts, practicing communications, so it would all go smoothly in wartime.
How big is the campus being planned as part of the Nursipalu expansion?
Based on current plans, for up to 1,000 troops.
Are there plans of stationing them in different places all over Võru County? Several buildings are about to be empty in Rõuge Municipality.
Having the space to put people up is one thing, while there are other requirements, such as safety. You cannot just accommodate allies in random locations and ensure all necessary hygiene and catering conditions. They also have their equipment, weapons with them, which need to be properly stored. It is not a case of needing an extra classroom somewhere.
The war in Ukraine will end, alongside other things. Will we need the planned Nursipalu expansion in 10 or 20 years' time?
We see nothing to suggest Russia will change in the next 10 or 20 years. Irrespective of how the war in Ukraine will end, Russia will always be large, militarily powerful and dangerous for its neighbors. Therefore, I see no reason to dial back our vigilance or preparedness for battle, hoping that a new world will simply appear, one where wars are no more and our neighbor Russia will become a great friendly democracy.
So, you do not fear that the sprawling development might end up too expensive to maintain in the long run or prove useless over time?
I do not see the need [for military training] going anywhere in the future.
Editor: Mirjam Mäekivi, Marcus Turovski