Under the new Estonian government's coalition agreement, the length of military service may, in some cases, be increases to two years, to help facilitate the development of new military capabilities. However, for the time being, to meet the Estonian Defense Forces' (EDF) needs, extending some conscripts' length of service by a month will be sufficient. EDF Commander General Martin Herem also said, that the proposed changes will only affect a few dozen conscripts.
Under the Estonian Military Service Act, the duration of military service currently differs according to the branch, tasks assigned to the unit training conscripts and the nature of military training. The duration of military service may not be longer than 12 months, nor shorter than eight months and is fixed by government regulation.
However, the newly signed government coalition agreement says, that the length can be extended to as much as two years in circumstances where doing so is deemed necessary. Estonian Minister of Defense Hanno Pevkur (Reform) previously said, that such a need may arise in order to ensure new weapons systems Estonia is currently procuring are kept at a constant state of readiness. Nevertheless, a longer period of military service will not be introduced for the time being.
"The way it is, we need to look at things from a four-year perspective to see that if the need arises. When these capabilities arrive in Estonia over the next few years, we will be able to see what the actual need is. At the moment, no young person needs to worry, or think about the fact that military service will be increased to two years," Pevkur said.
The defense minister was mainly referring to four new weapons systems, which are set to arrive in Estonia – HIMARS light multiple rocket launchers, medium-range air defense systems, anti-ship missiles and loitering munitions.
Chief of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) General Martin Herem said, that these weapons systems should be kept on standby at all times.
"There will be long-range weapons systems capable of defending Estonia and covering the operations of units over long distances joining our arsenal. It would be extremely wise to keep these weapons ready at all times. So that, if a threat arrives, we would be able to move them immediately from their permanent locations immediately and they would be ready to go and act at the first possible moment. This means that the personnel (who operate) these units also ought to be in a similar state of readiness as the Scouts Battalion (Scoutspataljon)," said Herem.
Like the Scouts Battalion, the Estonian special forces, including the Military Police, Air Force and Navy are able to respond to threats within a matter of hours, Herem said. However, most are not so quick as it first necessary to call up reserves or form new units. Keeping the conscripts on duty for longer periods will avoid this potential time lag.
According to Herem, this is already the plan for the anti-ship missiles, which are set to enter Estonia's arsenal later this year.
"Once the anti-ship missiles are in Estonia, we will start training active soldiers on them this year and conscripts next year. After around five months the unit will be combat ready. They will of course continue their training like any other conscripts, but we know that we could use these units to defend Estonia (if necessary) at any moment," Herem said.
Under this system, one group of conscripts is always in a state of readiness, while the next is undergoing training. Once the former complete their period of service, the latter take over and a new batch of conscripts are brought in in turn to begin their training. In practice, this means there would be no gap during which all conscripts are still at the learning stage and thus not at the state of readiness to respond if required.
For this to happen, two rounds of conscripts would need to be called up per year, each serving for 12 months. Some will therefore see their length of service extended from 11 months to a year. This change was already initiated by the previous government, with defense minister Pevkur promising to finalize it in the coming weeks.
"The essence of it is, that these particular capabilities need to be in a permanent state of readiness," Pevkur said.
The precise need will be determined by the EDF, with the direct level of threat to Estonia not currently considered high enough to implement an extension to the length of military service.
"If the threat grows, we will undoubtedly need to keep even more units on standby. Not more specialized units, but more in terms of numbers. In that case, a two-year service period might be out of the question," said Herem.
Both Herem and Pevkur admit that what a longer period of military service would look like in practice is still to be ironed out.
"It will be based on volunteering and mean some additional compensation. These basic principles have been agreed on," said Pevkur.
Herem said however, that the EDF does not currently have firm plans to extend the length of military service.
"At the moment, the EDF does not have a concrete plan to introduce a two-year conscription period for the manning of any weapons system. We see it as a possibility, but at the moment we are continuing with the eight and eleven-month military service, which in certain cases can be increased to twelve months, but really only for a few dozen people," Herem said.
Editor: Michael Cole