Martin Herem: The urgency of expanding the Nursipalu Training Area

Martin Herem.
Martin Herem. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

No matter how the Ukraine war ends, we need to be prepared for a new Russian aggression a few years after it happens. That is why we need to boost EDF training volume and allied presence, which requires new training grounds, EDF Commander Gen. Martin Herem finds.

Following Russia's attack on Ukraine, Estonia has taken many extraordinary steps to improve its defensive capacity. In truth, these activities started before the war. One such step has been the decision to create the Nursipalu Training Area. As commander of the Estonian Defense Forces, I will attempt to explain the need for the training grounds. First, however, a few words on the threat emanating from Russia.

The war in Ukraine clearly shows that Russia will not hesitate to take military measures. Even when its losses in terms of lives, equipment and the economy are what we would describe as unacceptable. Instability of security and influence over countries and decision-making processes have always been among its interests. This does not require Russia to restore its military might to the level before 2022. No matter how the Ukraine war ends, we need to be prepared for Russia's next aggression two or three years after it happens. The decisions Estonia and our allies make today will manifest [in capacity] two or more years from now. That is why certain developments are urgent to say the least.

The need for Nursipalu was not created overnight

While we have managed to meet the EDF's training needs in recent conditions, the situation has resembled an overpopulated apartment. The 2nd Infantry Brigade and the Southern Estonian units of Territorial Defense have been forced to move to the already busy EDF Central Polygon or Sirgala for exercises. Every trip to the Central Polygon means a day to get there and another to return. This constitutes valuable training time wasted. We have also been forced to mostly station allied units in Northern Estonia as there simply aren't enough training opportunities in the south. At the same time, and from the point of view of military national defense, the southeast and the units stationed and practicing there are just as important as those in the north.

The EDF has grown over the last few years and will continue to grow. Last year saw the virtual completion of the 2nd Infantry Brigade the wartime composition of which is ca 5,000 people. While the brigade seldom operates on that scale in peacetime, its units of 500-1,000 staff spend weeks training every year.

The 2nd Infantry Brigade will take delivery of its first armored transports next year and be fully motorized by 2026. Both the battle activity and training of such units differs from those ferried around in trucks and, therefore, requires training areas subject to fewer limitations (an EDF training area). Over the next two years, the 2nd will also get brigade-level anti-tank and indirect fire capacity to take the brigade and its units' cooperation training to a whole new level. This will add to the intensity of the training needed just in terms of maneuvers.

The brigade will have to practice working with division units, including with such capabilities as MLRS, loitering aerial attack munitions, as well as allied support units and capacities. While this does not necessarily mean having to fire different weapon systems, it requires an area with fewer limitations than civilian environment used for trainings today.

EDF personnel stands at 26,000 people today. The next few years' developments will see it grow to 43,700, including 10,500 Territorial Defense troops of whom 3,000 belong to the South Defense District. Those 3,000 fighters will also need additional training opportunities, next to the 2nd Infantry Brigade conscripts and reservists, as well as Defense League members.

To make sure the EDF is up to the task of defending the country, the intensity of training needs to grow. The number of reserve trainings will rise starting in 2024. While Estonia has held annual trainings for around 5,000 reservists so far, this will grow to a third of wartime staff, or up to 14,000 reservists of whom 40 percent (up to 5,600) are in Southern Estonia.

Let it be said as an interim summary that the volume of training will grow by two or three times just based on new Estonian units and intensity of exercises. Hence the need for training areas. The corresponding volumes need to be boosted immediately to be prepared to defend the country in case of a potential aggression.

Allies on top of Estonian units

The deteriorating security situation necessitates more allied presence. We are hosting an allied battalion and support units at Tapa today. We would need another such contingent on the southeast heading. There is a reduced U.S. battalion-size unit in Võru, while neither accommodation nor training conditions currently meet our needs. Next to permanently stationed units, it is important to rehearse bringing additional units to Estonia and their cooperation with Estonian troops. Therefore, in addition to around 2,000 allies in Tapa and Võru, we are also talking about another few thousand annually who will practice defending Estonia and working with Estonian units over the course of some weeks.

In all, the number of allies active in Estonia will double or triple at the least. It is insensible to keep postponing their ability to train for years. They must be ready to defend Estonia in a matter of just a few years. Training areas in Latvia or Finland are often seen as an alternative. However, those countries have also upped the intensity of their units' training, have more units, including allies, present, and their training grounds are busy enough without hosting Estonians.

Next to training needs, we also need such grounds to boost our defense readiness. Whether to house and train our own or allied units. On the one hand, the need for training and accommodation will be created very urgently in such situations. On the other, threats might linger without actually escalating to war during which time the country will need to continue operating as normally as possible, meaning that we cannot only use private lands. That is why we must make maximum use of EDF training areas to contain risks to the civilian population.

While it may seem peculiar, these developments are not a source of joy for the EDF commander. As we make life more difficult for local residents, we must realize all of these developments are caused by a growing threat. And this is not a security policy slogan or mandatory professional rhetoric. The EDF finds the threat to be quite real a few years after the Ukraine war ends or freezes, which is why we must do everything in our power to be ready. However, in order to be ready a few years from now, preparations must be launched today. We can blame the state, officials or residents, but we must realize that the root cause of it all is Russia and the threat it poses.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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