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General: Division allows Estonia to hit the enemy hundreds of kilometers away

Maj. Gen. Veiko-Vello Palm.
Maj. Gen. Veiko-Vello Palm. Source: Ministry of Defense

The Estonian Division, which has now been operating for a year, has taken Estonia's defensive capacity to a new level, its commander, Maj. Gen. Veiko-Vello Palm tells ERR in an end-of-year interview. The general also says that Ukraine's stout resistance is the only thing holding back Russia and that Estonia faces the greatest security threat since regaining independence.

Looking at what has changed in Estonia's preparedness to defend itself, we are quite far into the process of creating a division. Could you explain in layman's terms what a division is and why it matters?

A division puts our land forces capabilities on a whole new level, and it is indeed difficult to explain in simpler terms. The division is in charge of ground forces operations all over Estonia, while it draws together, aligns the capacities of other service arms, other special units. For example, if the air force wants to provide air support for ground units, it is up to the division to coordinate the effort but also bring artillery to bear to first take out enemy air defenses.

The division might also say which enemy cyber capabilities need to be disrupted and when in order to slow down their advance and make artillery fire more effective. Therefore, a division is a unit that brings together and coordinates the capabilities of other service arms, while its primary function is to defend all of Estonia from the ground forces perspective. That is one major part of it.

The other thing the division does is help Estonian internal security forces and the armed forces to defend the country together. The territorial defense districts, which make up part of the Estonian Division, are working closely with the Police and Border Guard Board and the Rescue Board. We last put that cooperation to the test during the Decisive Lancer training exercise in November, and everything worked great. This kind of cooperation will definitely continue in the future.

The third function of the division is to welcome allied units. It creates a plug and play environment for our allies. This means finding them a place and letting them know exactly what they need to do in case of a crisis or war.

So it is these three things – the combined effect of different domains – air, naval and cyber – defending the entire country and organizing multilateral cooperation, and finally the effect and capabilities of allies.

Could we also say that we have or are in the process of procuring new weapons which a brigade would find difficult to wield, while they are necessary and manageable for a division? Do we partly also need the division to handle these new and powerful weapons systems?

Indeed. In the ground forces structure, unit size quite directly affects its scope or ability to influence the battlefield. If a platoon affects a few hundred meters squared of the battlefield and a company (100-150 people) up to a few square kilometers, we could be talking about tens of square kilometers in the case of a brigade. That is how much information it has to facilitate its operations, understand where the enemy is moving and have the capabilities to engage.

A division operates on dozens if not hundreds of square kilometers. Its role includes effectively engaging enemy units who have not yet drawn near and are not affecting the operations of our units, such as artillery. That is why we created the division. Its task is to handle deep ground warfare. It supports close battle units, that is to say brigades and territorial defense districts, and defends the home front from enemy activity.

The Estonian Division recently celebrated its first anniversary. But is that strictly true? It is also the reincarnation of a historical unit. How long have we been working on it, and are you, effectively, the 1st Division? (The 1st Division was one of the three Estonian divisions created during the Estonian War of Independence – ed.)

Our 1st Estonian Division has just turned one, while our history goes back 106 years. Our predecessor, the 1st Division, was created as part of the Czarist Russian military during World War One, in December of 1917. Its purpose was to bring together all Estonian units to better protect the Czarist state. That was the original idea, while it was clear to patriotic circles in Estonia that we were effectively creating our own military and planting the seed with which to defend our independence in the future.

That division was disbanded during the German occupation, while 1918 saw the (re)creation of the Estonian 1st Division during the War of Independence. Other divisions followed because the front line was very long and the divisions of the era were also less capable. When we were occupied in 1940, the armed forces were disbanded, incorporated into the Red Army, which started an 80-year break in our history. Last year, the government decided it was time to take our ground forces and armed forces in general to the next level, and the division was recreated.

Looking at U.S. ground forces, their divisions were also created around the time of WWI. There was no need before then, so 106 years is a dignified history.

Looking at it another way, we just turned one, and while we have done a lot over that year, the division is not yet complete. It's not complete just as the city of Tallinn is not complete, even though there are people living in it and its functional.

That is how we were made, so we would be ready to defend the country from day one. The Estonian Division was created by reorganizing or restructuring the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF), and we're getting better every day. But we are also ready as things stand.

We're not complete, while I also hope we will never be 100 percent complete, because once that happens you can be consigned to the trash heap of history.

If the need arose to defend ourselves, it would be up to the division and not the brigades independently?

Of course. It would be the job of the division while in command of territorial defense districts and brigades.

Can you describe the activities of the past year? I take it you have formed a headquarters, you've trained with the Americans and are looking at certification, which we could compare to a final exam. What have you achieved in your efforts to build up the division?

We have indeed created the Division Headquarters. It is almost fully staffed and has around 100 people working there, allies included, which is about optimal for peacetime. The headquarters can grow during a crisis or war. We are being sent people from the Defense Forces Academy, EDF and Defense League headquarters. I would commend reserve officers especially, they've been very active and hardworking.

How have we kept the headquarters busy? First, we have been explaining to the rest of the EDF, the ground forces what will change and how the division functions in wartime. We have organized seminars, put together guidelines, also for ourselves in terms of how we will fight. How today is different from yesterday.

We have also held a lot of training exercises. Of domestic ones, we should mention Spring Storm (Kevadtorm), which was largely managed from the Division Headquarters. I already mentioned the Decisive Lancer exercise from last fall. The territorial defense districts also trained with the Police and Border Guard Board and the Rescue Board.

We have joined a U.S. ground forces program where they periodically train or refresh their corps. A corps is a unit made up of several divisions. This training has been incredibly intensive and frequent. It started in June when the Division Headquarters traveled to Germany to participate in a major simulated exercise.

We spent a lot of time in the USA in August, training with our closest U.S. partner – the 1st Infantry Division.

We recently had another exercise where we used our own systems in Estonia, while a U.S. infantry training exercise took place in the USA, Germany and Poland. So quite a few different places. We also tested the compatibility of our command systems. Whether we can really be somewhere else or talk to American units virtually while really sitting at home in Estonia.

Another major exercise, which could be referred to as our certification exercise in the American system, will take place in March. We will launch independent preparatory exercises in January and February. It will be very intensive. The Division Headquarters knows that while we've been busy all along, things are about to become even busier.

American HIMARS MLRS training in Estonia. Source: EDF Headquarters / mil.ee

My questions have so far been quite specific, but if we think back to an ordinary person's viewpoint who, perhaps, hasn't even been through basic training, how would you describe what has changed over the past year in terms of Estonia's ability to defend itself? I recently talked to the head of the Estonian Defense Investments Center about weapons Estonia has or is about to receive. Which of these matter the most to you?

In addition to seeing to our own training, the new capabilities Estonia is procuring matter a great deal to the division. Leaving aside ground forces for a moment, the Blue Spear anti-ship missiles, which should be delivered soon, are the biggest thing. While they are fired by the Navy, we largely enable their use and pick targets in some cases.

From the ground forces perspective, I think our biggest success is taking delivery of a lot of munitions this year, especially artillery munitions. We can be a lot more confident in having something with which to fight the enemy.

And we are not just talking about howitzer shells. Our self-propelled howitzers have an effective range of 30-40 kilometers using ordinary munitions, while we have also taken delivery of special anti-tank and artillery munitions. We are talking 70-100 kilometers here. This puts you out of the enemy's range of fire and you can cover a much larger area with the same SPG.

We should also receive our very own HIMARS systems in the near future, while we are already actively preparing. The long-range weapons of allies in Estonia have all been integrated into the division and we're using U.S. HIMARS to train our own troops in Estonia. The goal is to be able to use those systems as soon as they roll off the ships. We will have a ready unit by then.

These kinds of long-range weapons are the most important. We are regularly training to use allied capabilities in the region. Things they will give us should there be a crisis or war. Whether we can make proper use of them, how to fire dozens, hundreds of kilometers away, how to find the targets etc. There has been a qualitative leap in those terms over the last year.

Instead of a few dozen kilometers, we are capable of talking about targets lying hundreds of kilometers away. Everyone understands that concentrating solely on what might roll across the border would cause us to be defeated in the long term. There will always be more coming over the border than we can counter here.

But hitting deep, we can cut off their supply lines, slow down the enemy. We can disrupt their rhythm, which means fewer people will be crossing the border or not as frequently, helping us better organize our fight.

I suppose the armed forces have grown in general. We could mention territorial defense and the fact that the Brits have promised us a brigade. If we consider that we have two brigades of our own, they will be contributing one-third. Has the EDF grown?

It has grown substantially. Our territorial defense has become powerful through the Ussisõnad project. We did it based on lessons from the Ukraine war. What they failed to do was to develop and involve territorial defense to a sufficient degree. It was a proud moment seeing how many volunteers joined their army to defend the country, while all of it could have been done before the war started.

We grew our territorial defense from 10,000 troops to 20,000 inside a single year. Talking about the functional layers of fighting a war, territorial defense is mainly in charge of creating situational awareness. Division and brigade recon units contribute, of course, but territorial defense forms a nationwide safety net parts of which are the first to learn of new developments.

Secondly, territorial defense ensures its units have freedom of action and movement. This is done largely by Ussisõnad (training exercise) participants who are in charge of guarding bottlenecks and creating a general safety net. Lastly, territorial defense is in charge of defending the entire territory, putting up a fight everywhere in Estonia to make advancing costly for the enemy.

For example, we know that the enemy has the ability to drop paratroopers behind our lines. But knowing that instead of an empty field they will run into people with guns at every step, they will have to ramp up operational complexity, send a bigger unit, all of which makes such operations costly. The enemy will be able to afford fewer of them.

Our brigades form the center of gravity of our defensive efforts, and we indeed went from having two brigades to three. The 12th Armored Brigade Combat Team has been designated for the Estonian Division and the defense of Estonia.

Finally, as the fifth layer, the division exists to limit and obstruct the enemy's freedom of action. This is done by striking deep into enemy territory. The British long-range weapon systems already in Estonia or those that will be sent here in case of a crisis will also be added to the division's fire systems.

We have a lot more of everything. Estonia is better prepared than we have ever been. But I'm worried that some people might start feeling too secure, feel the EDF can handle anything or that even if something should happen, we have strong allies and little reason for concern. What is happening on the other side of the border? Has the threat increased?

Two things have changed. First, the security situation in Europe really is poor. We have major powers in Europe and Asia who think that military power can solve political problems. They are convinced it is a viable tool. This has shocked Europe, while it remains true that if they have done it once, they will do it again.

It is a very poor situation from a security policy point of view, just militarily speaking. While the Russian army has not done a good job in Ukraine, that does not mean they are ineffective or bad at it, that they're not lethal. They are very lethal, especially when they get close. They are very effective killing machines.

While there is hardly anyone on the other side of our border today, Russia will remilitarize the region as soon as they overcome the so-called Ukrainian problem. The situation would already be dangerous if the Ukraine war ended today and Russian units would simply return to their bases. But they want to make it worse and grow the units stationed behind our borders. It also means a shorter advance warning period for us.

While we used to be opposite the infamous 76th Guards Air Assault Division and the 25th Guards Motor Rifle Brigade, there are now plans to expand the 76th. Increase the level of motorization by integrating more tanks. There are also plans to turn the 25th, which currently has 3,000-4,000 members, into a division where it would have over 10,000 troops. There are at least two units in permanent state of readiness on the other side of our borders, with units facing the Finnish and Latvian borders also growing etc.

Our military position will be worse than it was before the Ukraine war. That is why we definitely cannot say that our work is done, that we have everything we need. We should keep moving forward. We should train more troops and likely grow our army size. We should also procure more long-range capabilities to fight the first battle more effectively and win it. And munitions, of course. There can never be too much ammunition.

Next steps include improving allied cooperation. We will train allies and ourselves to make their arrival as quick and painless as possible. So they would know exactly what they need to do and have very detailed plans. We will also be streamlining cooperation with the police, rescue and local governments.

Veiko-Vello Palm. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The British RUSI think tank recently wrote that it sees 2026-2028 as the most dangerous period, also considering it is when China will be the most dangerous for the U.S. Are we in a race against time? We are busy making preparations, while these things might not be taken as seriously further West, and it is always harder for larger countries to change course. Will the second half of the decade be the most dangerous moment?

I believe there have been dangerous moments ever since 1991. But it seems that none have been as serious as what's coming. It is true that the Russian Federation needs time to restore its battle worthiness, but it needs time for qualitative recuperation, not so much quantitative.

What this means in civilian parlance is that it needs time to threaten the Netherlands, Belgium and other such countries, while it will take them no time at all to pose a threat to Estonia, Latvia and Finland, countries close to their border.

That is our number one concern and why our sense of danger differs from countries that are physically further away. That is one thing.

Looking at the world map standing somewhere on the other side of the globe, the front line shifting by a few dozen kilometers in either direction would largely go unnoticed. While for us every meter of Estonia is sacred. You can't just tell us to relax, say that you have largely Russians living between the border and Rakvere anyway. This is unacceptable for us, which makes our threat perception very different.

It is also true that a lot of military capacity has changed or been lost in other countries over the past 30 years. Gone in terms of the Cold War level and changed in terms of what you need to handle conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq. Clearly, most allies were not prepared to fight an extended land war [when the Ukraine war started].

They were not prepared to fight Russia. It's enough to take a brief look at history. During the Cold War, the small country of Belgium had its own army corps complete with divisions. They had tens of thousands of ground troops, while their land force currently comprises a single brigade or 2,000-3,000 people. Naturally, it takes a very long time to change such a course. Most countries' armies are professional, while defense industries are working on niche capabilities and are unable to mass produce.

It is not hopeless. We are much more powerful economically than Russia and we could clearly sort it all out in a very short time if only we had the political will and made the necessary decisions.

What should the ordinary person do? What surprised me when I talked to the head of the NATO Multinational Corps Northeast (MNCNE) is how closely they keep in touch with the civilian sector when drawing up new defense plans. A high-ranking Estonian military official put it best when they said that the whole country will go to war, not just 3 percent of GDP.

War is always a joint effort for a small country. Talking about what the ordinary person can do it's to be as small a burden to their loved ones, friends, neighbors and the state as possible. To take the precautions recommended by the Rescue Board and be prepared if only for the first few hours and days of a crisis. To not panic, know where to go and what to do to be safe. That would already be great.

As far as the country is concerned, everyone should keep doing what they do every day. In other words, the EDF is counting on the Transport Administration to keep the roads plowed also during wartime. Should we need to host a British brigade in this weather, the people there are not used to driving on ice or snow. They would need a lot of help. Should the enemy destroy a bridge, we are counting on the Transport Administration to work with territorial defense districts to organize a detour, handle traffic etc.

And we're not just talking about the Transport Administration. The state also expects all other agencies to continue their work. The same goes for the private sector. For example, private road maintenance companies are also expected to continue working.

The country must remain as functional as possible in wartime. Of course, certain emphases will change, while we will all be in crisis together. The entire country. We must all contribute to overcoming it.

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Editor: Mirjam Mäekivi, Marcus Turovski

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