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Ilmar Raag: The perfect EDF commander does not exist

Ilmar Raag.
Ilmar Raag. Source: Piret Kooli/ERR

The position of head of the Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) represents more than a general leading the troops and performs several national defense functions instead, Ilmar Raag writes.

The perfect armed forces commander does not exist, perhaps only in ancient songs or Andrus Kivirähk's fables. Every recent EDF commander has had their strengths and weaknesses. Now, when a successor needs to be picked for Gen. Martin Herem, we first need to look at what kind of strengths we want.

Serious staff crisis in the EDF

The EDF commander has long since ceased being just a general in charge of troops. The office serves several national defense functions. Let us start with the most obvious.

The EDF commander heads up the Estonian armed forces. However, the EDF's decision-making process is so standardized that the EDF Headquarters could get the job done with hardly more than a nod needed from the defense chief. It's no joke that the chief's office could be occupied by a stuffed bear while everything really depends on the dedication of a team of top officers even on worst days.

Let us think of a hypothetical crisis or war where the EDF commander would only have time to concentrate on the work of the headquarters during morning and evening meetings and would only have a brief period in which to shape a position and guidelines after listening to reports. It is quite likely that they would spend the rest of their day meeting with the leaders of the country and allies. They would not be in charge of any battle during such meetings.

Next comes time to feed the world press and do the rounds, including patting young soldiers serving on the front lines on the back.

All this means that without the headquarters, the EDF chief is little more than a seat warmer. Therein lies one of the greatest challenges of the EDF today. Just as Estonia is short on teachers, doctors, police etc., we are also short on officers. And this situation is about to become even more acute as many EDF officers are close to retiring.

The EDF seems to have recognized the problem and efforts are being made to find more flexible forms of working with which to keep trained professionals attached to the Defense Forces, even if they have also taken a job in the private sector, for example.

However, this makes the aspect of being a charismatic leader of the EDF commander's job that much more important. If high-ranking officers feel they are not challenged and do not recognize the moral authority of the commander, they will vote with their feet.

The EDF is shrouded by a serious staffing crisis, which no one dares talk about out loud. At the same time, a perfect EDF commander could also find generals who currently go fishing or just wonder around aimlessly something to do. Let us consider that we will need twice or even three times the current number of educated officers during wartime.

Victory theory built on allied relations

The next task of the EDF chief is to provide the government with input in terms of how to develop the Defense Forces. Estonian history has seen situations where the defense minister and EDF commander have detested one another. This would be an especially unfortunate development in the stage of developing the EDF where the defense minister must stand up for the defense budget at fiscal talks.

Luckily, this problem is less acute today as all political parties appreciate the severity of the security crisis and the debates are mainly over details. We also cannot foresee any party's politicians calling for a completely different strategy in the near future.

Next comes representing Estonia in top NATO circles. We can say with no false shame that our victory theory is built on allied relations. And it is also true that despite rules and political agreements, human relations count for a great deal.

If we think about the effort it has taken for top-ranking NATO generals to listen to an Afghan or Iraqi general talk, we understand that effective deterrence starts at our allies seeing our defense chief at the very least as their intellectual equal. There is no way around that.

Finally, the EDF commander needs to be prepared to play the role of a warlord for the people. Martin Herem has done a great job at the latter. The principle is simple. For the first three days of the war, the Defense Forces will fight based on existing plans. On day four, everything will boil down to the effort of the rest of the country. The defense minister or a spokesperson for the EDF will never replace a leader that the people want to trust in a crisis. This kind of [trust] credit is short-lived, while its importance cannot be overstated.

Civilian control principles at the EDF and those of democratic countries suggest that the EDF should "not be run by someone who desperately wants to, but by the best person for the job." The latter depends on the peculiarities of the moment in time that we currently inhabit.


Let us take a look at a few candidates whose names have cropped up in the media.

Maj. Gen. Veiko-Vello Palm (born 1971). Palm is a planner and career officer who has international experience on his side (Afghanistan and Multinational Corps Northeast) and knows the intricacies of defense planning from his time at the Ministry of Defense. Gen. Palm has also managed to speak clearly and convincingly in the media.

Speaking against him might be a somewhat one-sided military education (Finland) and, as pointed out by some EDF members, the fact he has not served as company or battalion commander. Palm has also been criticized for unwillingness to cooperate.

Therefore, we are dealing with a competent candidate, provided those who have to make the decision believe Palm can prevent the EDF staff crisis from deepening and perform the role of a charismatic warlord. The fact that Palm has gotten to where he is (commander of the Estonian Division – ed.) through hard work cannot be underestimated either.

Maj. Gen. Indrek Sirel (born 1970). A true leader with experience commanding different military units.

Sirel's strengths are a versatile military education (Soviet Union, USA and Finland), extensive service experience with various units (platoon, company, battalion and land force commander, as well as deputy chief of defense), mission experience from Afghanistan, experience in international environments (as deputy head of the training department of NATO JFC Brunssum, Estonia's military representative to NATO) and an intricate knowledge of how the enemy thinks.

Cons: Sirel is not a good orator and some are bothered by his Soviet officer training past.

Gen. Sirel represents the kind of competency Estonia should not waste, while the chief reasons why not to appoint him can only be political.

Brig. Gen. Vahur Karus (born 1974) is one of the most popular generals in the EDF.

Pros: Versatile military education (Sweden, USA), extensive service experience (platoon leader, company, battalion and brigade commander), service experience at the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), Ministry of Defense and the Defense Forces Academy, two tours (Balkans and Afghanistan).

Karus' first and primary disadvantage is his relative impatience, which is somewhat excused by his youth, being three or four years the junior of Palm and Sirel.

Somewhat surprisingly, Col. Andrus Merilo (born 1973) has also been talked about. His record is somewhat similar to Karus'. He has military education from Finland, the U.K. and U.S., has held various command positions and participated in foreign missions. He is a good communicator and popular with the troops.

Speaking against Merilo, his considerably less extensive experience with top NATO structures and the fact he has not frequented ministries nearly as often as the others.

Merilo is undoubtedly an officer of the future for the EDF, while the fact that his name has cropped up now suggests the need to find a compromise. His real strength lies in his potential to boost moral at the EDF, which may indeed be a key issue today.

Other compromise candidates could be Maj. Gen. Ilmar Tamm, Brig. Gen. Rauno Sirk or Cmdr. Jüri Saska.

P.S. As a reservist I am willing to fight under whichever EDF commander. In the end, we are all fighting for Estonia irrespective of who is head of the Defense Foces.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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