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Generals tend to quit the Estonian Defense Forces when changing jobs

Victory Day parade in Rakvere. June 23, 2017.
Victory Day parade in Rakvere. June 23, 2017. Source: (mil.ee)

Estonian Defense Forces (EDF) members who have reached the rank of general often look for new careers outside the military when changing jobs. Experts acknowledge that, for example, upon the completion of their term, the chief of defense may no longer have a suitable position within the military, which can cost the armed forces experienced personnel.

The end of the EDF commander's term does not mean they absolutely have to leave the armed forces, former Chief of Defense Riho Terras said.

"One EDF commander has stayed on as chief of land forces and Estonia's representative in NATO after their term. It was Gen. [Johannes] Kert, Terras pointed out.

But Kert became EDF commander at the very young age of 36. This usually doesn't happen nowadays, and officers who have reached the position of chief of defense or held other high-ranking posts in the EDF tend to leave service when changing jobs instead.

"Our generals tend to leave after they turn 50 because that still leaves them enough time to pursue an alternative career. I believe that to be one of the reasons. But I do not find it to be exceptional. Armed forces commander are in their 50s in most countries," Terras said.

Rainer Järvela, head of the reserve service department of the Defense Resources Agency, said that EDF commanders aren't designated for a wartime position after they leave service.

"There is no such position. And, of course, it would be difficult to give them a lower-ranking position after serving as chief."

At the same time, former EDF commanders have the duty to serve in the Defense Forces until they turn 61.

"Therefore, should the EDF develop a need for their know-how or skills, they can still be made use of," Järvela added.

The same logic applies starting from the rank of brigadier general. In other words, top-ranking positions are always filled with active EDF members, and high-ranking officers who used to hold these posts but have moved into the reserve will be recalled by the defense chief when necessary.

However, this creates the problem of the EDF losing experienced personnel, security expert and reserve officer Ilmar Raag said.

"Estonia has quite a few generals in reserve whose current benefit for the EDF or role in a crisis are unclear," he suggested.

Riho Terras said that while the generals' know-how is not lost for the Defense Forces, Estonia could mull what to do about generals in reserve, adding that he does not see a suitable place from an ex-EDF commander in the reserve structure presently. "Perhaps it could be done for a special purpose. Perhaps they could be in charge of a region or something like that. It needs more thought," he said.

Ilmar Raag pointed out that lower-ranking positions might not sit well with people who have been at the top. "This has undoubtedly created a situation where we have several generals who could be of use but might not always be able to work together."

Terras agreed, suggesting that a position going to a particular person instead of someone else always creates bad blood. "It is an inevitability," he said.

Raag: Defense Forces should make use of people for longer

On the other hand, age matters. After turning 61, even generals are dropped from the reserve. While this may have been sensible 30 years ago, the fact that people live longer and healthier these days means that older people can do more, Raag suggested.

"The EDF is also impacted by general demographic trends. There are fewer people. If we put these two tendencies together, we realize that we should use people that we have spent a lot of money and a long time training for longer," Raag found.

Raising the age limit could help, while reserve service should be as flexible as possible, the expert said.

But Riho Terras found that the age cap of 61 years should stay in place.

"The office of the EDF commander is very intense. A lot needs to be done. And the older you are, the less strength you tend to have," the former chief of defense remarked.

It has also been suggested that Estonian reserve generals could be useful in NATO structures. Terras emphasized that this is not that simple.

"Active service officers serve in NATO. These are a few select positions picked by the Estonian state /.../ There certainly isn't a situation where someone is waiting for Estonian generals so that as soon as you are free here, you have a place in NATO. That definitely does not exist," said Terras.

Therefore, a general looking for a new position will generally have to choose mainly from the private sector – for example, working in a defense industry company – or entering politics. In the latter case, there's also a nuance that if a general in reserve is elected to the national parliament or the European Parliament, the military cannot call him back to service in the event of war.

In a situation where the European defense industry needs a major reboot, people with a general's experience can be of great benefit, Raag mentioned.

"The lesson for the West from Ukraine has been that we have reduced our defense industry too much in the meantime. It is now costing us dearly because we cannot support Ukraine as much as there is political will to do so," he said.

Both Terras and Raag noted that people's desires vary, and generals should not be faulted if, after a long career in the service of the state, they wish to do something less intense for a change.

"If you have dedicated 30–40 years to your service, then it's time to step back a bit afterward and maybe write memoirs, books or teach somewhere. I think all these activities are completely legitimate. Or go hunting for moles, as General Herem has occasionally said," said Terras.


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Editor: Marko Tooming, Marcus Turovski

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