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Estonia can no longer be taken within just days, says brigadier general

Maj. Gen. Martin Herem.
Maj. Gen. Martin Herem. Source: (Siim Lõvi/ERR)

Though certain areas could be taken from Estonia, a foreign power couldn't occupy all of the country within just days, Brig. Gen. Martin Herem, chief of staff of the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF), told ERR on Wednesday.

According to Herem, the EDF can send 21,000 troops into battle. This is the so-called responsible number, i.e. such a number of soldiers could be equipped with the necessary weapons and ammunition to fend off an enemy attack.

"If we can arm these 21,000 men, we can manage against quite a few things by ourselves. Estonia can't be occupied within days. It's possible that some areas may be taken, but the question becomes if the enemy really wants to go ahead if they face 21,000 men," Herem said.

In the case of actual armed conflict, a lot would depend on the enemy's objective, the general added. Such a situation could be the occupation of part of the country's territory, followed by negotiations, like it has been done in Ukraine. "If the enemy can't establish a clear control line, then they've failed," Herem said.

He went on to say that a build-up of some sort on the other side of the border that may threaten Estonia wouldn't go unnoticed either.

Looking at Russia's 2017 Zapad exercise, the Western countries had concentrated on Belarus, Herem said. "While we can see more. And this isn't just about following their actions in secret, but also about keeping an eye on the public channels, like the press and social media."

Eventually it all depended how the available bits of information were processed and put together.

Comparing Estonia's current military status with that of Georgia and Ukraine at the time they were attacked, Herem pointed out that the situation there had been quite different. "We don't need to mobilize thousands of men and only then start thinking how to distribute them," he said. "In the case of Ukraine, an additional problem was the lack of trust among commanders. We don't have this problem in Estonia. Thanks to our own military education, our culture is homogenous."

Asked whether or not he considered investing 2 percent of the country's GDP in national defense, Herem said he wouldn't want to guess. But what he could say is what the country got for this kind of money.

"At the moment we can't use all this money, because the suppliers can't deliver the ammunition quickly enough. They can't keep up with its production," the general said. "But the procurements have to be made ahead of time. There needs to be ammunition stored in such an amount that it can be made available within hours, and is immediately useful."

Talking about the professionals among the EDF's personnel, Herem said that the size of Estonia's population meant a certain limit to the possible increase of the country's arsenal. For example, a mid-range anti-aircraft weapon system required some 50 professional soldiers to operate, and another 100 reservists to back it up. "Of these systems we'd need four or five," he added. "The number of people who want to become professional soldiers is running out."

Currently the EDF is 40 professionals short, 20 of which would be needed for the Scouts Battalion alone. Though there had been 300 new hires in 2017, 250 had left the EDF. There is a plan to increase the number of Estonia's professional military personnel from currently 3,220 to 3,600, Herem said.

Another issue was the high number of drafted recruits that failed the EDF's medical examination, he added. Adapting procedures will only take them so far, what is really needed is a change of mind both in the way the army deals with its conscription soldiers, and the way military service is seen among Estonia's population.

The tenure of the current Commander of the EDF Gen. Riho Terras ends at the end of 2018, which is why there has been speculation that Martin Herem might replace him. Herem didn't want to comment, but merely pointed out that though the next chief would be appointed out of the ranks of Estonia's generals, it couldn't be assumed this would necessarily have to be him. "I'm just one of many," Herem said.

Editor: Dario Cavegn

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