Paper tigers will do little against real threats

To borrow an idea from a recent article: if countries around the Baltic Sea could choose one word to describe their current challenges, it would be “security“. If asked to add a second word, for Estonia and some others it would be “Russia“.

However, while we have a lot in common in this part of the world, the security landscape is quite diverse and therefore views may start to diverge. Each country has had to choose its own path, decide the best defence model and forms of cooperation for itself. For Estonia it has been a quest for a balance between home and collective defence needs, in the context of a constantly evolving NATO.

Danish patrol vessel at sea during exercise BALTOPS 2019.
The Royal Danish Navy Flyvefisken-class patrol vessel HDMS Soloven (P563) anchors in the Baltic Sea during underwater detonations conducted by Norwegian, Belgian and U.S. forces during exercise Baltic Operations (BALTOPS) 2019. BALTOPS is the premier annual maritime-focused NATO exercise in the Baltic Region, marking the 47th year of one of the largest exercises in Northern Europe enhancing flexibility and interoperability among allied and partner nations.
Photo: U.S. Navy photo / Shannon Renfroe

2014– Russia revealed

Russian open aggression in Ukraine in 2014 was a trigger for changes in many Western militaries. For Estonia, unfortunately it confirmed our suspicions. Russia has the means and, quite often, the will to use force in order to achieve its aims.

We know Russia is improving its military capabilities, the important factor is how and what they are doing. Rapid improvement of large-scale precision strike capabilities, active Anti-Access and Area Denial measures, relatively modern land forces, and advanced nuclear weapons are the elements that are familiar to all of us. Readiness, throughout the system, is another critical aspect; it is not only what you have available, but more importantly – how fast.

The combination of these aspects reveals a very thought-through concept. One might think that Russia is preparing for possible (naturally self-initiated) conflicts in the so-called near abroad, even if this might risk a clash with NATO members. Pre-emptive precision strikes and the Anti-Access and Area Denial bubble would decelerate all troop movements deep inside the Alliance’s territory and hinder the operations of highly developed allied air forces. Concurrently, land formations supported by semi-official proxy units, could execute an operation to occupy limited territory in a neighbouring country. Nuclear threat, present from the beginning, is thought to bring opponents to the negotiating table. In addition, work is ongoing to divide country into smaller, relatively independent parts, able to withstand an inevitable punishment in case of military adventure.

We must also keep in mind that for Russia, it is not always about winning in the military sense. A seemingly victorious limited foreign military campaign can bring more important domestic political gains. Or it can be about creating a situation where others cannot win. In addition, we must put these developments into the context of decades-long decline of defence budgets, reduced armies and an ‘out-of-area operations’ mind-set of Western countries.

Estonian reservists at and exercise.
Estonia has both a reserve-based army, trained through compulsory male conscript service, and the voluntary Defence League for territorial defence tasks.
Photo: Kaitsevägi

Solution at the periphery of NATO

A small NATO member with a precarious geographical location – Estonia – faces the dilemma whether to focus solely on territorial defence or to develop small deployable high-tech units, consistent with NATO standards. However, the former does not reflect NATO’s ideal of a modern army and will be of little help to allies if the conflict erupts somewhere else, and the latter would give a very capable force, but comparable in size to a presidential honour guard.

Estonia opted for a combined solution: a reserve-based army, trained through compulsory male conscript service, and the voluntary Defence League for territorial defence tasks. Only a small portion of the Estonian Defence Forces are deployable and capable of all tasks at NATO standards. This compromise has been intentional in order to create a sizeable force that is suitable to carry out its main task – defend Estonia in Estonia.

It turns out that deployability is not the only way to measure the utility of forces. Instead, we must discuss readiness. Units are deemed ready when they possess the required weapons, equipment, and stocks; they are adequately trained, familiar with operational environment and know what their task is. Readiness is also relative – it is determined by the opponent, its capabilities and intentions.

Estonia has focused on two aspects, critical for our model’s credibility: ensuring all units are fully equipped and immediately ready. Through yearly snap exercises, we test the chain of command from the decision in the Estonian government, to the formation of units with reservists. In 2019, we tested it simultaneously with two battalions for the first time. Even though we still have many things to improve, it was impressive to see an infantry battalion 100 kilometres away from its formation location and ready to start live-fire exercise, less than 40 hours after the decision to launch the snap exercise.

Culture of readiness in NATO

Culture of readiness has also become a driving force for the Alliance. As we can rarely choose the crisis we have to face, the only solution is to be ready. Two elements are particularly important in this regard: a credible command and control (C2) structure and realistic exercises.

C2 must be seamless throughout peace, crisis and wartime, with clearly defined responsibilities, supported by affiliated forces and working in close coordination with national HQs. Last year, Denmark, Latvia and Estonia established the Multinational Division North to complement NATO Command and Control. This addition augments the existing Multinational Division North-East and Multinational Corps North-East and forms a coherent regionally focused structure.

Realistic exercises are key to test the actual readiness and familiarize ourselves with the threat and the operational environment. These should always be based on actual plans and test its critical elements, for example reinforcement and integration with national forces. The British exercise Tractable 2019 or the American Defender 2020 (even on a smaller scale due to COVID-19 outbreak) are great examples of exercises that add real military value.

Marines securing a beach.
U.S., Romanian and Spanish Marines secure a beach in Kallaste, Estonia during exercise BALTOPS 2019.
Photo: U.S. Navy photo / Jack D. Aistrup

Estonian Defence Forces have come a long way since re-independence. Despite somewhat different paths in security and defence matters, we have always enjoyed strong support and help from Finland. The Finnish unhesitatingly open approach has ensured that our defence solutions and philosophy are very much alike. Short of being an ally we are closer than just partners.

Writer Veiko-Vello Palm.


Brigadier General Veiko-Vello Palm is the Chief of Staff of the Headquarters of the Estonian Defence Forces. He has completed the 226th National Defence Course.

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