Estonian Updates

This is a short follow-up to my last post, dealing with the current Estonian SNAPEX. In case you haven’t already read that one, I recommend doing so before continuing on with this one.

The expansion of the armed forces include a number of systems I did not mention in the last post, including key upgrades to the personal gear of the infantry men (body armour and night vision), as well as a number of turret-less CV9030 from Norwegian surplus stocks. These will be rebuilt in-country to function in a number of supporting tasks as part of the 1. brigade, such as command vehicles, mortar carriers (either with turreted or portee-mounted heavy mortars), ambulance/MEDEVAC, observer posts, and so forth. A second major batch of Javelins paid for by the US have also now arrived to further boost the anti-vehicle capability.

Noteworthy is the fact that the current expansion have solely been directed towards the ground forces. The air force is still non-existent, and the navy is made up of a number of older patrol craft, most of them having been donated or sold to Estonian from other countries around the Baltic Sea after they had become surplus to their original owners. The pride of the navy is a small but relatively modern force for coastal mine warfare, made up of three ex-UK minehunters of the Sandown-class and a single light minelayer of the Danish Lindormen-class. None of the Estonian vessels feature any kind of modern anti-air or anti-ship armament. The navy is supported by the relatively sizeable maritime component from the border guards, which is also made up of patrol craft that have been acquired mostly in the same way as the navy’s vessels.

Still, this is hardly a problem. The country lack the strategic depth to be able to base tactical aircraft at a safe distance from the frontline, and the navy would only come to play by the time reinforcements and supply convoys start to arrive across the Baltic Sea. While it is certainly true that the Russian Baltic Fleet would try to seal off the battlefield and besige the Baltic states by blocking the sea routes, this would probably happen not in the immediate vicinity of Estonian waters, but further south. There, the main players will be the combined fleets of Poland, Germany and Denmark, coupled with US units. For Estonia to muster a squadron of any meaningful size to have a go at trying to keep the sea lanes open would most likely incur a prohibitively large cost. As such, it is probably safer to invest the limited resources available on the army, who in any case will be the one to try to keep the fight going long enough for NATO to bring in the reinforcements needed.

Is everything nice and fine then? Certainly not. The Estonian forces will always be the underdog, simply due to the small size of the population compared to their eastern neighbor. Despite the recent expansion, there are also a number of key systems that needs to be upgraded, with the artillery park probably being the most acute. The heavier FH70 is still adequate, but no more, while the venerable D-30 122 mm howitzer of Soviet origin is definitely starting to show its age, and is lacking in both range, handling characteristics, and firepower. There is a reason why even the notoriously artillery-heavy Finnish army was prepared to give up a number of their D-30’s (or 122 H 63, as it is known locally, with 63 indicating the year of introduction), and it wasn’t purely about brotherly love. These would certainly need to be replaced by either a self-propelled system or a modern light-weight heavy howitzer such as the BAE M777, and procurement of a heavy self-propelled system is in the plans (curiously enough illustrated by what seems to be a Russian 2S19 Msta-S), with the German PzH 2000 currently entering Lithuanian service being the likely candidate.

When it comes to ground based air defence, there are also obvious deficiencies. The Mistral 3 is a potent weapon, and networking it to the Giraffe should provide the target data needed for added lethality. Still, a modern medium-range system such as the NASAMS would greatly enhance the over all capability against airborne threats by providing a longer reach and a layered air defence setup.

The question of tanks have also been discussed, with the Estonian army currently fielding none and the 2022-plan being void of them. The main battle tank have been the undisputed queen of the battlefield since its introduction, and recent developments to the level of protection (new anti-missile systems, enhanced ceramic/composite as well as reactive armour) have further heightened their lethality. Estonia is a rather flat country, with a fairly large proportion of open fields and farmlands, and as such relatively suitable for tanks to operate in. Still, modern tanks are extremely expensive to operate, and it is questionable if they fit into the prospect of a light mobile force moving quickly from position to position, withering down the adversary while never staying in the same positions long enough for the enemy to bring their whole force to bear on them. I find it questionable whether getting tanks at this point would be called for, especially given that both Poland and the US seems to be ready to dedicate a sizeable force (with today’s standards) of modern tanks on NATO’s northeastern flank. Given Estonia’s limited resources and lack of other key systems, such as the medium ranged surface-to-air missiles discussed above, my impression is that the money would be better spent elsewhere. Otherwise, it is entirely possible that the number of tanks acquired would be too small to make a real impact on the battlefield, while still being large enough to eat up too much of the defence budget.

Back to the snap exercise, it has been enlarged to include over 25,000 members of the Kaitseliit Estonian Defence League volunteer organization (in some sources this is referred to as a separate exercise, but even if so, the two snap exercises are certainly linked). The interesting part is the fact that while it might simply have been a case of logistics, the headquarters wanting to coordinate and/or evaluate one branch at a time, the schedule also fit what could easily be the blueprint for a staggered response to a theoretical threat scenario, where first the regular units are deployed in the field, and if the crisis continues to worsen the Kaitseliit would be called up a few days later.

Thanks to gideonic and redrocket as well as to Ambassador Lauri Lepik and the team behind @estNATO for giving input on the last post and continued development!

Estonia Leads the Way

In the stream of Russian snap drills that have come to be part of the ”new normal”, news broke today of a more surprising snap exercise, held by Kaitsevägi, the Estonian Defence Forces. In a surprise move, Estonia has launched an unannounced exercise involving the whole standing army made up of two infantry brigades, the aptly named 1. and 2. Jalaväebrigaad (est. infantry brigade). The exercise does not include calling up reservists.

What is truly astonishing is the rapid expansion undertaken by the Estonian Defence Forces as a whole. Before the Russian invasion of Crimea the Estonian army consisted of a single light infantry brigade, featuring wheeled transports in the form of the Patria (Sisu) XA-180EST and XA-188 APC as the only vehicles with any kind of armour protection, and while a nice long-term expansion plan had been drawn up already in 2007, little of this had materialised. The Estonian army was a professional force with ample of experience from Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as from UN missions, but it was woefully undersized and lacked key weapons systems and capabilities to be able to defend its homeland from an aggression by a modern mechanized force.

However, everything changed with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and a number of planned procurements shifted into high gear. These included the acquisition of surplus CV9035NL infantry fighting vehicles from the Netherlands (also source of the earlier XA-188) and modern Javelin anti-tank missiles, of which especially the former is a key element in the 1. Jalaväebrigaad’s transformation into a (light) mechanised brigade. The years since have also seen the delivery of the first Mistral M3 short-range air defence missiles, which together with the Saab Giraffe radars they are networked to significantly boosts the integral air defence capability of the 1. Brigade.

Corporal Roman Metsatalu from the Scouts Battalion on a foot patrol in western Baghdad. Estonian Army soldiers served with US Army soldiers from 10th Mountain Division, as part of the Multi-National Corps to secure a 15-kilometer section of road in western Baghdad, during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Source: Wikimdeia Commons/Sgt. David Foley, U.S. Army
The numbers have also grown, with the Kaitseliit (volunteer Defence League, roughly corresponding to the National Guard) receiving a record number of applicants in 2015 and crucially the 2. Jalaväebrigaad being activated in 2014. The brigade might be young, but it traces its roots back to the Estonian War of Independence and the Julius Kuperjanov Partisan Battalion (est. Ülemleitnant Kuperjanovi partisanide pataljon). With the 1. Brigade being formed around the capital of Tallinn in the northern parts of the country, the new brigade is situated in the south-eastern parts of the country, proudly wearing the arms of Livonia and colours of the city of Tartu, opposite the border of Pskov and the Russian 76th Guards Air Assault Division.

Even more importantly, the army has stepped up its training regime, both in size and in complexity. The annual spring exercise of 2014, Kevadtorm 2014, was the largest held in the country up to that date, but was surpassed by the corresponding Siil 2015 exercise the following year. Siil 2015 was not only the biggest Estonian exercise to date, but it was also the first time the whole brigade took to the field to practice as a coherent unit, the first time the artillery battalion fired all their guns as a unit, and the exercise ended with the first time the whole brigade stood at attention together in a magnificent lõpurivistus (literally “finishing alignment”). To these can now be added today’s snap drill, specifically meant to test the ability of the army to respond swiftly to the emergence of a new threat (something one can’t help but feel would be a sorely needed exercise in Finland as well).

While Tallinn might be worried about their eastern neighbour, they are certainly not going to just lay flat in the hope of not provoking the bear. Instead, they are doing the best they can to plug the holes identified in the capabilities of their armed forces. The fact that certain key capabilities, such as air policing, are provided by NATO, means that they seem to be doing quite well with the limited resources they can muster with 2% of the GDP.

The next time anyone tries, Estonia is determined to not give in without a fight.