National defence better off without resounding election promises

Oliver Kund
, reporter
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Photo: Tairo Lutter / Postimees

Wonderful with national defence raised to central issue in elections, says Commander of the Defence Forces Major-General Riho Terras. Even so, his advice would be to abstain from expensive and emotional spur-of-the-moment decisions in national defence as Estonian is not in war not even close to one.

The last year was among the hardest, in recent history, for Defence Forces. Why?

This was the most difficult year during my term in office. The Air Force had to accomplish superhuman feats to have Ämari Air Base operation 24/7 before planned date. The Navy had to spend much more time at sea due to NATO decisions and the events in Ukraine. The ground troops had to receive the allied units. Officers at the headquarters participated at NATO exercises way beyond what we had foreseen. All did a wonderful job. In hindsight, 2014 was a good year for the Defence Forces. In my opinion, our national defence capacity rose significantly due to activities our own and these of allies.

In April, you said Estonia may not repeat the confusion of Ukraine: once the first «little green man» crosses the border, he’ll be shot dead. Is this overall principle already employed or do we need to wait for the National Defence Act entering into force in 2016?

Surely, the National Defence Act will be vital to simplify the process. On the other hand, we have taught our servicemen so that even without command from higher up, officers are able to make decisions. Especially the Defence League members need to act fast even when not having orders from above while the situation is like in Ukraine. We will definitely not allow a situation where we have entire units with commanding officers present yet unable to do anything. Military aggression needs to be resisted in any event, be the little man green or non-green. Here, the police naturally plays a large role, but I can say we are ready for that.

A key issue is early warning by military intelligence. Last year, several experts claimed the military intelligence was weak and it was a mistake to have it cut in times past.

During last year, the military intelligence proved they have performed a great leap in development. They showed themselves as a professional organisation which had to do way more than prescribed by plans. As assured to me by several NATO structural units, the timely information by Estonian military intelligence determined many a decision.

No way do I share the opinion that Estonian military intelligence is weak. When it comes to early warning, our intelligence has been diligent and well respected. In counterintelligence there are several steps yet to be taken. The main concern is that we have no people.

The lack of people is the greatest concern at Defence Forces. Not just in the intelligence, but in the Scoutsbattalion, the air base, the headquarters. How large is the shortfall and how do you plan to solve the problem? 

We have set ourselves the goal of increasing by 50 people a year. At the moment, we are more-or-less breaking even, even below that a bit. The young defence army is coming to a point where the first people are retiring. And during large structural reforms, people do leave. Currently, we have a big shortage of majors and lieutenant-colonels. You do not find a lieutenant-colonel in the streets. One needs to serve 20 years to earn the rank.

Is new pay rise needed?

There will be no such drastic step as we did after the recession. The salaries aren’t low, as compared to other fields of life the soldiers earn decent money. We cannot double the soldier wages while teachers make half the money...

In near future, Estonian Defence Forces will probably have no substantial foreign missions, as the Scoutsbattalion has been tasked with participation in the creation of NATO Response Force (NRF). What does that mean for us?

The entire Scoutsbattalion will be participating in NRF preparations for all of 2015. This, for us, is a very large and expensive endeavour. If we are certified and make it into NRF, we will then have to be in readiness the next year. We have no lack of missions at the moment, but these are small. I can imagine that by political decisions, some missions will be added. We can do missions up to a platoon parallel to NRF, if such political task is given; but then there has to be an extraordinary need.

A key word in national defence last year was the differences between you and the former Defence Forces commander, Retired General Ants Laaneots. How come that two national defence strategists have such a differing understanding of how to protect Estonia?

I cannot tell where the understanding comes from. To say that we had expeditious defence districts is obviously an overstatement. The structures were drawn, but there were no people, equipment, armaments, nor technology in them. I call this the hollow army phenomenon where it is structural boxes not soldiers that will need to fight. If we complete the equipment of the 1st Infantry Brigade for the grand «Siil» (Hedgehog) exercises this year, we will have performed a mighty leap in development.

And I have no reason to believe that the Defence League would not be up to par. The Defence League is a very large organisation and able to much more than we have thus far entrusted them with.

The debate might be forgotten, but Mr Laaneots is now a defence policy ideologist at Reform Party in whose opinion the current national defence development plan is faulty. Do you sense the danger that, in the political winds, it might again undergo alterations?

I am ready to discuss that with everyone. If the politicians decide there’s some other plan, well it will have to be done with me or without.

When it comes to Reform Party, its signature is on all these documents. If changes are deemed to be necessary, so be it. I do not intend to enter any political debates; I will just present my proposals to the defence minister and he will present them to the government. If the government will not ratify them, we’ll do our homework all over again.

The parties have chosen national defence as key issue at the elections. Happy over that?

Absolutely, very happy. I’m especially glad that while national defence is at the heart of the debate, the parties do not have too many differences. No-one is trying to fundamentally shake the foundations of national defence like NATO membership, reserve army based on conscription, and 2 percent of GDP for national defence. If these things remain steadfast, our activities have been adequate.

Still, Reform Party programme initially included shortening of conscript service – until it was deleted due to public pressure. While reading the election promises, how often have you been thinking: better if this or the other never ever becomes reality? 

There are definitely the ideas that we can immediately tackle and which will not really cost all that much. Others are relatively costly; these could not be carried out by defence budget alone and thus the parties should allot extra funds.

For instance: larger-scale involvement of citizens in national defence isn’t very expensive; for that, all it takes is Defence League to become a bit more flexible. However, creating an extra professional battalion would come with about €30m of added costs yearly. Should this be on the agenda, we will need to be told what to cut. In my opinion we better not overdo as there is a war situation at currently and it’s nowhere to be seen.

What to think of the Reform Party idea to create an Estonian coastal guard on Defence League basis?

Good ideas. If we had the money and the people, this might be done, but this should be weighed in the next ten years’ development plan. At the moment, we are pushing the existing financial limits with the capacities we currently have.

Coastal guard was definitely on the table while the last plan was in the making, and it was one of the ideas that the Reform Party postponed back then. Therefore, it is right to say: let’s discuss this again when compiling the next development plan.

True, the ranks of the Defence League members have been increasing at double the speed, but to say we’d do it on Defence League basis ... Do we have the people who would daily deal with that? We must do the minimal to do out duty, not tackle the fancy and more costly stuff.

These national defence related election promises of doubtful value seem to crop up because some parties were up to now unaccustomed to think about national defence.  They have no experts. Perhaps, we would need to rid the constitution of the ban on active servicemen to participate in party politics?

No, not good to hurry with that. The decisions regarding railway are done by politicians, but the proposals come from those who know something about railways. That’s how it might be with defence forces as well.

The Defence Forces are developing very fast. The average young officer has been at a military operation, has been in charge personally, is able to take decisions. With every day that he is away from the Defence Forces, his expert capacity vanishes. In the Defence Forces, one needs to be hands on all the time, if one wants to understand what is going on here.

Should Estonia assume loans for the rapid fulfilment of certain goals – like purchasing the self-propelled guns or anti-aircraft complexes?

That’s a good question – but for the defence minister.

Would I agree with faster and more? Well, probably yes; but we still need more people and the infrastructure must keep up. If today I buy the howitzers but they will stand in open air and there are no warehouses for ammunition, this new capacity cannot be quickly put to use. Naturally, mid-range anti-aircraft defence is very important, but it did not make it into the ten year development plan. Back then, we decided we had more need for the infantry and the soldiers for combat, and regarding anti-aircraft we’d rely more on the allies.  If somebody now wants to stick anti-aircraft systems in, the costs would either go over the 2 percent, or something else would have to be cut.

Anti-aircraft is a technically complicated thing and introducing it takes years. We do have an artillery battalion, therefore it is easier to purchase self-propelled guns.

For years, the accommodations for servicemen have been improved and the goal is within sight. Is national defence now ready, when it comes to conscripts?

No. We need to be able to ensure more instructors to deal with the conscripts. These people need better and more modern education, containing more understanding of how to train conscripts. In the future, conscripts must have a minimal amount of such time regarding which they say it’s just killing time. The better the impression left upon conscripts by their superiors, the better the impact on the image and reputation of conscript service, and on participation in reservist trainings.

In addition to NRF and the grand exercises «Siil», what else will the Defence Forces be aiming at, this year? 

We will focus on the air training centre spoken out by Mr Obama, to be located at Ämari. More precisely: on how to use what the Americans give us so that nothing goes wrong. (The US military will place about $25m in the training centre – O. K.)

In addition to that, we will need to keep on developing both the air-to-ground polygon and the armoured troops polygon. I expect the people in Estonia to understand that national defence is a discipline that requires practicing. No polygon has ever hurt anybody and it rather keeps than destroys nature.