American input to make Estonia increasingly NATO

Oliver Kund
, reporter
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Photo: Mihkel Maripuu

If all goes according to plan, the millions of Estonian defence structure euros will near term be mainly poured into Ämari, Tapa and Tallinn. In lots of locations, it is US Army who does the building.

«An era is behind us – that was to improve accommodations for recruits. The new era will be under several major slogans and not just one,» says defence ministry vice chancellor for planning Jonatan Vseviov.

The statement carries a bitter-sweet flavour as, since the times the national defence development plan got approved back in 2013, the changes have been tumultuous. Last year, to compensate for increased Russian aggressiveness, the initial US company came to Estonia. For improving accommodations of allies, the government was forced to speedily seek out €40m for four years. To this, early this spring the US Congress added $25m. All of that is to be poured into concrete, in Estonia.  

Yesterday, the government handed USA two-year rights to freely use Defence Forces areas in Ämari, Tapa and central polygon for construction activity in cooperation with defence ministry. This is creating a situation never encountered in Estonia: our new defence infrastructure being built by two states simultaneously, in unprecedented volumes, and largely for joint NATO use.  

The pearl of the effort is Ämari Air-Base. At the moment, Estonian state is busy equipping the existing airfield with an additional €7m complex to sprawl on 6,000 square metres and feature HQ, warehouse and workshop buildings, as well as accommodations for Estonians and allies.

As the structures get completed next year, an engineering corps of the US Army will take over from there. For the $25m, they should build all that remains for to turn Ämari into a regional NATO training centre. What exactly the allies will be building for US taxpayer money has not been decided; however, they do talk about extra hangars, fighter plane parking areas, and fuel storage facility. The agreement is that US armed forces get priority right to use the structures. Regarding the time left over, users are up to Estonia to decide.

The change is a landmark. Built for a four-fighter Baltic air policing mission, Ämari is turned into a hub for NATO air policing to be visited, for training purposes, by fighters from Norway to Poland. Potentially, Finland and Sweden might develop closer links to NATO security network via Ämari.

For the sake of our soon-to-arrive CV90 combat vehicles, as well as to help allies here for training, huge investments also await Defence Forces central polygon. Till 2019, here’s where lion’s share i.e. €30m out of the €40m additionally allocated by government gets invested. Extra land will be purchased to broaden the hazard zone; roads on the polygon will be made tank-proof, concrete shootout positions will be installed, targets built, and shooting ranges lengthened. Not limited to Estonian money, Americans join in investing into the polygon; already, their pioneer units are on location building roads and structures.

Considering that when completed, the central polygon would turn into a popular training area for armoured vehicles and fighters alike, defence ministry hopes for governmental okay for a new Soodla training area created next to the polygon. If that happens, battalion level exercises could be carried out in 2017 by all 44 of Estonian combat vehicles and support machines of like amount. And, while training shootings are in process on central polygon, allied infantry will not need to sit idly by, but may train nearby at Soodla. The two areas would be connected by road, and the latter would be linked to Tapa training centre – the third spot where construction is underway for Estonian and US funds.

By American hands, Tapa gets maintenance training garages, prepositioning warehouses and storages for their heavy equipment. Estonians are busy building new barracks. 

It’s racing with time at Tapa, as all 44 combat vehicles will be arriving in Estonia by 2017. Thereat, the new barracks will play a special role: the ground floor will allow the vehicles to drive inside for classes.

By 2016, the initial 240-place barracks will be completed for the allies. However, should NATO or the USA answer the Baltic plea and send a brigade sized unit, a sharp accommodation issue will again arise. «Should it all happen before infrastructure gets completed, again the temporary containers will be used to live in. These are better inside than it shows outwardly,» said Mr Vseviov.

Meanwhile, construction is also going on in Tallinn to establish a top national defence management centre in Juhkental Quarter near Defence Forces HQ. At the moment, they are renovating a building there for a 50 member NATO staff element to serve as connecting link between Estonia and the alliance.

As a brand new building, by 2017 the area ought to have Estonian Defence Forces air operations centre, its hi-tech interior to be purchased by NATO. The same area will include defence and naval operations command centre. If plans hold, a new defence ministry will stand nearby by 2019. The complex will be fenced in and feature a guarded gate.

Mr Vseviov said the end goal is to arrive at NATO member level where the defence infrastructure is mostly completed and major building projects no longer needed. Vice chancellor believes that as the level is reached by 2019, the share of infrastructure costs in defence budget can come down to six-seven from current 11 percent. That, in turn, will leave more money for enhanced defence capacity – better training and updates to equipment.