Defense Forces commander to be picked from ten high-ranking officers

Oliver Kund
, reporter
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Photo: Postimees

While the news of Commander of the Defense Forces Riho Terras becoming a four-star general was breaking, defense circles were wondering whether Chief of Staff of the Headquarters of the Defense Forces Martin Herem would move up to the rank of general. Herem is held to be among the likeliest candidates to replace Terras at the head of the armed forces.

Let it be said right away that the subject matter is sensitive for several reasons. Gen. Terras' command will last for another year and eight months in which time he has to perform a number of responsible tasks, like receiving the allied battalion and implementing armored capacity. Several people who talked to Postimees are reluctant to comment publicly in order to give the Defense Forces' brass time.

Postimees has previously written that one of the reasons behind Terras' (49) February promotion are his prospects of continuing his military career abroad.

Generals and colonels

Positions of both EU and NATO military committee chairmen will be vacant in 2018 and are only open to generals. Should Terras succeed in running for either of them, Estonia could need a new commander as early as next summer.

The Ministry of Defense figures that in order to have enough time the process of weighing candidates for the position of Defense Forces commander could be launched this September or October. By then, the armed forces will have completed major summer training exercises and received the joint allied battalion.

The initial recommendation made to Minister of Defense Margus Tsahkna will come from the incumbent commander. Terras has no preferences as of yet. More important than a spotless CV are a leader's capabilities, personal character, authority within the Defense Forces, and the ability to perform duties. Should such a compromise candidate be found, the defense minister will take the proposal to the government and the Riigikogu National Defense Committee.

The commander of the armed forces is usually picked from among generals in active service, even though that does not constitute a rule. «We have that circle – five people. However, we have several excellent candidates who have not yet made the rank of general,» said committee chairman Hannes Hanso.

Hanso is pointing to the fact that another round of promotions is scheduled for February of 2018 that could bestow the rank of general on a number of very capable officers.

Even though Hanso refused to name or rule out any names, Estonia has five generals in active service in addition to Terras: Martin Herem, Artur Tiganik, Indrek Sirel, Igor Schvede, and Commander of the Defense League Meelis Kiili.

Unlike six years ago, none of them have opened up a lead in front of the other candidates for the position of armed forces commander this time.

The election could be subject to various considerations, however. The Estonian defense force will become even more land-oriented in the coming years, courtesy of development of armored maneuver capacity and procurement of mobile artillery, which is why a ground forces officer could be preferred.

Even though no party has drawn any lines in the sand regarding the next commander as of yet, opinions have been voiced according to which the next commander could be free of Soviet/Russian army background. Should this principle prevail, it would hurt the chances of brigadier generals Tiganik and Sirel. It is similarly unlikely Meelis Kiili will be put in charge of the Defense Forces.

The fall of 2017 promises to be a time of great change on the international security arena, which fact could produce entirely new candidates.

Postimees sought the help of military experts to put together a list of ten high-ranking officers whose career so far and personal character could make them suitable candidates. The list is by no means final.

Rumors are thickest around Brig. Gen. Martin Herem who, in addition to his brilliant career, has left the impression of an intelligent officer, quick to learn and sporting good communication skills.  Herem has several competitors among colonels, however, including air force commander Jaak Tarien and headquarters operations department chief Aron Kalmus, as well as brigade commanders Veiko-Vello Palm and Eero Rebo.

«We will have to find a person regarding whom we're certain current initiatives, creating a cyber command etc. will get done,» Hanso said. «We need forceful, convincing, future-oriented approach to add the next layer on what we already have. That is what we expect from the next commander of the armed forces.»

Terras to Europe

Postimees has been told that international support could open up for Terras a path to two high-ranking positions.

June of 2018 will mark the end of the term of office of Czech Gen. Petr Pavel as chairman of the NATO Military Committee. Terras was elected the committee's elder last September, meaning that he is in charge of the committee in the absence of Pavel and his deputy. The committee brings together the defense chiefs of 28 members and communicates their proposals to politicians.

The position of chairman of the EU Military Committee (EUMC) will become vacant in the fall of 2018. The position also requires the rank of a four-star flag officer. The committee is made up of representatives of EU member states' armed forces commanders and is tasked with advising the union's foreign and security policy committee. The EUMC chairman is chosen by commanders of the defense forces of member states, meaning Estonia would need considerable diplomatic support for Terras' candidacy.