Increasing the number of conscripts hits a glass ceiling

Defense forces commander Major General Martin Herem.

PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu

Interview with defense forces commander Major General Martin Herem.

You should be happy – the defense sector is the only one to avoid the government’s financing cuts. However, the armed forces will not have enough money to buy anything new starting from 2026. Unless the share of GDP will be increased, all development will stop and your successor will be a mere administrator. Doesn’t it make you worry?

No. I am in the exactly same position at present: I am not creating anything new but acting according to the previous plan I helped to draft. The challenge of defending the state with 24,000 citizens is a constant upholding of the system: improving things via training, information systems and attitudes. For example, the question of how many citizens will come and defend the country in case of a threat. The percentage of reservists showing up at the exercises is currently sufficient, because we have overstaffed the units, but the participation could be more active. It doubtlessly depends on the general attitude of the public.

According to polls, half of the people would maintain defense spending at the present level. Does it take another aggression by Russia to make them change their mind?

I would not like to predict that. I can only say that the larger is the resource, the more and better we can perform. But the pool is the same. I think now that the Tallinn-Tartu road should remain two-lane, but the decision was made and millions are invested in it. If we could invest that money in national defense, for instance, we could have the costal defense missile complex like the Polish one. The people supported two political parties, which have said that defense spending should be increased, But this is for the government to decide.

How far are we from procuring the coastal defense missiles?

Financially some 0.1-0.2 percent of GDP away. This would not be Estonia’s resource but it should be viewed as regional measures subordinated to higher-level control. Estonia could procure the system and it would be located in Estonia, but with its 200-kilometer range it would make no difference – it could be stationed in Latvia as well.  This way we would not be able to close the Gulf of Finland, but we would have greater control over the sea than at present.

You discussed the matter with the Latvian minister of defense and the commander of the defense forces this spring. Is a joint procurement of some new equipment realistic?

Yes, I can see an option. First, it requires extra money. If we could form a multiple rocket launcher battalion together with the Latvians, we would have a cheaper battalion with a range of 100 kilometers. We would not find the money in Estonia alone.

The anti-shipping capability I mentioned could be instead a tool of the NATO Corps Northeast, which the countries would pay for, but the corps would decide what to do with it and where. Its resources would stretch from Narva to Gdansk. We now have an opportunity to cooperate with neighbors. Otherwise it could happen that Latvia chooses capability A, Estonia capability B and then we reach the politicians who say that neither capability is necessary.

“To be something more than merely a border signpost, which can be easily overrun, we need heavy weapons capable of stopping enemy armor and largely its massive manpower.” These are the words of Col. Eero Rebo, commander of the 2nd infantry brigade. Will he receive these weapons?

The second brigade will not have armor within the next eight years, according to the present plans, but it will have heavy weapons. An entire artillery battalion has been planned and they should have extra antitank weapons from the Eurospike procurement, which has been approved. Radars should provide better control to air defense. Rebo is already much more than a border post, but he is basically correct, of course.

The minehunters are being updated in Scotland one after the other, but they should be written off due to aging by 2035. What will come next – new minehunters or corvettes as the allies recommend?

We definitely have to combat mines, there is no option. If a ship of an unfriendly nation sails by and dumps something in the sea, it stops our whole economic activity until we are certain whether these objects were mines or old refrigerators. Russia is currently dealing with mines.

Today’s technology allows a single type of vessel perform multiple functions. The Finns are currently building three such ships at an approximate cost of 300-400 million euros. This is probably the same path we should take. We are unlikely to have funds for a stealth corvette, but we could build ships of the same type with Latvia and Lithuania, which would perform various functions. One option is to decide between the three countries what we shall do at sea in wartime. The functions we cannot perform would be covered by the allies.

I have heard that you plan to call the next year’s conscripts to service several weeks later than usually. Why?

Two weeks later – I made the recommendation to the minister of defense. Mainly because the people could complete their examinations and then we can se who could be drafted. Since we draft in July managers with at least secondary education or drivers, we are not presently happy with the selection. Practice also shows that the sooner we catch the citizen the more likely it is that he will compete his service.

While approximately half of the youths drafted used to meet the minimum requirements of the physical performance tests, something changed this year – the share of those passing the test dropped below 30 percent. Are we entering a new era of softies?

I do not have that statistics at hand. I do know that the percentage of those passing the test by the end of basic training has been indeed declining during several years. It is quite low, somewhat lower than 50 percent, but it used to be over 90. We shall send these figures to the Ministry of Culture as feedback. On the other hand this is a sign for us; we have to change out methods. We do not have enough sports instructors, people who could actually train the physique of soldiers. The stress we subject our conscripts to is not excessive.

The number of conscripts should increase to 4,000 by 2022. Are you meeting the timetable?

I shall go and tell the minister that we probably would not achieve it. The figure cannot grow on account of amended medical history or people with criminal record or on account of admitting people with insufficient education. It can only increase if reservists who have completed their service will develop positive attitude among future draftees.  With 4,000 we could cope as far as infrastructure goes, but we would lack professional solders. We could train the conscripts, but it would be quite likely that the platoon commander’s attention would not reach every individual solder. This is a vicious circle – we could recruit more, we need more conscripts who need more professional solders. The next couple of years will probably be a serious challenge. We are making the effort. I believe that we shall meet the target by 2023 or 3024.

Whose fault was it that the small arms procurement happened the way it went? Did the army non-coms who wrote the report to the defense forces commander about the weapons verification process misunderstand something?

I believe so. As a firearms expert I could list the flaws of the weapon, but the process involves more than just the quality of one weapon – these are the cost, the quality, warranties. A firearms expert is not an economist.  The experts on the committee are economists. I personally cannot say that the weapons we are buying are worse in any way.

Is the extent of harm done by Denis Metsavas  know to you by now?

It is known to the army. We have calculated the numerical, documental, intellectual damage. It is har to estimate moral harm done. If some information has been betrayed or sold, we have to calculate the manhours spent on creating it. I do not know the exact amount. The Ministry of Defense should say it.

How is the Metsavas case connected with the desire of the military intelligence to have its powers extended by law for carrying out background checks of personnel?

I would rather say that I would not comment. It would increase the speed of action and simplify cooperation between institutions. I am not saying that the absence of the law would let some traitors go free but it would make it easier to prove guilt. Especially since the Internal Security Service (ISS) has supported the amendment. (The parliament approved on May 29 the bill extending the powers of military intelligence once rejected by the president – Ed.).

The military intelligence also want the powers for covert surveillance of individuals in temporary security zones and performing background checks on them, which the president has not agreed with so far. Does it mean in practice the handling of spies photographing exercises?

Yes, the intelligence people could at least observe from distance what type of car they have. The present situation is very vague. If we face some photograph or drone pilot, we cannot detain him, we have to wait for the ISS. The question arises – how far can I follow him with my eyes? What can we use in court? The specific need, so that we should not bother the ISS with it,  is quite urgent. Especially since we need to report it to them later anyway. But if we have to act fast and the spy slips away, the ISS would be inevitably late. Our own security people could handle such simple matters.

Should Estonia sign the border agreement according to the current line as the ministers of defense want or should we wait for the opportunity to recover the territory according to the Tartu Peace Treaty as your predecessor Riho Terras believes?

I would not say yea or nay. I like more a definite border, a well-defined border with enough legal background to protect it. Now we lack it over the island of Vaindloo where Russia violates our airspace for 20-30 seconds. I consider it a more urgent issue.

But can anyone do something against the violations over Vaindloo? No one would shoot them down. 

Turkey shot down a Russian Sukhoi in an exactly the same situation! Estonia is not Turkey; we do not have such weapons. But I believe that if we had these weapons, the Russians would not fly like that. Besides this is nothing but arrogance. This sector is under the St. Petersburg air traffic control. This is an old mistake which our state should agree upon with Russia so that responsibility for air traffic would match the state border. I would like to ask, what next? Could they fly over the town of Võru next and say that it just happened? I believe that this is an important matter which our state should not tolerate.

The Northern Division was recently formed in cooperation between Estonia, Latvia and Denmark. In effect, should war break out, Estonia’s defense issues would be no longer decided in Estonia, but in the joint HQ in Latvia.  Would that make it easier to control forces?

Yes, across the borders. We are now talking about the Estonian-Latvian border, but if we should come under attack, other borders will become important as well. The main idea is to command the few maneuver units we have together with Latvia plus Denmark’s forces and further allied units. If we are talking about NATO and bi- or trilateral relations within NATO – e.g. the British support to its battlegroup – every Baltic state would like to see something on its territory. But who will say where these forces would be actually applied? The international HQ is the right place to decide that. We may lose something in some matters but we shall ensure that some capabilities come here and will be used in the most effective way. This is militarily ruthless way to think, but we should not keep our last brigades holding some line in Estonia but where they can hurt the enemy most. In the longer perspective this would create the best conditions for maintaining or restoring Estonia’s independence