You cannot maintain national defense on a loan

Director of the National Defense Investments Center Kusti Salm.

PHOTO: Raul Mee

Director of the National Defense Investments Center Kusti Salm explains why defense forces vehicles cannot use fuels with bio-additives and talks about the future of arms and wind farms disputes.

Figurately speaking, every Estonian citizen gives you 180 euros a year for a total of €230 million to spend on national defense. How does that responsibility feel?

It is larger than life. The goal is to have every cent bring back more than it does in other fields. Our task is to manufacture defensive capacity and nothing else, such as political comfort.

How much defense money has been spent on things hindsight suggests we didn’t need?

It happens. And yet, we have never senselessly burned money. Questions might arise in situations where tenders fail to attract enough bidders. National defense procurements need to become more attractive to bidders. We need to be better at communicating with the market.

Secondly, we are planning a procurements reform that goes farther than the entire process of creating the defense investments center. The aim is to strip the defense forces of as many non-military tasks as possible. The defense forces has invested enough money to buy a forest harvester in every single major or lt. colonel we have working at the headquarters, and their work hours should be spent on operational planning, tactics, training. Everything that does not require a defense education should be handled by someone else.

Estonia got a good deal on CV90 chassis from Norway three years ago, while it turned out last year that the manufacturer of original spare parts needed to retrofit the vehicles wants an arm and a leg for them. The armored vehicles have spent three years sitting in a hangar, development of armored support capacity has stalled – how do you plan to solve this problem?

That particular tender failed late last year, and we are relieved that it did. It had a host of mistakes and miscalculations on our part. The main reason was that when we started laying down the role of support armored vehicles for the Scouts Battalion, we didn’t have CV90 AFVs yet. This means that many of the plans did not align with wartime needs. Over the past eight months, the defense forces has drawn up an extraordinarily thorough analysis of every machine’s function.

We plan to hold a new procurement toward the end of the year and change functionality parameters to a considerable degree. We will have machines that serve the exact same purpose but will be cheaper and easier to service. We have thoroughly analyzed spare parts to have certainty we can use aftermarket parts that are as good as original parts. We want to invest as little as possible in support vehicles and spend where we can procure more live equipment.

The circus revolving around certification tests of Estonia’s assault rifle tender last year did not look good. Materials that leaked to the press called into question the quality of the rifles, while the public procurements dispute committee ruled against the state in one instance. The confusion culminated in a six-month court battle. Who made a mistake?

A remarkably detailed question. It was the first tender of this magnitude to take place in the open defense market. We escaped with a good scare. But as my European colleagues say, companies fighting for market share is commonplace.

The main consequence for us is that the rifles will arrive six months later than planned. That is the direct effect the process has on national defense. We expect to take delivery of the rifles by the first quarter of next year, while they should have been here already.

MPs Milling and Põlluaas accuse the defense investments center of procuring outdated anti-tank weapons. Let’s get this straight: can the Eurospike system take down a modern Russian main battle tank or not?

It can from the side and the rear, while no modern MBT can be taken out from the front. There are weapons for that, but they cannot be carried on an infantryman’s shoulder. Eurospike is the most widespread anti-tank system in the world and favorably priced at that. Once we have the launchers, we will equip them with cutting edge ammunition.

The EDF will no longer be able to develop new capacity after 2026 if defense spending stays the same. Can Estonia afford to stay on 2 percent of GDP?

I do not share such sentiments as a public servant. We need to make do with 2 percent and we need to continue to develop. We cannot just say that we won’t do it without more money.

Head of the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS) Sven Sakkov says the state should borrow to procure tanks and air defense systems. Do you agree?

As a rule of thumb, the cost of procuring something makes up a third of the total cost associated with it. The rest is spent during that particular capacity’s lifecycle. Taking a loan might help us take the first step, but I cannot see us using loan money to pay for that lifecycle.

What will be the next major national defense procurements?

The next ten-year development plan will be finished around this time next year. It’s a matter of money, but there will definitely be air defense, coastal defense and better equipment for the Defense League.

Will Estonia seize the option of procuring more than 12 units of K9 mobile artillery?

We plan to.

Why are we working with seven countries on developing an unmanned land robot?

During Estonia’s EU presidency, we thought about where we could show initiative and use European funds. Estonia has few people, and every soldier is worth a lot. The less manpower we can spend on doing menial tasks, the more use they can be elsewhere. It is quite likely we will secure €30 million in funding for the project. Estonia’s stake is €600,000 over three years, but we expect to get back ten times that.

If we can finish it and make it successful, then we will definitely make use of it in the EDF. Our units will become considerably more resilient: you do not tire as quickly and can bring more equipment, communications and food with you.

While you’re short on money for weapons, you are expected to be environmentally conscious.

The matter of bio-additives in motor fuel is a brilliant example of how it is possible to have exceptions in legislation. Ours is a reserve army. About two-thirds of our fleet is stored in hangars or parking lots. Most are fueled and have the keys in the ignition at all times. Bio-additive fuel absorbs water and can ruin an engine in six months. It would directly affect Estonia’s rapid response capacity.

There are rumors that the defense ministry cannot keep vetoing the construction of wind farms over the fact they disrupt the work of radars forever. Sooner or later, the state will have to back down and find new solutions if Estonia is to meet its renewable energy obligations. This stands for the need to procure new radars that takes resources away from other things.

For God’s sake, it is not in our interests to torpedo green developments. We want to see the Estonian economy grow. The defense ministry’s solution is the procurement of compensation radars. That expense cannot come out of the defense budget as it would be as good as shutting down two battalions of the 2nd Infantry Brigade. The solution needs to be something else.

The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications is working on whether we can use quota money to buy the radars. Our problem is not with wind farms but the fact early warning capacity suffers. These are national defense risks we just cannot take. Radars cost dozens of millions of euros.