The Estonian government is scaling up efforts to develop an export-driven and tech-based defense sector to render companies more internationally competitive.

Estonia's leading defense industry players are using strategic international partnerships to grow sales and market share in niche areas such as cyber-defense software, sensor technologies and so-called "pocket tank" multi-role unmanned ground vehicles (UGV).

Significantly, Estonia's defense industrial policy is delivering a cost-efficient equipment-design and test platform between the Armed Forces (EAF) and companies producing military weapons, materials and advanced software systems.

The defense-industrial strategy implemented by the Ministry of Defense (MoD) enables local industry companies, including Milrem, Defendec and Nordic Armoury, to work with the EAF to develop commercial-scale and market-ready military hardware and software.

Estonia has identified tech-based defense, underpinned by international partnerships, as the optimum route for the country's fledgling defense industry to punch above its weight class globally.

Milrem, an Estonian company that specializes in the development of unmanned infantry-support, multi-role, rough-terrain vehicles, signed a strategic partnership with QinetiQ North America in October to develop a breakthrough UGV.

The joint venture UGV will combine Milrem's THeMIS (Tracked Hybrid Modular Infantry System) with QinetiQ's robotic control technology - the Tactical Robot Controller (TRC) and Robotic Appliqué Kit (RAK).

"Our partnership with QinetiQ is very important for us. It combines QinetiQ's robust control system and Milrem's highly versatile modular vehicle platform to create an ideal solution that adapts to any mission, from logistics support to advanced weapon systems," said Kuldar Väärsi, CEO of Milrem and chairman of Estonia's Defense Industry Association, EDIA.

Milrem's advanced remote control THeMIS UGV platform, which is undergoing multiple field trials run by the EAF, is being developed to operate in reconnaissance, medevac, demining, anti-tank, fire-fighting and weaponized offensive roles in battle zones and in high-risk, rough-terrain environments that can be difficult for troops and conventional infantry vehicles to access safely.

"The fact that the majority of our UGV vehicles' components have been designed and are produced in Estonia is a clear indication of the growing potential of Estonia's defense industry and its technology capability," said Väärsi.

Milrem, said Väärsi, aims to bolster the UGV's global sales potential by developing a product family offering comprehensive battalion-level capacity.

"If one analyzes defense industry demand, we are convinced that UGVs are the next trend in the next 5 to 10 years for military modernization worldwide," Väärsi said.

Milrem ventured into the Asian market in February when it partnered with Singapore Technologies Kinetics (STK) to develop the weaponized THeMIS:ADDER which features the ADDER wireless remote weapon station (RWS), produced by STK, mounted on the vehicle.

"Armed UGVs can dramatically increase the firepower of military units and capably substitute for soldiers in certain tactical situations," said Väärsi.

The MoD and the EDIA are increasing initiatives to encourage Estonian companies to network more with international defense contractors. This process is expected to result in a higher level of foreign equity-linked investments in Estonia's tech-focused defense companies.

The MoD is running a defense industry development project competition that provides financial grants to companies developing products and services targeted at foreign markets.

In 2012, the EDIA created the Estonian Defense and Security Innovation Industry Cluster as the country's elite defense product-innovation, international-networking and export-advisory forum.

The cluster comprises 16 of Estonia's "blue-chip" defense companies, including Baltic Workboats, Baltflex, BHC Laboratory, Bristol Trust, Bytelife Solution, Defendec, Eli, Galvi-Linda, Milrem, Nordic Armoury, Semetron, Skeleton Technologies, Telegrupp, Terramil, Threod Systems, and Toci.

Estonian interest in the US market was highlighted last spring when the MoD and the EDIA cooperated to organize meetings between leading defense company chiefs and US defense industry executives. The initiative, which overlapped a high level trade delegation headed by Estonia's prime minister Taavi Rõivas, was intended to intensify Estonian-US defense industry collaboration.

A number of Estonian companies, including remote surveillance technology specialist Defendec, are mainly targeting international customers in Europe and the United States. The company has secured US Department of Defense contracts to deliver its Smartdec situational awareness system to a number of third-party countries, including Romania, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Colombia.

"Our technologies and systems create completely new opportunities for using wireless data communication sensors to monitor large areas and objects. The technology has essentially limitless application potential," said Jaanus Tamm, CEO of Defendec.