In the current complex and constantly evolving security environment, the West has to be ready to face a diversity of threats. While always under pressure to do more, and often with less resources, we find ourselves looking for the most universal solutions. But in certain areas, we must build specific solutions to very specific challenges. One such challenge is the defense of the Baltic region.
One might ask: Why do we need to talk about the defense of the Baltic region again? Because the Baltic region continues to be the spot where Russia might be tempted to test the strength of NATO in a global power competition. We cannot let that happen.
The defense of the Baltic region is based on a mix of national, regional and multilateral — especially NATO’s — efforts. In NATO, major important reforms are underway. We are working toward more high-quality, combat-capable forces at higher readiness, more credible reinforcement, a fully fit-for-purpose command structure, fairer burden-sharing among the allies and increased defense spending, just to name a few. However, not all solutions can be collective — we must also work on filling the gaps at the national and regional level.
First, it is our responsibility to create necessary conditions at home. As a front-line state, we work daily to ensure credible deterrence and defense on the border with Russia.
Our readiness and capabilities on the alliance’s border is our principal contribution to NATO’s common defense. We have been focusing on testing the readiness of the Estonian Defence Forces, including reservists, to quickly show up on an unexpected order and form as a unit. In 2019 we tested it simultaneously with two battalions. I was proud to see that less than 40 hours after the government’s decision to launch the snap exercise, this infantry battalion had moved more than 100 kilometers from the formation location and was ready for battle.
From the regional perspective, one of my main strategic objectives is to fully recognize the Baltic region as a single operational area, and treat it like such.
To achieve it, we must learn to let go some of the authority over our national military forces or even certain political ambitions. We must overcome our fears to achieve success. This requires a significant change of mindset.
In practical terms, firstly it means we need to start conducting regional defense planning. Our current approaches are either too generic — about NATO’s requirements — or too narrow — purely national. What we really need is to look at the sum of military requirements and capabilities of the region. Such planning will result in more purposeful capability development, more rational priorities for the defense budgets and more effectively planned allied reinforcement to the region.
Secondly, we need to ensure a coherent and credible command-and-control system in the Baltics. This can be achieved through a cross-border, higher-level headquarters with a regional responsibility. It would mean divisions with commanding corps headquarters, which would have specific areas of responsibility with affiliated forces, and which would be complemented by national headquarters with territorial or functional responsibilities and territorial defense forces.
As the first major building block on that road, Denmark, Estonia and Latvia established, on the Danish initiative, the Multinational Division North in Latvia this year. This step complements the already existing Multinational Division Northeast and Multinational Corps Northeast, both located in Poland.
This is not about creating additional headquarters in order to look good on paper. It is about putting in place a strong backbone for any meaningful military activity and allied reinforcement in the Baltic region. In addition to forces of the countries who are part of the Multinational Division North, division-level enablers should complement this force package. Enablers could either come from our allies, or the Baltic states could develop those multinationally.
Our regional capability development must support this approach. It is important to recognize that even though we all are investing above 2 percent of our national wealth into defense, our budgets remain limited in real terms. The percentages do not buy military equipment — money does. For Estonia, the price of a missile is the same as for Germany, France or the U.S.
Treating the Baltic region as one operational area will drive more efficiently our capability development. Based on clearly defined needs, we must look at possible regional solutions and joint procurement opportunities.
One example is our effort to find common solutions for the maritime domain, or what we call the 3B Naval Vision 2030+. Taking into account the size of our national navies and defense budgets, alone we cannot achieve much. Through regional cooperation we can ensure minimum requirements for the maritime domain and in support of NATO activities.
All our solutions, be it in the maritime or another domain, must be based on a plug-and-play concept, meaning that we must be able to receive reinforcements. Initial self-defense capability is our priority, but it is only one layer of the regional, multilateral and NATO efforts.
While regional approach has its merits in certain cases, we must also ensure that these efforts are an integrated part of a wider work on strengthening deterrence and defense. We are on the right track. For example, British-led exercise Tractable was a great multilateral opportunity to test the ability to deploy, receive and integrate a battlegroup-sized unit, thereby also supporting wider NATO goals. Next year, the U.S. large-scale exercise Defender 2020 will test reinforcing Europe across the Atlantic, which is a critical requirement in defense of Europe and North America.
To conclude, I see the need to make better use of the regional defense cooperation, in close cooperation with other allies, in order to build militarily credible response options. Having the courage to take a more regional approach and be very open-minded toward the good neighbors will give us more clarity regarding the strategic vision and related responsibilities.
Maj. Gen. Martin Herem is the chief of the Estonian Defence Forces.