January 2, 2013

National defence development plan – a step in the right direction

Estonia’s draft new national defence development plan detailing the country’s defence capabilities and activities for the next decade was officially unveiled on December 12. The new development plan reflects contemporary realities and has overcome the bias towards excessively positive economic growth forecasts made four years previously. A slowdown in economic growth over the past four years has eaten away a third of the monies that were to be allocated for the former plan.

14.12.2012, Martin Hurt
Postimees
Estonia’s draft new national defence development plan detailing the country’s defence capabilities and activities for the next decade was officially unveiled on December 12. The new development plan reflects contemporary realities and has overcome the bias towards excessively positive economic growth forecasts made four years previously. A slowdown in economic growth over the past four years has eaten away a third of the monies that were to be allocated for the former plan.
It should therefore be axiomatic that the officials responsible for the development of national defence put forward proposals to proportionally reduce the level of ambition. A truly responsible leader – be it a minister or a general – cannot draw his/her salary for ignoring unpalatable facts. After all, one of the core functions of the national defence structure is to be prepared for extremely adverse contingencies and to make the best decision when faced with difficult choices. No one can guarantee that tough decisions will not have to be taken also in peacetime.
The new development plan has benefitted from a principle that can be summed up in a sentence: the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) have to be fully manned and equipped, so as to ensure national security every day. The ordinary citizen would probably wonder at this point about the self-evidence of the slogan, yet sadly it is not obvious to everyone. The EDF were only some years ago dominated by a few officers who served in various positions and wanted to develop the defence forces out of all proportion to the human and financial resources available in Estonia.
Although the new plan focuses on military defence, it also involves other ministries and agencies that have to fulfil their roles in crisis situations and in wartime. The national defence strategy approved in 2010 stipulates that ‘in wartime, the same authorities and organisations that have the appropriate competence in peacetime shall handle emergency situations.’ The statutes of ministries do not differentiate – and have never differentiated – between wartime and peacetime. If a ministry has a function to fulfil, it must do so regardless of war or peace.
It is the first time that the drafting of a development plan has been driven by the need to plan coordinated activities of the entire nation in wartime without concentrating only on military defence. How will the sustainability of vital services (including stationary specialised medical care, power supply, the functioning of the broadcasting network, water supply and the availability of adequate food supplies) be ensured in wartime? The ordinary citizen does not – and need not – know anything specific about it because there are agencies that should take care of it.
Sadly, however, the ministries have followed the path of least resistance for a long period, ignoring the responsibility to maintain their activities in wartime. The experiences of other states teach us that it might take more than a decade to transform the mentality of a nation. Hence it would be unrealistic to assume that the new development plan has solved all our problems at least on paper, but it does give us cause to expect, for example, the minister of economic affairs and communications, the minister of social affairs and the minister of internal affairs to be able to answer the question of how the most significant activities in their areas of government will be organised in wartime. A minister will not be able to afford an “I don’t know” response anymore because, as usual, the responsibility for any action or inaction under his/her command lies with him/her.
Despite its sizeable defence budget, Estonia’s current defence capability is far from being satisfactory partly because of the management errors committed at the highest level in the past. A telling example of this is the Estonian navy: in 2004 – at the time of the country’s accession to NATO – the navy was the only service that could effectively make a much-needed contribution to the Alliance by providing deployable capabilities, while the army comprising several thousands of men could only have units the size of an infantry platoon on international operations plus a reconnaissance company was occasionally dispatched on missions. Admittedly, the mine countermeasure vessels dating back to the 1950s were replaced with modern ships in the previous decade, but the navy was not furnished with the resources necessary for their further modernisation and manning. Why? Because everyone had to receive their share, be it however small.
In comparison with the previous development plan, the new one has a realistic level of ambition and a clear focus on ensuring the sustainability of existing capabilities as it takes into account the the limits of Estonia’s resources. The new ideology does not propagate hasty recruitment of new personnel, while experienced regular members of the defence forces are leaving at an even more accelerated rate. The goal is rather to improve the service conditions of existing personnel, so as to prevent them from leaving the EDF.
In addition, the equipment that has been acquired must be made operational or be replaced. For the time being, the Jägala Army Base will not be built and tanks and medium-range air defence systems will not be purchased for the simple reason that we have no money and not because we do not need them. This is a sober approach and the only one we can opt for. Our development must be gradual. The new mentality stems from the fact that the development plan has largely been drafted by a new generation of officers who have received higher military education in NATO member states.
Still, conscription continues to be a dogma in Estonia, a dogma that essentially cannot be challenged. We follow the principle of ‘the more conscripts, the better’. Conscription is not even perceived as part of Estonia’s defence capability or as an integral component of the reserve forces anymore. It has become a thing in itself, something like a magic wand. About 2,500 young men were annually conscripted even at peak times of the economic boom.
It is stated in the published version of the now outdated military defence development plan: ‘During the planning period, the annual number of conscripts called up for compulsory military service (currently approximately 2,500) will remain at the same level or slightly increase. Conscription will remain the main resource for manning of reserve units and form a recruiting base for regulars of the defence forces.’ Instead, the economic crunch forced the government to cut the salaries of members of the defence forces as well as officials; significant numbers of officers and NCOs resigned; officials were made redundant; tanks and medium-range air defence systems were not purchased; war reserves were dipped into to provide military training in peacetime; and the construction of critical infrastructure was taken off the agenda. At the same time, the number of conscripts jumped by 700 – they were to man the units that have been axed in the new development plan.
While the number of regular members of the defence forces is also going to be cut (from 4,000 to 3,600), the new plan does not envisage any reductions concerning conscripts. Why? The answer is that conscription is acquiring a religious meaning – we have faith in it, but faith does not always tie in with logical thinking or specific military capabilities. In a situation where the key reason for call-up is to enhance the will of young people to defend their country and to mould them into loyal citizens, we should take the shortening of conscript service under serious consideration. If there is a disconnect between conscription and the military requirements of the EDF, why should there be a link between the length of conscript service and training requirements?
The reorganisation of the command and control system seems to offer only a partial solution. It is unfortunate that the potential benefits of reforming the functions of the General Staff of the EDF and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) have mostly not been capitalised on; the same applies to the elimination of their unhealthy overlaps which have caused a lot of confusion and animosity between the two organisations that should actually strive for the same objectives. This is clearly a sensitive issue that carries many risks, but there is still also much to gain.
On the other hand, it is quite logical to aggregate supply and acquisition functions which are currently fragmented and jointly fulfilled by the defence forces and the MoD. The underlying ideology here is obvious: members of the military have been trained to fight and the armed forces as a whole should focus on fighting. Administrative tasks, legal issues and public procurements should be handed over to experts who need not have military education, but who are nevertheless competent in their own fields. If necessary, the MoD will involve EDF military experts as has been the practice in the past.
Time will tell whether or not Estonia’s defence capability will expand in the future. On the one hand, this will be contingent on the now completed national defence development plan and its quality which it is too early to evaluate as yet. On the other hand, much will also depend on its implementation, i.e. the dedication of politicians, officials and members of the defence forces when implementing the decisions that have been taken. It has often happened that similar plans have been derided and new decisions have immediately been adopted to reverse previous ones. The actions foreseen in the new plan and the arguments justifying them are currently being introduced to the public. The minister of defence and the chief of defence have to provide consistent leadership to follow up on the decision taken by the government to implement the new plan. In the meantime, let us wish both of them good luck and determination in their pursuits.

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