May 30, 2017

Springs Are Stormy in Estonia


An overview of military exercise Springstorm.

On May 23-24, for the first time in modern Estonian history, a military exercise featured a simulated battle involving main battle tanks on both sides. At the Estonian Defence Forces (EDF) Main Training Area, units under the command of the 1st Estonian Infantry Brigade faced troops subordinated to the 2nd Estonian Infantry Brigade. Both forces included soldiers and equipment from a number of Estonia’s NATO and EU allies, including Challenger 2 and Leclerc main battle tanks from the British and French armies respectively on one side and German Bundeswehr Leopard 2A6s on the other.

The battle was the culmination of Estonia’s annual Kevadtorm (Spring Storm) exercise, now in its 15th year. The exercise has gone a long way since it was first held in 2003. That year, only 2,300 personnel took part, all of whom – excluding a handful of foreign observers – came solely from the EDF’s own ranks.

By contrast, the 2017 edition was the longest and most international of all. In the course of nearly three weeks, around 9,000 military personnel took part in the exercise, held at various sites in the north and north-east of the country. In addition to Estonia’s own units – which included both regular troops, conscripts and personnel from the volunteer Estonian Defence League – a total of sixteen other nations contributed more than 2,000 personnel to the exercise. They included the whole British-French-Danish battlegroup forming the NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence in Estonia, a 400- strong German armoured unit, an American company rotating in Estonia as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve and infantry companies from Latvia and Lithuania, as well as smaller specialised units from several other nations. Notably the exercise also included pioneers from Finnish Defence Forces, marking the first-ever unit from Estonia’s northern neighbour to participate in an exercise in Estonia. In addition to land forces, it also included an air component with American Apache and Black Hawk helicopters and Polish ground attack aircraft.

By itself this year’s exercise was not the largest ever organised by the Estonian Defence Forces. In 2015 EDF held a large mobilization exercise known as Siil (Hedgehog), which included a large call-up of reservists, and where the number of participants was over 13,000. The exercise was even large enough to require the invitation of observers from other OSCE member states, in accordance with the Vienna Document rules. For next spring another Siil exercise with at least a similar number of participants is planned. This time it will involve the mobilization of a majority of the country’s territorial defence units, which are formed on the basis of Defence League members.

The timing of Spring Storm – which is always held in May – is related to the completion of the annual 8 to 11 month- long EDF conscript training cycle. It enables the soldiers, before they enter the reserve, to exercise operating in larger formations and alongside assets that the EDF does not possess, like allied heavy armour and combat aircraft. The Estonian armed forces remain one of the very few in Europe whose wartime structure is formed on the basis of the reservists trained during conscript service. This allows a country of 1.3 million inhabitants to have a relatively large wartime high readiness reserve structure of 21,000 personnel, with the latest defence development plans foreseeing its further increase.

However, in the initial stages of a conflict, a force structure based on mobilization of reservists would place the military at a disadvantage relative to an opponent that can draw on regular troops in high readiness mode. Therefore, Estonian defence planners are putting a priority on testing readiness and call-up procedures for the reserve structure. Last December the country held its own first ever snap exercise, recalling around 300 reservists to service at short notice. According to reports, further readiness exercises already on a larger scale are being planned.

For Estonia’s NATO allies, exercises like Kevadtorm provide opportunities to operate alongside the host nation’s troops on terrain that is often different from that found at home. An interesting aspect of the exercise is also that, because of the rather limited capacities of Estonia’s military training grounds, large parts of the Spring Storme are held in public spaces, including in many cases on privately owned land. This poses special challenges to the exercise CIMIC teams, but like in previous years, Kevadtorm 2017 again seems to have passed without any significant incidents involving the civilian population.