The Estonian Defence Forces are part of the national defence system
The Estonian Defence Forces are part of the national defence system
The history of the Estonian military began in 1917. Following the February Revolution, Estonian national units were formed in the Russian tsarist army on the initiative of Estonian national figures and inspired by the Latvian Riflemen. First, on 12 April (25 April, according to the Gregorian calendar) 1917, the 2nd Naval Fortress Regiment of the Peter the Great’s Naval Fortress was formed under the command of Colonel Siegfried Pinding. This date could be considered the birthday of the Estonian military. Tens of thousands of Estonian soldiers from all front-line and home front units in the Imperial Russian Army were formed into Estonian national units. After the Estonian Declaration of Independence on 24 February 1918, these national units were called the Estonian Army. At the same time, however, the Imperial German Army occupied Estonian territory and the national units disbanded. Although these units did not pose a major military threat, their creation brought to Estonian territory thousands of Estonian soldiers who later became the core of the Estonian People’s Force in the Estonian War of Independence. Immediately after the end of the German occupation on 16 November 1918, Estonian military officials and public figures convened and decided to establish the Estonian People’s Force. They initially hoped to gather 25,000 men as volunteers, but by the end of November mobilisation began. On 23 December, the government named Colonel Johan Laidoner as Commander-in-Chief of the forces.
Estonian War of Independence
The Estonian War of Independence, which had begun on 28 November 1918 with the Red Army’s attack on Narva, was the first test for the People’s Force. Initially, the forces had to retreat and suffered great losses. With help from allies, the Red Army’s advance was halted in January 1919, and in the spring the whole of Estonian territory was cleared of the enemy. By the end of May, Pskov had been captured. In the Battle of Cēsis in June 1919, the Germans were crushed, along with the Latvians. The Iron Brigade (Eiserne Brigade) of the German Reich and the Baltic Landeswehr had overthrown the Latvian government and wanted to form a German satellite state in the Baltic states. The Battle of Cēsis, the attack by Estonian forces that reached Riga, and the ceasefire mediated by the military representatives of the Triple Entente [Russia, France and the UK—Ed.] helped the Latvian national government to regain power. After the failed attempt by the Army of the North-west to capture Petrograd in the autumn of 1919, the Estonian People’s Force conducted bloody battles to defend the front line of the Narva River against the Red Army, which had gained strength and launched a counteroffensive. A ceasefire was agreed on 3 January 1920 and the Treaty of Tartu was signed on 2 February. Over the course of the Estonian War of Independence, the People’s Force became a strong and well-equipped army. Nearly 6,500 people were killed in the war and its aftermath. By the end of the war, the People’s Force was made up of nearly 75,000 men. After the war, the number of military personnel was reduced because fewer men were needed in peacetime. Not everyone could be fed and clothed, and the military’s upkeep had to be scaled down. Civilian society also needed men to ensure that the community could function normally.
After the War of Independence, units were formed based on the territorial principle. In the event of mobilisation, every man would have to go back to the unit where he had fought during the war or served afterwards. The Estonian Land Forces were divided into three divisions. The 1st Division, based in Rakvere, was responsible for defence on the Narva front. The 2nd Division was based in Tartu and was in charge of defending south-east Estonia. The 3rd Division, which was based initially in Pärnu and later in Tallinn, controlled units in the counties of Harju, Lääne, Viljandi and Saare. Aside from infantry, the Land Forces had other army branches such as artillery, armoured units (tanks, armoured cars and trains), cavalry, and signals and pioneer units; the aviation branch became the independent Air Force in 1930. Estonian naval forces also controlled fortresses on the coast, along with a powerful coastal artillery force. The most powerful of these was a 305mm gun battery on Aegna, with a range of 38 kilometres.
The military education and training system began to be developed during the War of Independence. In 1923, military education institutions were merged into the Joint Military School (Sõjaväe Ühendatud Õppeasutused), which included the Military School, General Staff Courses (later Higher Military School) and Non-Commissioned Officers’ School. Until 1926, conscription lasted two years, but thereafter it was shortened to 18 months for infantry, cavalry and artillery forces and by the end of 1927 it was cut back to a year. Conscription still lasted a year and a half in the navy and naval fortresses. In the late 1930s, it was extended once more.
As a rule, men served in the unit closest to their home. With the reform of 1928, units were divided into two categories: training and combat. The training units, which included infantry battalions across Estonia, were tasked with training, mobilisation preparations, and the formation of manoeuvre units in the event of mobilisation. Combat units were in a permanent state of combat readiness. Combat units in the Land Forces were the 1st Infantry Regiment in Narva and north-east Estonia, the 7th Infantry Regiment in Võru and south-east Estonia, a cavalry regiment in Tartu, a car and tank regiment in Tallinn and a number of other units. About 7,700 conscripts served in the combat units during the summer. Men who had completed their conscript service were assigned to a permanent high-readiness reserve, which could be called back to active service in the event of a threat without announcing mobilisation. Conscript service and registration in the high-readiness reserve lasted a total of five years. After this, service continued in the reserve forces.
Estonia was a parliamentary republic, which meant that the military was under the command of the Government of the Republic of Estonia and the Minister of War (Minister of Defence from 1929 to 1937) and the forces were led by the Staff of the Armed Forces. In 1934, after Konstantin Päts seized power and declared martial law, he asked Johan Laidoner, the Commander-in-Chief during the War of Independence, to be Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces (Defence Forces until 1937). He led the Estonian Army until Estonia was occupied in 1940. This model of command lived on through the Soviet occupation in the words of a nostalgic song—“Ma tahaksin kodus olla, kui Päts on president ja Laidoner juhatab väge ning maksev on eesti sent” (I want to go home while Päts is still president, and Laidoner heads our forces, and I can pay with Estonian cents)—and also had an effect on the restoration of the national defence systems and Defence Forces.
In 1939, the Estonian Army’s unit strength was 13,000 men and the mobilisation capability of the Estonian forces was calculated to be about 104,000. Just before the outbreak of World War II, the army held back from organising reserve training sessions and announcing a mobilisation, for fear of provoking the Soviet Union. The Estonian Army did not have modern weaponry, armoured equipment or training for mobile warfare against a superior enemy. In September 1939, after the Soviet Union’s demands and prior to entering into the Soviet–Estonian Mutual Assistance Treaty, the Commander-in-Chief gave the order for headquarters and military institutions to prepare for carrying out combat plans and organising mobilisation, giving instructions to division and unit commanders in case the Soviet Union took military action. This did not happen and, by June 1940, when the USSR occupied Estonia, there were even fewer opportunities for resistance due to the Soviet units in the military bases.
Destruction and Resistance
In June 1940, the Estonian military was seemingly preserved as the People’s Force, but in reality, it was controlled by Red Army officers and security officers as well as political leaders recruited from amongst local leftists. They were supposed to distribute political propaganda and report every instance of disobedience or nonconformity. When Estonia was incorporated into the Soviet Union in August 1940, the former Estonian army was definitively cleared of Estonian officers, non-commissioned officers and conscripts, who were deemed anti-Soviet, and reorganised into a two-division territorial rifle corps of the Red Army. From 1940 to 1941, the personnel of the Soviet Union’s state security agency arrested the majority of Estonian high-ranking officers, who were either murdered or taken to prison camps where most of them died soon after.
In the summer of 1941, Estonian officers led some units to seize power in several places before the arrival of the Germans. Battles were waged with the Red Army and armed units of the NKVD (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs). In the autumn of 1944, the government of Otto Tief, which had been formed to pursue the restoration of independence, appointed Jaan Maide as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and promoted him Major-General. Retired Rear Admiral Johan Pitka reorganised armed units, which mainly comprised men that had evaded the Third Reich’s mobilisations. The so-called “Pitka’s Boys” (Pitkapoisid) had several armed conflicts with the Germans and hoisted the Estonian tricolour on top of Pikk Hermann tower, but dispersed afterwards. Armed resistance against occupation and for the restoration of independence continued with the activities of the Forest Brothers (metsavennad). At one point, nearly 15,000 people were hiding in the forests and fighting.
A New Beginning
After the restoration of independence in 1991, the entire Estonian national defence system had to be “reinvented”. Traditions from the previous independence era had a large part in this, at a time when there was a shortage of money and people, as well as of the knowledge and skills required to rebuild the national defence of an independent democratic small state. The Estonian Defence League had been re-established at the beginning of 1990 on the people’s initiative. Immediately after the restoration of independence, the general compulsory duty to serve in the Defence Forces was enforced. In the autumn of 1991 the Headquarters of the Estonian Defence Forces was established, and began forming the Estonian Defence Forces under the command of Ants Laaneots. In December, the formation of the Kuperjanov Infantry Battalion began in Võru. By early 1992, the Defence Forces consisted of only 85 people, and at the end of January the first 100 reservists were called up for a two-month training course. Over a thousand men took part in the first large tactical exercise organised by the Kuperjanov and Kalev infantry battalions at the end of the year in southern Estonia. By this time, the Defence Forces already had 829 conscripts, 84 regular officers and 213 regular non-commissioned officers. Despite there being general compulsory conscription, this principle was not fully implemented for a long time. Until 2001, students were legally exempt from service, and even in later years a large proportion of conscripts did not complete their service. The formation of the Defence Forces and the entire national defence system was not without problems. There was also an opposing belief that Estonia did not need the Defence Forces and that internal security units were sufficient.
In May 1993, the Estonian parliament (Riigikogu) appointed retired US Colonel Aleksander Einseln as Commander of the Estonian Defence Forces; he was given the rank of Major-General by the president. By early 1993, the Defence Forces had five battalions: Kuperjanov Infantry Battalion, Kalev Infantry Battalion, Viru Infantry Battalion, Single Guard Battalion and Air Defence Battalion. In addition, there were a number of standalone companies. In March 1993, the Defence Forces Battle School was founded to train non-commissioned officers and, in October, the Single Signals Battalion was also established. A series of new units followed. Einseln’s order from early 1995 remains symbolic of his controversial term of office as the Commander: he tasked the Defence Forces with launching resistance by any means at any sign of aggression, even if the president or the Riigikogu were unable to declare a state of war according to the procedure provided in the Constitution.
The first automatic weapons were acquired in September 1992, from Romania. However, the real breakthrough in terms of armament came in early 1993, when Estonia entered into a contract with IMI (Israel Military Industries) for the supply of light weapons and other equipment for 12,000 soldiers.
Estonia came close to armed conflict in the summer of 1993, when members of the volunteer formation Läänemaa Vabatahtlike Jäägerkompanii refused to follow orders to relocate to Paldiski and announced they would no longer be subordinate to the Defence Forces. The company then refused to disband and secured their position near Haapsalu in Pullapää. Kuperjanovi Pataljon from southern Estonia was already moved to north, but luckily, the conflict was solved without attacking the disobeying company.
The Defence Forces aimed to start training conscripts in potential wartime units from 1997, but this principle was only put into practice from 2003, when the military exercise Kevadtorm began to be held every year. Participants initially practised working together as a battalion, and later as an infantry brigade. The exercise is a test of maturity for all conscripts about to be assigned to the reserve, and revision of everything the reservists learned during their service.
Since the end of 1991, officers have been trained on courses lasting several months. The current Commander of the Defence Forces, General Riho Terras, graduated from the first such course. A defence college for junior officers operated from 1993 to 1998 as part of the Estonian National Defence and Public Service Academy (now the Estonian Academy of Security Sciences). Many officers received their education in Finland, but others in Germany, the US and Denmark. In 1998, the Estonian National Defence College was established.
International Defence Forces
In 1996, the Riigikogu approved the primary goals of Estonian national defence policy as being based on two complementary and interdependent principles: the development of an independent national defence capability and international military cooperation. Joining NATO’s Partnership for Peace programme in 1994 provided the framework for international cooperation and practical working relations with NATO. Over the course of ten years up to Estonia’s accession to NATO in 2004, the Estonian Defence Forces were able to practise cooperation with the Alliance, while the entire national defence system gained an understanding of how NATO operates.
Starting with the UN peacekeeping mission in Croatia in 1995, Estonian servicemen and women have taken part in many missions for the UN, NATO and the EU, which have provided combat experience and training for working in an international environment. Missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have been the most demanding, and the Estonian Defence Forces sent a unit as the size of a reinforced company as part of the Afghanistan mission. A total of about 3,000 men and women have taken part in foreign missions. Eleven servicemen were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan over the course of more than ten years.
History of the Present
The main service branch of the Estonian Defence Forces is the Estonian Land Forces, which is divided into two infantry brigades. In 2016, the separate headquarters for the Land Forces was disestablished and became part of the main Defence Forces Headquarters. The primary manoeuvre unit of the Defence Forces is the 1st Infantry Brigade, which was formed from the 1st Infantry Regiment in 2003. It includes the Scouts Battalion rapid response unit, comprising professional soldiers and the majority of the units trained in conscript service. The Southern Defence District was reorganised into the 2nd Infantry Brigade in August 2014. The same year, the Logistics Centre of the Estonian Defence Forces was reorganised into the Support Command, which is tasked with supervising logistics, maintenance, accounting of military reserves and the healthcare organisation of the forces.
The Defence Forces’ infrastructure has been rapidly updated in the new millennium. In particular, several modern barracks have been built. In 2001, construction began of the Tapa Army Base, where the 1st Infantry Brigade HQ and the majority of its units, as well as the units of NATO allies deployed to Estonia, are based. In May 2015, the Defence Forces organised a large country-wide military exercise called Siil or Steadfast Javelin to replace of the annual Kevadtorm exercise. More than 13,000 reservists, members of the Defence League, conscripts and active servicemen took part, including 630 soldiers from allied countries.
The Estonian Navy was restored in early 1994. Its home port and naval base is the Miinisadam (Mine Harbour) in Tallinn. The harbour also accommodates vessels from NATO countries. The Estonian Air Force, an independent service branch, was restored the same year. In 2000, the Ämari Air Sovereignty Operations Centre, which is responsible for monitoring airspace, was opened. The first modern radar station with a TPS-77 radar was opened at Kellavere in 2003 and the following year the Ämari radar site came into operation. There are currently five radar stations across the country monitoring Estonian airspace. Since 2014, Ämari has also been the base for aircraft of NATO allies policing Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian airspace.
The Estonian Defence Forces have been built on the principle of a military reserve force: the primary force comprises reserve units with military training in the course of general conscription service. (Some 3,200 reservists a year are trained in this way; the aim is to raise that number to 4,000.) The Estonian Defence Forces are prepared for the military defence of the country. However, they are also part of the national defence system, which means the whole of society is prepared for national defence—it’s the people’s own force, in both the narrow and general sense.
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.