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Opening speech of the Annual Baltic Conference on Defence (ABCD)

© Vabariigi Presidendi Kantselei


Dear Minister Luik and Minister Cravinho, ladies and gentlemen,

I am very glad that this year’s ABCD is very much about the role reserves and reservists play in our security environment. And that Estonia has a chance to promote our own reserve army and conscription model.

I think it’s necessary to talk more about these things in a world where many Western experts are still used to count only fully-professional soldiers and think of reserve units as second-rate paper tigers.

Or when we still see reputable think-tanks issuing analyses about the defence of Baltic states with statements that the Estonian defence force is made up of only one professional infantry battalion and will therefore be overrun in a couple of days.

No, our real potential is much bigger and has therefore very real implications on how the defence of Estonia and the Baltic states will look like – which is always the main topic of this conference. 

Secondly, our current conscription and reserve model is by today just so impressive and well-functioning that I am a little bit surprised that we have been so modest about it. Because we really do have a hidden jewel here.

Something that we could really be proud of. As proud as the reservists themselves are. Something that in the security and defence community could be what our digital-ID, Skype or e-residency is in the digital community.

But having said that, I am also glad that our defence sector officers and civil servants are more about getting things really done and less about talking loudly about our exploits.  

But let’s get down to what our officers have managed to create. General Veiko-Vello Palm later probably goes more in depth, but for the sake of clarity I’ll sum up our system very shortly. Through general conscription our reserve army annually gets over 3000 new reservists who have received some pretty good and thorough training during eight of eleven months.

We train not just individual soldiering skills, but we produce integral companies, batteries and battalions.

Units where every soldier knows the next man in line. In that way we manage in three to six years to renew our whole war-time structure, which alongside the Defence League volunteers is some 21 000 strong currently.

And it’s not that much about how many conscripts we can train annually, but rather how many reserve units and how quickly we can mobilize and deploy when needed.

Our whole reserve structure – two full-blown infantry brigades, a territorial defence structure amounting (by numbers) to another brigade, all the necessary support units can be mobilized not in weeks or months, but in the matter of just a couple of days.

Not only does our legislation support this, but such is our readiness and mobilization system. Each reservist knows to which war-time unit he or she belongs to and where to assemble in the case they’re called up. And there they have all of their equipment waiting for them, pre-packed unit-by-unit, from rifles and uniforms to trucks, armoured personnel carriers and howitzers. 

I know that foreign observers and Allied officers are often very sceptical of these figures and reaction-times. I wouldn’t probably believe them myself unless I wouldn’t had the chance to witness it with my own eyes. Since 2016 we have each year conducted at least one snap exercise. Where a randomly selected battalion from our war-time structure is called up without any prior notice. And we really see that the first reservists start arriving in four hours or so since the call-up order. And the whole battalion with all their personnel and equipment is fielded in about 24 to 36 hours since the start of the exercise.

Why is this all important and relevant, including in the context of defending NATO’s Baltic flank?

First of all, it’s about reaction speed and readiness. The current size and readiness of the opposing force – the Western Military District of the Russian Federation – is such, that technically they can launch a limited incursion against the Baltic states in a very short timeframe. Reserve forces have traditionally been considered something that need a lot of time to get going and combat-ready. But we cannot have and do not have such a slow system. This is also especially important for me as the supreme commander of national defence. As it is me who has to declare mobilization and state of war in case of deterrence fails. And I can really sleep quite peacefully at night because I know, that when the time should come, then my order of mobilization will be fulfilled in the matter of hours. And that this order will send into combat not poorly trained and poorly armed cannon fodder, but combat ready, fully manned, well-trained citizens whom the Estonian state has given the best chances of first survival and then success. 
Secondly, it’s about the size of the force. We could never field a force this large with purely voluntary and professional service members. But we need to – and can – field much more thanks to our conscription and reserve system. Preparing infantry units is what we are really good at, where we can really combine quality with quantity. In the context of a NATO article 5 operation it’s not infantry units that we first need from our Allies. But rather we need our Allies to pitch in with capabilities and units that will always remain too expensive for us to develop ourselves.

Thirdly, it’s about the quality of our force. Don’t get me wrong – I think that our fully professional officers and NCOs are probably the best in the world. But since there’s relatively few of those who want to devote their whole life to military service, we don’t want to fill rank-and-file positions with them. Not to use them as assistant machine-gunners, but rather as leaders and trainers. Conscription gives our reserve army annually over 3000 of our society´s best and brightest. Most of them are high-school graduates or university students, which means that they learn quickly and adapt quickly. Adapt quickly not only with regular army routines and training, but probably they’ll also adapt quicker with the immense psychological stress that the modern combat field puts on an individual soldier.

And we use our reservists not only to fill up the rank-and-file positions. The reservists are also the ones who will lead all the squads and platoons in our war-time army. We can use their civilian expertise – they operate our UAVs or serve as cyber specialists. Many of our best newspaper reporters and PR-specialists man the strategic communication units of our reserve army. During the corona crisis conscript-paramedics manned the infection-control of the army’s field hospital that was sent to the island of Saaremaa – which in the spring was the hot-spot of the pandemic in Estonia. Their discipline and training was so good that none of them got infected – which unfortunately is something that we couldn’t say for a number of fully professional doctors and nurses in civilian hospitals. Yes, one might ask that will reservists in real combat still be as good as fully professional servicemen? Hopefully we’ll never need to find out. But we have thrown our reserve units against the professional and armed-to-the-teeth eFP units during our exercises – and our British and French allies thought that they were against professionals. This gives confidence – to us and to the reservists themselves.

And here’s also a little strory from one our exercise – a Russian-speaking soldier from Narva had a task to find some German tanks in the wood and group up with them. And you can imagine the reaction back home when he had to tell his grandfather about fighting together with German tanks who this time were on the “friendly” side.

And finally some words about the positive societal impact of conscription and reserve service.

It really does form a firm bond between the army and the society. It makes national defence an issue for everybody. I think that there’s a good reason why we in Estonia have a relatively stable political and societal consensus on spending at least 2% of GDP on defence. Because most people understand that this money goes to equip and train their own sons and daughters. And not for a narrow and detached circle of militants.

Our conscription and reserve service is also an excellent way of feedback to the society on how the army is doing and how the tax-payers´ money is really spent. I personally have a possibility of getting real grass-root feedback from my oldest son. Who was very satisfied with his mandatory conscription duty some 5 years ago. And who was called to one of the snap-exercises two years ago when his logistics battalion was called up. I was able – as a mother, as a taxpayer and as the supreme commander of national defence – to learn that although everything turned out fine in the end, then there was still some personal kit missing and many of the battalion vehicles didn’t start. Things that happen with snap-excercises as sometimes even the battalion commander hears of the exercise later than his reservists. Things that the army cannot hide anymore even it wished and that will therefore be remedied. And we also found out that we probably have the most honest and selfless army logisticians in the world who don’t grab the best and newest equipment for themselves.

But what’s most important – this model of ours grows societal confidence. We have amongst ourselves some 70 000 men and women who have gone through conscription during the last 30 years. We have some 20 000 Defence League volunteers and thousands of reserve officers. These are people who know how to defend themselves and defend Estonia. And who know that Estonia can be defended against overwhelming odds. This is the thing that makes us strong and confident. And that’s a deterrent by itself. It’s very difficult to attack and defeat a nation who’s so confident.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Having said all that I certainly do not imply that Allies should start copying our excellent system. Although there are countries who have re-established conscription over the past years, such as Lithuania and Sweden. No – each country should choose their own system that best suits their needs, geopolitical location and societal trends. Even more, in the case there is a need to quickly reinforce the Baltic region, we would probably have more use of a French, Danish or UK professional battalion than of reservist brigade or division from the same countries. Because such a brigade or division would certainly be bigger and more powerful. But we do understand that the deployment and use of reservists outside your own country has always a much higher societal threshold as it would be with professionals.

But what could and should be studied is the way we have managed to make our readiness and mobilization system so quick and well-functioning. That’s vital regardless if you have a fully professional or a reserve force. And readiness is especially important when it comes to NATO having to reinforce and protect the Baltic Sea region. It’s a really good thing that we now have the NATO Readiness Initiative to improve readiness and reaction times in the Alliance. But in an ideal world there shouldn’t even be a need for that kind of initiatives. As readiness should be a core function and a way-of-life for all our militaries.

I wish you all good thinking on these issues! Thank you!