In the 20 years since Estonia gained independence from the then-Soviet Union, the tiny Baltic nation has been slowly rebuilding its security infrastructure from the ashes left by over five decades of foreign occupation.
Nine years after joining NATO in March 2004—a move that was followed two months later by accession to the European Union—Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are reaping the economic and security benefits such membership affords. All three face continued tension with Russia, however, and are investing in new defense capabilities to maintain NATO and EU commitments.
For Estonia—a country with a population of less than 1.3 million and a gross domestic output of around $22 billion last year—reestablishing a security presence in the region has been slow. But collaborative developments with Scandinavian neighbors to the north, and partnerships with Baltic allies in the south, are helping Tallinn gradually build an infantry, acquire mine-countermeasure vessels and support NATO air policing missions with new long-range surveillance capabilities developed through a bilateral tender with a non-NATO ally, Finland.
“Estonia is very small and doing things alone is difficult,” says Ingvar Parnamae, the country's undersecretary of defense for investments. In March Estonia unveiled the first of two new long-range air defense radar posts as part of an effort to modernize air surveillance assets in support of NATO air policing missions. Previously, two radar stations monitored Estonia's airspace: A TPS-77 at Kallavere, in western Estonia; and an ASR-8 at the recently updated Amari air base near Tallinn.
Produced by ThalesRaytheonSystems (TRS), the two Ground Master 403 (GM 403) radars are part of a bulk order with Helsinki, which purchased 12 GM 403s under a 2009 agreement valued at $36 million, including options.
Situated on Muhu Island in the Baltic Sea off the country's northern coast, the first radar facility was completed in August last year. ThalesRaytheonSystems, a 50/50 joint venture owned byand , is expected to deliver the second GM 403 in November 2014, to be installed at Otepaa in southern Estonia.
“The joint purchase allowed Estonia to effectively buy two radar systems for the price of one,” Parnamae says.
Estonian air force commander Col. Jaak Tarien says the country's GM 403 systems will be connected to NATO's integrated air defense system for coverage in the western half of the country, and can be linked with other air defense radars deployed across Europe.
For example, under a 2010 air situation data exchange agreement with the alliance, “Estonia's radar data will go to Finland and their data will come to the NATO system,” Tarien said.
Arto Raty, Finland's permanent secretary of the nation's defense ministry, says while the cooperative effort was nearly a decade in the making, in the end it proved that NATO's “Smart Defense” effort to promote multinational programs in order to make best use of shrinking defense budgets can work.
“This is a living example of smart procurement,” Raty said during a March ceremony here to inaugurate the GM 403 radar post. “It is something the European nations have been careful to study and take as a reference when they make their own decisions.”
In the meantime, Estonia is putting the finishing touches on its updated Amari air base near Tallinn, an $86-million effort co-financed with NATO that will allow the country to host the alliance's ongoing air policing missions over the Baltic states for periods of up to three months.
In addition, Amari will host two major training exercises this year: The Estonian army's Spring Storm exercise in May will host a squadron of Polish Sukhoi Su-22s, followed by Saber Strike 2013, which will see U.S. A-10s and KC-135 tankers conducting air operations from the base.
In January, Tallinn approved a new 10-year military modernization plan through 2022 that will fund defense at 2% of GDP, or about $430 million per year, 40% of which is devoted to procurement. In addition to the GM 403 radar, the strategy calls for equipping an army battalion with light infantry vehicles, new anti-tank missiles and self-propelled howitzers under a tender expected to be underway by 2016.
“We are building our defense forces from scratch, and in the past on the procurement side we sometimes forgot that besides buying something there are maintenance, operations, personnel and training costs,” Parnamae said. “So we tried to calculate the whole cost of equipment over the lifecycle, and this is new. But it means the list is now shorter, even though the threat picture hasn't changed. The question is, for example, which is more important, to get armored maneuver capability or helicopters? We chose armored maneuver capability.”