From terrorism to cyber-attacks and climate change, the number of threats to Europe's security is on the up – and meeting these challenges is a test of European solidarity and responsibility, writes Estonia's defence minister
Since the Cold War, there has been a proliferation of new threats to peace and security, including terrorism, organised crime, cyber-attacks, energy and food insecurity, climate change, and weapons of mass destruction. Militaries are consequently given ever more assignments that supplement and, sometimes, supplant the conventional tasks they must tackle. Numerous national strategies, as well as European Union and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation documents, have rebalanced in favour of a less military approach to national security, but these changes may have gone too far in some places.
The role of militaries and the utilisation of force have not diminished in the last two decades. While Europe may have been enjoying a Kantian perpetual peace, the world has not become a safer place. In the last decade, global defence expenditures have increased by half, and many regions of the world are seeing increasing geopolitical competition backed by more arms. There is plenty of conventional conflict and unpredictability in Europe's neighbourhood: in the Caucasus, including in Nagorno-Karabagh and Ossetia; in many countries bordering Turkey, an important NATO ally and EU candidate; and, of course, in North Africa, the Gulf and Persia.
Estonia is a small, technology-friendly country that is dependent on outside connections and well integrated into Europe, embodying the strategic bond of European countries. We are vulnerable to a wide range of new dangers, but cannot neglect the strategic realities of conventional military force. Our challenge has been to balance new and traditional threats, which are competing contenders for our resources and attention.
Estonia's approach has been shaped by two recent events. The sharpest experience of the new threat environment came five years ago in April 2007, when Estonia suffered a coordinated and massive attack against government infrastructure, financial service providers and domestic media. These attacks, intended to destabilise the government and foment civil unrest, were conducted over cyberspace. Bits and bytes can therefore take the place of bombs and bullets. However, this is not always the case: the 2008 Russia-Georgia war showed that the use of conventional conflict to further political aims is not dead in Europe. Consequently, the Estonian ministry of defence has come to three conclusions in order to restore balance to these conflicting responsibilities.
First, the military must focus on its core tasks. Militaries are not adept at many of the new tasks that they are asked to perform: building civilian institutions or competing with hackers are tasks that do not dovetail with military culture. Thus cyber-attacks and terrorism are attractive options for our adversaries because they go around the military and neutralise our conventional superiority. These vulnerabilities must be addressed where they lie, either by the part of government or regulator that best knows the area in question, or by the private sector. Areas of society that have never previously entertained national security concerns must do so now.
In Estonia, we have brought large swathes of the civilian sector into the planning and conduct of national security. Our recently adopted national defence strategy includes responsibilities and assignments for most government ministries and many private sector actors. Our defence capability planning used to be a purely military process, but now also guides development for the police and internal security forces, Estonia's foreign service and critical infrastructure. The ministry of defence has also reduced its responsibility where expertise rests elsewhere.
We have gone furthest in the area of cyber security. The ministry of defence has given primary responsibility for this area to the ministry of economic affairs and communications, which can better integrate regulatory, market and security concerns into one approach. We have looked for new institutional solutions, for example by creating a cyber division to our all-volunteer home guard. Should we be subject to another cyber crisis, we will have a large pool of civilian information technology specialists, programmers and hackers to help carry out an effective defence. We have also raised awareness of cyber threats among our citizens, and now begin cyber security education in elementary school.
All of these measures allow the armed forces to focus on their core task. NATO and European militaries excel at conventional combat. Allied interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya were all traditional military successes. We know how to project conventional power in a manner that is legal, humane and effective, causing few casualties. This ability is a major asset in the early 21st century that must be maintained and expanded.
Second, Europe needs more defence integration. The EU as a whole constitutes the world's second largest standing armed force and makes up close to half of global non-United States defence spending. However, much of these resources are duplicated across 27 member states, with 27 sets of service branches and combat specialties. As a result, Europe punches well below its weight, and cannot deter threats to the extent that numbers would suggest. The US military presence in Europe has enabled European countries to delay important reforms. However, the US is now reorienting its stance to deal with the growing strategic importance of Asia. America rightly believes that the greatest stakeholder in peace and security in Europe is Europe itself. Along with the constraints of austerity, pressure is mounting for Europe to rethink how it organises its defence.
Estonia is a strong proponent of pooling and sharing – NATO's concept of 'smart defence' – developing capabilities jointly and avoiding duplication. A good example is NATO's air policing mission in the Baltics: given their size, it would be disproportionate for Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania to develop their own jet fighter capabilities. At the same time, there are plenty fighter aircrafts within NATO. Our allies police our airspace, while we provide logistical and technical support. In turn, we are better able to contribute to international operations.
Estonia has long participated in multinational defence cooperation. This includes conducting joint radar procurements with Finland and participating in the C-17 strategic airlift capability consortium. Along with Latvia and Lithuania, we have a joint naval squadron, air surveillance network and a joint staff officer training college – the Baltic Defence College, where we educate, in English, staff officers and civil servants from 16 nations. In 2011, Estonia was invited to join concrete cooperation projects with NORDEFCO involving Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, and we take part in the EU Nordic-Baltic Battle Group and NATO response force.
Unfortunately, there have been many initiatives that have not been carried out in any meaningful way. Good ideas have been dashed on the rocks of EU-NATO coordination. In the best of times, defence and foreign ministers lacked the political will to go beyond declarations to overcome the frictions of reform, entrenched interests and the resistance of defence establishments to change. We must therefore question whether we will do better in the worst of times. If this is to be the case, it is important that increased cooperation serves not merely as an excuse to cut expenditure but allows us to develop qualitatively and quantitatively superior capabilities.
Third: maintain independent defensive capability. Estonia will also continue to invest in maintaining a robust and independent self-defence. In this decade, we plan to grow the military's professional personnel by nearly one-third. In addition to a professional military, Estonia will maintain compulsory military service. Conscripts receive eight to 11 months of training before joining the reserves or enlisting as professional soldiers. A large reserve pool ensures flexibility and resources for a small country to respond quickly to altering circumstances. Changes to the world happen quickly, while armed forces take decades to develop. Continued investment in our forces allows us to be one of the largest per capita contributors in Afghanistan. The Estonian contingent serves, without caveats, in Helmand Province. We intend to stay in Afghanistan as long as is necessary.
Starting this year, Estonia will spend 2 per cent of its gross domestic product on military defence, one of only a few countries in NATO to meet this important benchmark. This figure is not what a country should spend on its national security as a whole, but what is necessary for military defence. It represents a sense of what is needed for developing new capabilities for defence forces, renewing existing forces, and recruiting and training capable soldiers. European militaries are in need of major new investments into technology, equipment and personnel that will be difficult to afford with less.
Europe will continue to face more, not fewer, security threats, without the ability to free ride or appeal to others for our security. Sufficient defence spending, joint capability development, and focusing the military on conventional tasks while appropriating responsibility for new threats effectively – these are ultimately as critical a test of European solidarity and responsibility as the financial crisis.Mart Laar is Estonia's minister of defence. This article first appeared in PublicServiceEurope.com's sister publication Public Service Review: European Union