How Estonia is Setting the Bar for “Smart defense”

Interview by Vlad Vernygora (February 23, 2012)

In April 2011 Mart Laar became Estonia’s Minister of Defense. For some analysts in the field of Baltic politics, it looked like a somewhat surprising move by the high-profile Estonian statesman. Many questions were asked aloud on whether or not the country’s former Prime Minister – a politician with a distinctly conservative political stance – was going to succeed in his new capacity, a much narrower role compared to what he held before. Almost a year since his appointment to the Defense Ministry, The Baltic Times talked to Dr. Laar about his involvement in framing Estonia’s contemporary defense policy.

NOTE: This interview was conducted shortly before Mart Laar suffered a stroke and was hospitalized on Feb. 18. The Baltic Times wishes him a swift recovery.

Dr. Laar, you have held the post of your country’s Minister of Defense for almost a year. How does it feel for Estonia’s former Prime Minister to concentrate on an important but much narrower field of political activity, compared to what you have been responsible for in the past?

To lead the defense sector in a country that belongs both to NATO and the EU is challenging and I feel very comfortable holding this post. As the prime minister I was responsible for Estonia’s accession to NATO and the development of the Estonian Defense Forces, so I am familiar with the field. Being a long time member of the Estonian Defense League has also helped me understand military thinking. However, the defense field is so large and comprehensive [that] at times [it is] very complicated, but extremely interesting once you get fully into it. In 2010 the Estonian Government approved a comprehensive National Defense Concept, and the new approach is pooling all the efforts of the whole state: it has a scope that extends beyond military defense and also involves international activities, civil sector support for military defense, psychological defense, domestic security, and the consistency of vital services regardless of the threat. In other words, if before defense was only a matter for the Defense Minister, today I need to coordinate my activities with all of the other Estonian ministries. It is challenging and extremely interesting. And above all our current government works as a team – so there is enough work for everyone.

From your point of view, how proactive is Estonia in pursuing its defense policy? In other words, does it possess enough operational capacity to be proactive?

I believe Estonia is a great example of a dedicated and a proactive Ally. Why? In 2012 Estonia’s defense budget is 2 percent of the Gross Domestic Product, an aim all Allies should pursue…. One of the greatest achievements is the recent extension of NATO’s Air Policing operation in the Baltic States for a long-term period. This means that Estonia will not need to develop from scratch an expensive and complex fighter capability. Instead, we are able to focus on other critical capabilities of the Alliance in or out of NATO’s territory. Estonia is still one of the highest per capita contributors to the ISAF mission: we will continue to support the operation as long as requested by the NATO Commanders and needed by the Afghan people. And we should never forget that Estonian troops are fighting without any caveats in the hardest conditions in South Afghanistan. We have never forgotten to pay attention to new threats – Estonia continues to be one of the main advocates of cyber defense in NATO, the EU and the wider international arena. We also actively participate in the main NATO capability development programs, such as Allied Ground Surveillance, Strategic Airlift Capability, etc. I believe Estonia has the immense and already improved operational capacity [needed] to be a reliable and proactive Ally.

Delivering his speech in Tallinn on Jan. 19, 2012, NATO Secretary General Rasmussen praised Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania for being “real providers of security”, specifically underscoring Estonia’s ability to “enhance […] security […] by spending smarter”. Was it your particular goal to get more for less?

Estonia is a small country with limited resources and a conservative fiscal policy. For us it is a logical way of doing things as smartly and cleverly as possible… The biggest and best example of Smart Defense is of course NATO’s Baltic Air Policing operation – a tool already in action that enhances the overall security of the region. In addition, we have the Baltic Defense College in Tartu that educates senior officers of the Baltic States and also from other NATO, EU and partner nations. Estonia would never have the resources to provide quality joint staff officers’ education in the English language, so we have pooled our resources with our closest neighbors in order to get the maximum outcome. Similar multinational cooperation is applied toward the Maritime Forces, procurements – the most recent being the radar procurement together with Finland, which [resulted in] considerable savings – cyber defense, etc. There is a clear political will to further enhance cooperation among the Baltic and Nordic countries and I can predict that soon we will be witnessing many smart and innovative defense solutions around the Baltic Sea.

One of the newest features of NATO’s operational framework is the organization’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Centre of Excellence, which is based in Tallinn. Predictably, during the next NATO Summit in Chicago, it will be presented as one of the examples of the organization’s ‘Smart Defense’ strategy. So far, only ten countries are sponsoring the Centre’s activities. What about the remaining 18 NATO members? Are they not interested?

The Cyber Defense Centre in Tallinn is one of 15 accredited Centres of Excellences of NATO and is closely linked with the Allied Command Transformation. The aim of the Centre is to enhance the capability, cooperation and information sharing among NATO nations and partners in cyber defense by education, research and development, lessons learned and consultations. The Cyber Defense Centre is certainly the best example of Smart Defense in the NATO cyber defense community, and our aim as one of the participating nations and as the Host Nation is to assume a greater role in NATO’s cyber defense capability development. After the Summit in Lisbon only one and half years ago, where the cyber threats were for the first time in the Alliance’s history acknowledged as a dimension of modern conflicts, several new members have joined the Centre. In the next year some additional Allies will join the Centre, as the internal procedures in each member state takes time. I am sure that in a couple of years, in addition to all of the NATO member states, our EU partners, universities, research [centers] and business institutions will have joined the Cyber Defense Centre.

Here is the last question. Dr. Laar, you are a scholar and a politician. How do you manage to combine a non-partisan academic approach with a distinct and very partisan political stance? Is it difficult or rather interesting?

It is interesting. Also, in defense policy, I try to find non-partisan solutions and as of today I have managed to do so. Currently, I am also working on some of my new books (about history) and hoping to get at least two of them published by this year. Writing academic books in addition to my daily work as the Defense Minister is just pure joy for me.