By: Warren Gray
Copyright © 2023
“The United States remains steadfastly committed to the freedom
and sovereignty of our Baltic allies…We are committed to Article 5,
you can bet on that…Deterrence is the one key word here.”
— U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin, III,
February 16, 2023, in Tallinn, Estonia.
The Republic of Estonia is a small, strategically-located nation, the northernmost of the three Baltic States, about twice the size of New Hampshire, sharing a 183-mile border on the east with the Russian Federation. It’s surrounded by the Gulf of Finland to the north, the Baltic Sea and Gulf of Riga to the west, and the friendly nation of Latvia to the south. The Estonian Defence (they use the British spelling) Forces (EDF) consist of only 7,200 men and women on active duty, with another 230,000 reservists, to be called up only in a national emergency.
There is also the Estonian Defence League (EDL), an all-volunteer, paramilitary organization, whose aim is to guarantee the preservation of the independence and sovereignty of the state, the integrity of its land area, and its constitutional order, including in the event of military threat, with 15,000 active-duty, reservist members. Furthermore, under the Ministry of the Interior, the Police and Border Guard organization has 6,000 active members, and the very small Police and Border Guard Aviation Group often provides aircraft support to EDF and EDL units, as required.
Estonia gained its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, joined the NATO alliance in 2004, and currently contributes 2.85 percent of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) toward defense spending. This is a higher percentage than most of the 30 NATO nations, except for Greece and the United States, so they clearly take their military defense very seriously.
Since May 2014, Ämari Air Base, Estonia, 18 miles southwest of the capital city of Tallinn, has hosted numerous rotations of the Baltic Air Policing (BAP) mission, which began in Lithuania 10 years earlier. Four Danish F-16AM Fighting Falcons were the first NATO jet fighters to defend Estonian airspace, and currently, a detachment of German EF-2000 Typhoon fighters hands over their BAP responsibilities in April 2023 to British Royal Air Force Typhoon FGR.4s from IX (B) Squadron at RAF Lossiemouth, Scotland.
Estonia is partially protected from Russian invasion by natural barriers, such as the Narva River (48 miles long) in the northeast, with only three road bridges and a railroad bridge between Narva, Estonia, and Ivangorod, Russia, and then Lake Peipus and Lake Pskov in the east, and finally, a 33-mile-wide swath of land near Pechory and Pskov, with only two border-crossing roads in a wooded region of swamps and other wetlands.
Yet despite this, the small country is still particularly vulnerable to Russian aggression, due to its sheer proximity to Russian military forces. Saint Petersburg is only 70 miles from Estonia, surrounded by batteries of very-long-range SA-21B Growler surface-to-air missiles (with 16 launchers each) at Gostilitsky and Vladimirsky Lager, each only about 55 miles from the Estonian border, defended at lower altitudes by SA-22B Greyhound missiles (six vehicles at each location), and a new SA-28 (S-350E Vityaz) missile battery at Voiskovitsy, only 61 miles from Narva, but with a range of 75 miles.
To the southeast, Pskov, Russia, a mere 18 miles across the border, is home for the Russian 76th Guards Air Assault Division’s paratroopers, the 2nd SpetsNaz Brigade of elite commandos, and the 334th Military Transport Aviation Regiment, with at least a dozen Il-76MD Candid-B jet transport aircraft for use by the paratroopers.
Then, just 34 miles south of Pskov is Ostrov Air Base, 44 miles from Estonia by air, hosting the 15th Army Aviation Brigade, formed in 2013, with 12 Ka-52 Alligator attack helicopters, and similar numbers of Mi-28N Havoc-B gunships, Mi-35M1 Hind-E Modified gunships, a few Mi-26M Halo heavy lifters, and some Mi-8MTV-5 Hip-H troop transport helicopters.
Interestingly enough, Ostrov Air Base was secretly infiltrated by Ukrainian Special Forces saboteurs nearly 500 miles from home on October 31, 2022, who planted timed explosives on three helicopters, totally destroying two Ka-52s (at $16m each), and severely damaging another Ka-52 and an Mi-28N ($18m) helicopter. They even released video footage of themselves as proof of the daring incursion, preparing what appeared to be a bomb combining an MD-5M detonator with a VZD-6Ch mechanical fuze, with a six-hour delay mechanism. Did they quietly enter Russia through neighboring Latvia or Estonia? We may never know, but it seems highly likely.
Furthermore, at Luga, 77 miles from Estonia, are the Russian 25th Mechanized Brigade, with 41 tanks, 170 armored personnel carriers, and other equipment, the 9th Artillery Brigade, with various howitzers and rocket launchers, and the 26th Missile Brigade, with 12 SS-26 Stone (Iskander-M) ballistic missiles having a range of up to 310 miles, and either a conventional or optional nuclear warhead.
So, the Russian military threat to tiny Estonia is very real, ever-present, and only a short distance away, and their first line of defense, their very finest unit, is the Estonian Special Operations Force (ESTSOF), formed in Tallinn in August 2014, with the missions of unconventional warfare, special reconnaissance, military support to allied nations, and direct action in combat.
They’re organized into a headquarters, commanded since 2019 by Lieutenant Colonel Margus Kuul (who graduated from U.S. Marine Corps officer training in 2001, the U.S. Special Forces Qualification Course in 2006 as a first lieutenant, and earned the U.S. Bronze Star medal in 2007 as a first lieutenant and reconnaissance battalion officer), and the Special Operations Task Group (SOTG), which plans, prepares, and organizes special operation missions.
All ESTSOF candidates should have at least some military service completed, high proficiency in the Estonian language, and basic proficiency in English, which is the common language of the NATO alliance. The selection phase includes physical fitness testing, swimming, an English test, psychological testing, interview, and an essay. There are very difficult, physical and mental tasks applied, orienteering challenges in the field, and leadership and teamwork applications. Only 15 to 20 percent of all applicants pass the selection phase. Initial training as an ESTSOF operator takes about three years of military skills, NCO training, qualification courses, and other requirements, and it takes about eight years to develop a fully-qualified, seasoned, special operations soldier.
Since 2010, ESTSOF troops have worn mostly MultiCam field uniforms, and the same green berets worn in garrison as the rest of the Estonian Land Forces. A distinctive, ESTSOF patch on their right shoulders identifies them as Special Forces commandos.
Their weapons and equipment include the Glock-19 service pistol (also used by Estonian police, and replacing the EDF-standard H&K USP9), H&K MP7A1 personal-defense weapon (PDW) in 4.6x30mm, HK416A5 carbine in 5.56mm (replacing previous H&K G36K and G36C weapons) with 11-inch barrel, HK417A2 battle rifle in 7.62mm NATO, and H&K MG4 light machine gun in 5.56mm. Estonian sniper rifles include the Sako (Finnish) TRG-42 (since 2007) in .338 Lapua Magnum, and the PGM Hécate II (French, also since 2007) in .50 BMG. Light utility vehicles may include the Mercedes G290GD jeep, acquired from the Netherlands, and Husqvarna (Swedish) 258A MT military motorcycles, although other foreign motorcycles have been employed in combat zones.
There is limited aviation support from the Estonian Air Force, with two PZL (Polish) M28 Skytruck (former C-145A Combat Coyotes from the U.S. Air Force’s 6th Special Operations Squadron) light transport aircraft, donated by the USAF in 2019, and the Police and Border Guard Aviation Group’s three AW139 (Italian-made) utility helicopters at Kuressaare Airport on the Gulf of Riga, near the Baltic Sea, used primarily for border patrol, search-and-rescue operations, medical missions, and supporting the armed forces, as required.
ESTSOF operators have combat or peacekeeping experience in Afghanistan (2012 to 2014), Georgia, Ukraine (2015), Senegal, and Mali (March 2020 to present.) In Mali, they work alongside French Special Forces, Czech and Swedish troops, and Malian security forces in Task Force Takuba, stationed at Gao and assigned to the 4th Light Reconnaissance and Intervention Unit (ULRI) of the Malian Army. The 30 ESTSOF commandos in Mali drive four Supacat (British) Jackal armored vehicles, on loan from the British Army, and a variety of off-road motorcycles, probably supplied by French forces.
Estonia is a NATO nation, and Article 5 of the NATO treaty certainly applies in the event of any hostilities there: “An armed attack against one or more of them (member nations) in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all,” and at any given time, there are approximately 2,000 NATO troops stationed in Estonia on various deployments or rotations.
This currently includes the Queen’s Royal Hussars (QRH, or “Churchill’s Own”) of the British Army, an armored regiment boasting 56 Challenger-2 main battle tanks, and a reconnaissance squadron with eight FV107 Scimitar armored vehicles, at least some of which are deployed to Estonia as part of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) Battlegroup at Tapa, in the north-central region of the country.
Estonian forces of the EDF and ESTSOF regularly train with friendly, international units, particularly from the United States and other NATO nations, and consequently, Estonia has the most-developed national defense and unconventional warfare capabilities of any Baltic state.
In the unlikely but still-possible event of a Russian invasion, the enemy’s only hope is to seize the capital of Tallinn and conquer the nation as swiftly as possible, before additional NATO reinforcements can arrive. The Russians would have to take Tallinn within 72 hours for any hope of success, but they also planned to take Kyiv, Ukraine, the same way last year, totally underestimating the strength of Ukrainian resistance.
But if worse comes to worst, and such an invasion does occur, the ESTSOF commandos, like bold, Baltic knights leading the way into battle, will be at the eastern border immediately, advising and directing the Border Guards, Estonian Land Forces, and Estonian Defence League, establishing well-concealed, anti-tank ambush sites along the few border roads, using American-supplied, FGM-148F Javelin tank-busting missiles (as well as German, Israeli, Spanish, and Swedish anti-tank weapons), and harassing and sabotaging Russian armored convoys every step of the way.
From the southeastern crossing near Pechory, it’s still at least 180 miles to Tallinn, the long and perilous journey across the country, and from the Narva crossing in the northeast, it’s 140 miles or more to Tallinn, headed due west on Highway E20. Either route is long and difficult, so the Russians may choose to drop paratroopers on the capital city as an advance element behind Estonian lines, but that same tactic also failed miserably at Hostomel Airport, near Kyiv, Ukraine, so the current war in Ukraine is teaching both sides valuable lessons about the changing nature of modern warfare.
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Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe (including Eastern Europe) and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, and four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian. You may visit his website at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.