The Spike anti-tank missile by Rafael is among the munitions Estonia has recently purchased from Israeli defense firms.

The Spike anti-tank missile by Rafael is among the munitions Estonia has recently purchased from Israeli defense firms. Rafael

S. Korean, Israeli Defense Firms Are Outpacing Competitors, Estonia Says

A top Defense Ministry official says the non-NATO firms have been faster to deliver as the global hunger for arms rises.

Estonia’s top Defense Ministry civil servant had a blunt message for Western arms makers on Thursday: Shape up, or see Israel and South Korea replace you. 

“Somehow we in the defense sector sometimes think that different rules apply to us,” said Kusti Salm, Permanent Secretary of the Estonian Ministry of Defense. “They don't.” 

Speaking at the Defense One Tech Summit, Salm said Israeli and South Korean firms, which face some challenges their NATO competitors don’t have, have nevertheless provided weapons faster and more cheaply amid a global hunger for weapons and ammunition caused by the Ukraine war. 

“If we want our defense industries to be competitive, then we need to be competitive on the market basis,” he said.

Estonia and its Baltic Sea neighbors have ratcheted up purchases of arms from Israeli and South Korean firms since Russia began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine 16 months ago.

Over the next decade, Estonia plans to spend a total of $14.5 billion on military modernization,   a figure that will increase its defense spending to 3% of annual GDP from 2024 to 2027. 

Many of these weapons come from Israel or South Korea, including self-propelled artillery, loitering munitions, and anti-tank missiles, all systems that are well-represented in the war in Ukraine.

Another $1.1 billion will be spent solely on ammunition. Estonia, like many countries, is rethinking their stockpile needs as Ukraine and Russia collectively burn through tens of thousands of artillery shells a day. 

Poland in particular has gone all-in on weapons from South Korea, buying nearly 1,000 tanks, 600 pieces of artillery, and fighter jets since the start of the war in Ukraine. 

“Europe didn’t have what we need,” said Poland’s Ambassador to NATO, Tomasz Szatkowski, at an interview that aired during Defense One’s Tech Summit on Wednesday. “There is an absolute shortage of spare parts for the systems we do have.” 

Western firms, meanwhile, have complained of numerous obstacles to increasing production, from trouble attracting staff to remote ammunition plants to a lack of machine tools. 

Salm, who previously served as head of defense acquisition in Estonia, isn’t having it. Israeli and South Korean firms are “entering into the markets of European nations with double the obstacles and somehow they can do it,” he said. 

In his talk, Salm also warned of a potential increase in Russian cyberattacks on NATO targets. One main reason that Russia has been relatively restrained in such attacks has been the threat of Western sanctions in response, he said. But the West has in the past 16 months levied just about every sanction it could think of.

“There is nothing to sanction Russia against anymore.” Salm said. “So there is almost no deterrence for them to not use cyber against NATO countries, for example.”