Soldiers from the Maryland Army National Guard's 175th Infantry Regiment conduct ambush section training to members of the Estonian Defence League, in Rutja, Lääne-Viru County, Estonia, Sept. 18, 2023.

Soldiers from the Maryland Army National Guard's 175th Infantry Regiment conduct ambush section training to members of the Estonian Defence League, in Rutja, Lääne-Viru County, Estonia, Sept. 18, 2023. U.S. Army / 1st Sgt. Thaddeus Harrington

Europe’s still spending too little on defense to suit Estonia

Even Tallinn itself is not doing enough, according to a senior defense official who quit in protest.

TALLINN—For more than a year, Estonian officials have been urging counterparts across Europe to bulk up their defenses enough to deter a broader Russian invasion. They see few signs of success.

Europe is “not taking seriously the current situation,” said Marko Mihkelson, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Estonian parliament. He spoke to Defense One during a reporting trip funded by Estonia's defense ministry. “There should be hundreds of billions of euros invested directly into the modernization of military forces.” 

Even Tallinn may not be taking its defense seriously enough, despite being one of the few NATO members that has regularly met the alliance’s goal of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense.

On Tuesday, the permanent secretary at the Estonian Ministry of Defense, Kusti Salm, said he would resign his position over Estonia’s failure to increase munition stockpiles. Salm took up his duties in May 2021, presiding over heavy Estonian military support for Ukraine. 

"If Estonia does not take decisions to increase its ammunition stockpiles, we must take into account that Estonia's defense and security policy is crossing our fingers,” Salm told Estonian media. 

Estonia’s position is borne out by spending trends. While defense spending by NATO countries has generally increased, many countries have a long way to go to rebuild capability after years of divestment. A Europe that had maintained Cold War spending levels, for instance, would have spent an extra $8.6 trillion from 1992 to 2022, McKinsey consultants concluded last year.

Countries that have recently bumped up spending, meanwhile, may not necessarily maintain those levels in the long term. Germany, whose defense budget will hit the 2 percent mark this year, may retreat by 2028 because of budgetary restrictions. 

Disagreements between Germany’s political leaders over its defense budget have even led the government to suggest arms makers make weapons without a contract, with the hope that the German government will eventually buy them, Reuters reported. 

Estonian attempts to focus European defense spending on Ukraine-specific needs have seen only limited success, officials here said. 

In December, the Estonian government called on European countries to commit 0.25 percent of their gross domestic product towards Ukraine’s defense, and laid out a a step-by-step strategy to use that money to supply enough weapons and training to bring Moscow to the negotiating table by inflicting losses at a rate higher than Russia could replenish. 

European capitals have responded positively, but without much solid movement, one Estonian defense official said.

Other Estonian-backed plans, like a European Union effort to send Ukraine one million rounds of 155mm shells between March 2023 and March 2024, have similarly fallen short. The EU provided just half of that amount by the target date—though the bloc should be able to produce two million 155 and 152mm shells by 2026 because of investments in artillery production. Still, that number is only enough to put Europe “on par” with Russia, Politico reported

European spending on defense should be a no-brainer, said Kalev Stoicescu, chairman of the Defence Committee of the Estonian parliament. “We must understand that this is not just a waste of money,” he said, noting the jobs and innovation created by defense investments. 

Salm has made the same argument, including in an interview with Defense One last year. “Investing into defense cannot only be a threat perception story, it also needs to be a story of competitiveness, jobs, innovation, growth experts, new factories,” he said in September 2023. “That generates political support.”

However, defense companies’ disinterest in rapidly increasing production is partially due to European nations failing to pair support for Ukraine with a broader re-armament push, Salm said. 

Even if a country backs a plan to send more 155mm shells to Ukraine, for example, the limited number of artillery systems that many European nations field sends a message to defense manufacturers that any 155mm production increases will be temporary, Salm said. 

France plans to acquire 109 Caesar howitzers by 2026, which will help replace the many Caesar systems sent to Ukraine. Other European nations are not much better. In December of 2022, Germany fielded 105 Panzerhaubitze 2000 howitzers, of which only 36 were operational.  

Russia, by contrast, has as many as 5,000 artillery systems, while Ukraine has had at least 1,600 artillery systems, according to research by think tank CSIS in January 2023. 

And if Russia makes additional gains in Ukraine, the cost of re-arming Europe may be substantially greater than the cost of supplying Ukraine with weapons now, warned Estonia’s defense paper on Ukrainian victory.  

“Ukraine’s victory will come at a fraction of the cost in comparison to the alternative consequences.” the authors wrote.