Siil 2018: Mobilisation & conscription in the 21st century

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Although most NATO aligned militaries operate on the basis of a professional army, there has been an observable amount of discussion on reinstituting conscription. Examples of this can be seen in France (2018), Lithuania (2015) and in the partner state of Sweden (2017).1. Even in Germany, which abolished conscription in 2011, there is talk about the bringing back the draft, notably by Angela Merkel’s successor as the CDU leader and recent appointee as Defense Minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.4.

However, building a successful reserve army in 2019 is quite unlike the Cold War era conscription based armies of the past, especially when it comes to mobilisation and reserve exercises. In the 21st century it is crucial to take advantage of mediums such as social media and other modern communication platforms to successfully leverage societal support and ensure that the call-up message reaches everyone.

Estonia is among the minority of nations in NATO who have built their defence capabilities on the basis of conscription. The system of relying on a reserve force who during peacetime reside in the civilian sector doing their non-military jobs provides an interesting challenge. Organising large-scale military exercises means that a large amount of manpower has to be pulled out of their daily routines, business trips, and jobs in order to become combatants for the duration of the operation. The way Estonia has accomplished this will be examined in this article through the lens of Siil 2018, a military exercise held throughout 2-14 May 2018.

Backbone organisations of territorial defence

The Siil (“Hedgehog”) exercises are usually held every three years, where they replace the yearly Kevadtorm (Spring Storm) exercises. The main difference between these two is the focus – Kevadtorm tests the combat skills of active duty conscripts, whereas Siil exercises focus on mobilising reserve units of past conscripts who have returned to civilian life. Siil 2018 was the largest military exercise ever held on Estonian soil – over 1% of the total population was under arms during the duration of Siil. The exercise was noteworthy not only due to its size in a NATO-Russia border country, but also due to its nature. In addition to a mobilizing units of the Estonian Defence Force (EDF), this year saw the near-total mobilization of the auxiliary paramilitary force – the Estonian Defence League (EDL).

The EDL is a voluntary military organisation in which civilians form armed territorial defence units, which typically train together on weekends. The EDL is separate and distinct from the EDF, though they have the same equipment and are both under the authority of the Ministry of Defence. One of the main goals of Siil 2018 was to train the mobilisation and formation of the paramilitary force in all territorial regions of Estonia. In addition, the exercise also involved police, border guards, prison services, medical services, etc, or in short – a total national mobilisation to defend the country. 

Mobilising the population

When an exercise is announced, the selected participants are expected to show up at their designated military unit at a given place and time within a specific time period after receiving a mobilisation message (via SMS or email). The system does not rely solely on the patriotism of reservists, but rather it is also a legal obligation. Estonian law mandates a fine of up to 1,200 euros for not showing after being called.5.

In order for this undertaking to be successful, the Estonian Ministry of Defence cooperated with public and private broadcasters, used street posters in public spaces and social media posts, and undertook a large awareness campaign in the months before the operation was scheduled to start. 

As previously mentioned, social media was efficiently leveraged in order to accomplish two main goals. First, a paid campaign was launched on social media to increase awareness of the upcoming event. This was done by utilising sponsored interactive media posts by the MoD/EDF on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. These ads helped useful official information reach the reservist population in a convenient format via their newsfeeds. This approach allowed deeper penetration among audiences who might not regularly check their emails or might have incorrect emails/telephone numbers in the notification system.

Secondly, another, perhaps more interesting approach was also taken – the MoD distributed and made freely available cover photos and profile picture filters for people to use.6. This allowed upcoming participants to signal to their social circles the fact that they were going to participate in the upcoming drills and that they were proud to do so. 

A sample of the facebook cover images made available for use by participants

English translation: My darling awaits me.
English translation: The fatherland calls.
English translation: Can your son do this?

Indeed, this kind of positive reinforcement was used to turn something that could be perceived as a forced interruption in your life into a social and patriotic event. In addition to the social angle, various other incentives were deployed. For example, participants were paid up to 50 euros per day by the state, with employers being encouraged to compensate the rest of the pay gap from their civilian jobs as a way to reward peoples’ contributions to national defence. Others costs, such as part of the traveling fees, were also reimbursed to the reservists. Finally, some private enterprises stepped up to provide benefits – a chain of gas stations gave a 15% discount on coffee and snacks on presentation of the Siil emblem.7. One grocery store discounted cereal bars, which are a popular food source in the field.8.

Controlling the Narrative

Indeed, if one was to look at the main Estonian news portals in the period directly leading up to and during Siil, it would become apparent that the exercise was enthusiastically followed by the rest of the population who did not participate.

This was in part made easier by the creation of a central “media operations center,”9. specially set up to be a space which concentrated both the EDF officials handling PR and reporters from news organizations. This was a win-win situation which enabled the public media to get instantaneous hour-by-hour briefings about course of the exercise, while the military could ensure that any misunderstandings and potentially negative news were quickly resolved before they could cause any public relations damage.

However, not all media coverage was as favorable as the Estonian government could hope. A fiasco unfolded in the neighbouring country of Latvia. Indeed, for the first time the area of operations also included a small portion of Northern Latvia. This fact was seized upon by pro-Russian agitators such as Aleksandr Gaponenko, who claimed, among other things, that Americans were “planning to carry out ethnic cleansing” in Riga”10. and that “NATO would hold a vast military exercise in Latvia in May, and during the exercise American soldiers disguised as Russian-speakers will attempt to instigate disorder in an attempt to pin this on Russia”.11.Ibid. Perhaps most alarming was the claim that “the Americans, together with the Latvian Security Police, will be carrying out arrests of Russian speakers to put them in concentration camps or to execute them.” Shortly thereafter, the Latvian Security Police arrested Gaponenko due to instigating ethnic hatred.12.Ibid.

These claims were made in August 2017, and obviously none of the purported events ever transpired, but they can be seen as one example of the difficulties that have to be dealt with when organising such an event. The Gaponenko incident is a clear example of the type of information warfare ongoing between the Baltic States and Russia, wherein a constant stream of anti-government misinformation with a pro-Russian tilt emerges and has to be countered via various means. 

For Siil 2018, something along these lines was perhaps foreseen, as an information campaign was undertaken by the Estonian Defence Forces in Northern Latvia ahead of the exercise. The local population was informed of the nature of the exercise to avert potential confusion about foreign military units moving in the area and to prevent misinformation from taking hold.

Image result for siil 2018 plakat
A street poster in Latvia, informing the population about the Estonian Defence Forces moving into their territory

Lessons for the Future and a Model to be Emulated

All in all it can be said that the exercise was a success – over 15,000 combatants from 15 countries took part, making it the largest ever military exercise in independent Estonia. This contained not only soldiers from NATO members, but also medics and two armed companies from Sweden and Finland. Ukrainian and Georgian military members participated as staff officers. In addition to ground forces, various aircraft from the US, French, UK and Polish air wings could be seen. Although not as large as other NATO exercises such as Trident Juncture held in October and November of 2018 in Norway, it nonetheless gave important insight into the challenges faced in integrating multiple militaries into a coherent state defence force.

Indeed, this model of rapid unannounced mobilisation model is quite unique in the world; the current Estonian Minister of Defence Jüri Luik has remarked that military observers from other allied nations could not believe that it was possible to assemble an entire reserve battalion within 24 hours without any forewarning.

Observers from other European nations expected this to be at least pre-coordinated, if not staged, but the reality was that even the commander of the battalion heard the news about his unit being called up on the radio.13. The words of the Swiss Chief of Armed Forces shows just how unique this capability is – according to him this kind of ability has been lost almost everywhere in Europe, and that Switzerland is only now regaining it.

All in all, Siil 2018 demonstrated how modern communications technology combined with targeted legislation can be combined to form a society ready to defend its country on extremely short notice, something other nations considering a conscription model might want to take note of.

Erik Markus Kannike

Writer and Editor for the International Review. War Studies at King's College London.
Following MENA and global (geo)political developments.


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