Confidential

ESTSOF: Estonian Special Operations Forces

Estonian Special Forces
(Img; Estonian Special Forces; via ESTSOF on Facebook)

Introduction

Analysis suggests that Estonia has the most developed total defence and unconventional warfare processes and capabilities of any Baltic state [source]. Much of this is due to the Estonian Special Operation Forces; a highly specialised unit responsible for all manner of special operations.

Background/History

Relative to other national Special Operations Forces, Estonia’s formal special operations are relatively new. Estonian Commander of Defence signed a directive to create a Special Operations Force in 2008. As a result, Estonia created the Special Operations Task Group (SOTG). The SOTG operated underneath the Military Intelligence Batallion, primarily tasked with reconnaissance missions.

In 2012, the Estonian government voted for SOTG to become a semi-autonomous unit. As a result, in 2013 SOTG became a separate unit reporting directly into the Commander of the Defence Forces. Finally, in 2014, Estonian Special Operations Force (ESTSOF) was created, and SOTG became a subsidiary unit of ESTOF.

Modern Structure & Leadership

The first commander of the Estonian Special Forces was Colonel Riho Ühtegi. He held the position from 2012 to 2019. In 2019, Ühtegi left the post and became the commander of the Estonian Defence League (Eesti Kaitseliit). The Defence League is a paramilitary organisation that works closely with other Estonian defence organisations and the Estonian government.

The current commander of the Estonian Special Operations Force is Lieutenant Colonel Margus Kuul. Kuul has held this position since 2019.

Estonian Special Forces Personnel
(Img; Estonian Special Forces Personnel; via ESTSOF on Facebook)

Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTP)

Strategic Aims

Estonia’s Special Operation Forces has missions closely aligned to that of NATO SOF Doctrine, including but not limited to [source]:

  • Civil and Military Assistance
  • Strategic and Operational Reconnaissance
  • Cyber Network Operations
  • Direct Action
  • Personnel and Materiel Recovery

Selection

To become an Estonian Special Forces officer, applicants must have completed the mandatory conscription military service, completed secondary education, and have both Estonian and English language skills [source]. Additionally, applicants must not have a criminal record and be able to obtain security clearance as part of the enlistment process.

Little data is available on the selection tests for the Estonian Special Forces. However, the Estonian Defence Authorities stat that tests include:

  • General physical ability
  • Swimming
  • Diving
  • Language capabilities
  • Orienteering
  • Psychological resilience

Training

An Estonian Special Operations operator is hoisted to US Air Force CV-22 Osprey during extraction training
(Img; An Estonian Special Operations operator is hoisted to US Air Force CV-22 Osprey during extraction training; via @US_SOCEUR on Twitter)

ESTSOF officers complete significant training once inducted into the Special Operations Force. The training likely lasts a minimum of 3 years, including personal development, qualification in special operations, and other specialised training [source].

In addition, the Estonian Special Forces as a whole complete ongoing training with international forces, most notably the US SOF [source].

Equipment

Estonian Special Forces are known to use a variety of weaponry, including:

  • HK MP5
  • HK MP7
  • Glock 19
  • HK G36
  • HK 416A5

In February 2021, Margus Kull, the Commander of the Estonian Special Forces, confirmed the force planned to replace older equipment throughout the year [source]. Therefore, the unit will introduce the HK 416 and the Glock 19. He cited ESTSOF’s requirement for accuracy, reliability in unconventional environments, and ease of handling as motivations for this [source].

Paramilitary Support – Estonian Defence League

The Estonian Defence League (Eesti Kaitseliit) is a voluntary and non-political paramilitary force. Formed in 1918, the force works closely with governmental forces. Although not officially a governmental force, the Estonian Defence League supports the Estonian Ministry of Defence and has legal authorisation to hold military exercises and possess military equipment [source].

In its everyday role, the Estonian Defence League support all civil services, including the fire service and police force. However, duties also include supporting the Estonian military and Special Forces where required.

In terms of organisation, the Estonian Defence League has multiple units [source]:

  • Headquarters of League Defence
  • Regional Defence Districts
    • District Units house each of the 15 county-level units
  • Cyber Defence Unit
  • Defence League School
  • Women’s Home Defence
  • Affiliated Youth Organisations

The current commander of the Estonian Defence League is Brigadier General Riho Ühtegi. This is significant as Ühtegi is the former Commander of Estonian Special Operation Forces from 2012 to 2019.

Notable Operations

Task Force Takuba

Task Force Takuba, established in March 2020, is an international force aimed to bring stability to the Sahel region [source]. The force falls underneath Operation Barkhane – a counter-terrorism mission in Liptako-Gourma region. The Task Force includes personnel from France, Czech Republic, and Sweden.

As part of the task force, the Estonian Ministry of Defence sent approximately 30 Estonian Special Forces personnel to Mali [source]. These officers are stationed at Gao and are assigned to the 4th Light Reconnaissance and Intervention Unit (ULRI) of the Malian Army, along with French support. Estonian Special Forces assist with training of Malian forces, as well as provide support to reconnaissance and monitoring operations.  Therefore, Special Forces aim to increase COIN readiness of the host nation.

Afghanistan

Previously, Estonian military personnel were stationed in Afghanistan since 2003. However, the mission required further specialised support. Therefore, Estonia deployed ESTSOF in support.

Estonian Special Forces formed part of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Therefore, from 2012 to 2014, Estonian personnel were stationed to assist with stabilising Afghanistan. Consequently, the missions included providing military assistance and training to the Afghan National Army and local police forces.

Recent Developments

The Estonian Special Operations Forces regularly participate in multinational joint training exercises. Moreover, this includes military, air, and other unconventional operations [source]. Most joint operations are conducted with the US, Baltic States, and relevant NATO allied forces [source].

In its 2026 forecast, the Estonian Military of Defence states that it aims to develop its intelligence and warning functions, as well as cyber capabilities [source]. This is therefore likely to include further development and funding of Estonian Special Forces.

Summary

The Estonian Special Forces are a highly specialised unconventional warfare unit with advanced capabilities. As a result, the unit is well known in the international intelligence community and is often requested to participate in multinational missions.

Author

Abbi Clark

Abbi is a graduate in Chinese Studies from the University of Nottingham, specialising in Asian politics and International Relations. She is currently studying MA Intelligence & Security Studies at Brunel University London. Her research interests focus on geopolitics and modern defense issues.

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