NATO member Estonia has selected an Israeli weapons system to provide coastal defense capabilities against the Russian naval threat. Israel is selling Estonia an unspecified number of the latest version of its Gabriel anti-ship missile. This model, the Blue Spear, is the result of a 2020 joint development project in which Israel and Singapore developed and marketed Blue Spear, which is based on Gabriel 5, the latest model of the Gabriel missile. The first version of Gabriel appeared in 1973.
Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania (the “Baltic States” that were long part of Russia) are the easternmost members of NATO as well as the smallest. All three have adopted similar defense plans, based on the mobilization of the entire population to keep the Russians fighting for as long as possible until the rest of NATO can show up and put the Russians on the defensive. Each of the three Baltic States has a slightly different approach to dealing with the Russian threat, but together are recognized as leaders in developing innovative defense policies to deal with the Russian threat. This is important because Russia has been resourceful in developing new techniques for attacking and subduing neighbors. Russia has been doing this for centuries and the neighbors are aware of it. The Baltic States, however, have developed defensive plans that seek to use some of the clever Russian plans against them.
Estonia is the easternmost NATO nation and the Baltic state that is ethnically related to Finland, not the other Slavic nations of East Europe. Estonia and Finland speak a similar language and share many cultural characteristics, which has led to some different approaches to wrangling Russians.
Estonia is the Baltic State closest to Russian naval bases and most vulnerable to surprise naval-bombardment and amphibious landing. Estonia needed a new anti-ship missile that would be able to handle the EW (Electronic Warfare) Russia has developed for such attacks while being mobile enough to avoid destruction by Russian missiles or naval gunfire before launching. In other words, Estonia needed a smart missile with plenty of resistance to counter-measures as well as long enough range to be concealed anywhere within Estonia and regularly moved around during peacetime to maintain that concealment.
The Blue Spear has the counter-measures, a very capable guidance system and a range of 300 kilometers. Blue Spear is a 1.3-ton missile that is 5.5 meters (18 feet) long that travels as low as 2.5 meters (8.1 feet) over water while moving at over 800 kilometers an hour. Israel and Finland are already using the Gabriel 5 and Britain is considering purchasing Sea Serpent, a Blue Spear variant to replace Harpoon missiles for its new class of frigates. IAI, the Israeli firm the makes Gabriel, has a joint marketing arrangement with Thales UK to help with export and co-development deals.
Estonia is a special case as far as coast defense is concerned. That’s because Estonia and Finland are two nations with a lot of experience with Russian invasions and cooperating to do so. Until the early 20th century there were serious discussions of Estonia becoming part of Finland but that has faded. The main problem is that Estonia and Finland are separated by a narrow portion of the Baltic Sea. While still major trading partners and frequently providing welcome visitors for each other, Estonia is isolated on the south shore of the Baltic and thus more vulnerable to foreign occupation. Nevertheless, the Estonians and Finns share many of the same attitudes about national defense, which means keeping the Russians out.
The Finns fought the massive Soviet Army to a standstill in 1940 and the Russians never forgot. After World War II Russia decided not to try to make Finland one of its “satellite states” as was the case in most of East Europe. Note that Russian took over these East European countries not so much with military occupation but with political and media manipulation, assisted by violence as needed, to get a pro-Russia government elected, after which there were no more elections. No Russian troops were based in Finland during the Cold War and both nations left each other alone. The Russians had decided that, while they could invade and conquer Finland, it was not worth the price militarily, politically, diplomatically, and so on.
Now, with membership in NATO, Estonia sees an opportunity to do the same thing; scare Russia into staying out. Estonian defense policy is based on organizing the country for total and intimidating resistance to any invasion. Everyone fights and keeps fighting as long as NATO reinforcements are on the way. While military planners agree that it is possible for Russian forces to “overrun Estonia in a few days”, the Estonians point out that overrunning and defeating are two different things. Moreover, nearly half the population lives in the capital (Tallinn) which is an ancient port city and 87 kilometers to the north, across the Baltic, is its Finnish counterpart, Helsinki. The Estonians are aware of Russian developments in EW and Internet hacking. That is one reason why Estonia has created one of the best Internet and communications security capabilities in Europe. Estonia may be small but they know what is important. If the Russians come, the invaders’ bad behavior will be captured and broadcast, one way or another, as close to 24/7 as the Estonians can manage. Russia does not like its bad behavior exposed like that because even a lot of Russians don’t approve of that sort of thing. Broadcast the lies live and the lies lose their power.
The Estonian military forces reflect the total war attitude, but must recruit those forces from a 1.3 million population. The voluntary Eesti Kaitseliit (Estonian Defense League) has 15,000 active members and another 10,000 inactive (in peacetime). The military is based on the same model used by Israel, Switzerland, and Sweden; conscription for a short period and then decades in the trained and armed reserves. There are only 6,500 full-time Estonian troops but 60,000 in the reserves. The Defense League force concentrates on training for irregular warfare and spends more time at it than the average reservist. In wartime, the Defense League and reservists would work closely together to keep the invaders busy and off guard. The biggest problem facing any invader is the fact that nearly half the Estonians live in the capital and its suburbs. The Defense League and reservists understand that Tallinn must become, for as long as needed and at whatever cost, another “Stalingrad” with the Russians being the German invaders who failed to take the city and lost the war because of that. Stalingrad remains a big deal in Russian military history, the city on the Volga River that tied down the invading, and seemingly unstoppable Germans for months until a counterattack inflicted a major defeat in early 1943 that led to a German retreat and ended with Russian troops taking Berlin two years later.
Israel doesn’t have to worry about a larger and formidable neighbor invading, has does have practical experience with what happens when they don’t keep up with military technology. Since the 1970s anti-ship missiles have become the primary means for attacking surface vessels. Israel was the main reason for that trend because they were a prominent victim of a 1967 attack in which Egyptian Komar-class missile boats fired crude Russian Styx missiles that sank the Israeli destroyer Eliat. Many more anti-ship missiles have been designed and put into service since then but the Gabriel has been one of the most successful in combat.
Soon after the successful Styx attack, Israel developed their own anti-ship missile, the Gabriel. The surface-to-surface Gabriel 1 has a range of 20 kilometers, used radar guidance, and in 1973, became the scourge of the Arab navies, sinking nine vessels. This missile has probably had some of the most extensive combat usage in the world, and has performed well. Gabriel 2 and 3 appeared in 1976 with one being an air-launched model with a range of 60 kilometers while the surface-to-surface version was 36 kilometers. Gabriel 4 appeared in 1994 with a range of 200 kilometers. Weight was 960 kg, compared to 430 kg for Gabriel 1. Gabriel has been one of the more capable competitors of the American Harpoon, which appeared in 1977. Gabriel has been exported to 14 countries. Harpoon has been sold to more countries and nearly 8,000 have been built so far, which is more than ten times the Gabriel production. Gabriel survives because it was developed by a country that was constantly under threat of attack and is quicker to modify their weapons to better deal with a threatening neighbor.