Interview with Ilmar Tamm, Brigadier General, Commandant of the Baltic Defence College, Tartu
The European: General, you are the current Commandant of the Baltic Defence College in Tartu, Estonia. Your institution was founded in 1998 by the governments of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, years before these Baltic nations, until 1992 part of the Soviet Union, became members of NATO and later of the EU. What were the political and military objectives behind this foundation?
Ilmar Tamm: Among the multiple political motivations, perhaps the essence of it was perfectly stated by former Estonian President Lennart Meri during the College’s inaugural ceremony on 25th February 1999: “Security is precious, and there is never too much of it”.
The first Commandant of the College, Danish Brigadier General Michael Clemensen persuaded the Baltic States’ military and political leaders to step forward and invest in officers’ education along the lines of western military doctrine and thinking. And from a pragmatic point of view, a joint staff college for all three Baltic states in Estonia was cost effective and made it easier to attract support from allies and partners able to deploy instructors with proper knowledge and experience to dispense education to senior officers and civil servants.
The European: What were the aspirations then in the first courses? Baltic or European or NATO?
Ilmar Tamm: There was indeed a strong aspiration to become members of NATO (and the EU). The decision to conduct education in English and according to western standards helped to pave the way. The good news is that in 2022 there is still substantial international interest in the courses at the Baltic Defence College.
The European: How many nations are you bringing together for the Joint Command and General Staff Course (JCGSC)?
Ilmar Tamm: The JCGSC is designed for senior officers and civil servants. Breakdown by nationality varies annually, but on average, we have slightly more than 60 students from 14 or 15 nations, roughly divided between 75% of officers from the Baltic nations and 25% from other countries. The course aims to provide readiness to cope with command and staff officer’s assignments at operational and joint level. The course lasts from mid-August to mid-June of the following year and is made up of 12 modules.
The European: Could you expand a little on its curriculum?
Ilmar Tamm: The course commences with the principles of leadership and command. With mentoring and guidance by faculty, the students will gradually improve their skills, gain confidence and have opportunities to apply and practice leadership in different circumstances. The course offers deeper insights into regional security and defence, but also security matters relating to migration, non-state actors, cyber, technology and innovation etc. The overriding aim of the curriculum is to prepare officers to comprehend operational level planning and allow them to practice the planning process at Joint Task Force (JTF) Headquarters level.
The European: What is the highlight of such a course in which each individual student has to show profile and skills?
Ilmar Tamm: The course culminates every year in May in the three-week exercise “Joint Resolve” in cooperation with the Polish War Studies University. This is where students have the opportunity to demonstrate their leadership and/or planning skills. The exercise is based on an artificial but rather realistic scenario that triggers the activation of an Article V operation in the Baltic Sea region. Students have assignments within Joint Operation Planning Groups (JOPGs) and are guided by retired flag officers as senior mentors, who play the role of JTF level commanders. As the exercise does not seek a prescriptive school solution, students are required to be creative and reflect reality while applying operational level planning processes.
The European: I understand that this course is at university level. Can students obtain a university degree in cooperation with Baltic or other universities in Europe?
Ilmar Tamm: Our JCGSC students can earn a Master’s degree in Military Leadership and Security with the Latvian National Defence Academy (LNDA). It is an 18-month accredited programme, which requires students to take additional seminars, as well as to write and defend an MA thesis. Enrolment is optional.
The European: You mentioned a study trip programme. Is there any sort of ‘geopolitical strategy’ behind these travels?
Ilmar Tamm: Study trips are meant to facilitate the learning of regional security and defence policy aspects, and how these are turned into military objectives and capabilities at national and organisational level.
The first priority is to understand the regional security and defence policy and the second to comprehend either the wider Baltic Sea area or Europe and NATO/EU institutions and units. Destinations in Europe change every year, but to maintain a systematic approach, the planning cycle of destinations repeats after three years.
The European: And how do the trips fit in to the overriding objectives of the course?
Ilmar Tamm: Two main study trips are scheduled in the programme, one to the Baltic States’ capitals and military installations in the first semester and a second one either to allied or partner countries before the end of the academic year.
For the study trips, students are divided into two or three groups depending on the number of destinations. Groups have to prepare themselves prior to the trip, for instance by analysing the relevant national security and defence policy and military instrument of power.
During the trip students gain insights and ask clarifications from the experts at Ministry of Defence and Headquarters level. To foster public awareness about ongoing trip activities, students help to compile short daily news posts for the College Facebook page and after the trip, groups have to prepare and present their main conclusions to the other groups.
The European: Learning “Allied Joint Operations” is one of the objectives, but what more are you giving?
Ilmar Tamm: In principle, all students are educated in operational level planning, but we give more than that. We want graduates to maintain critical thinking and the ability to adapt to new environments in all functions they will occupy. Gaining experience and constant professional self-development is a life-long process that takes more than 11 months.
The European: How do you handle education about the European Union and create a better understanding of Europe and a feeling of solidarity?
Ilmar Tamm: The role of EU institutions, including security and defence matters, is part of the Security and Strategy module and is partially tackled in the module on Managing of Contemporary Crises. Students have an additional option they can select on Cyber Defence Policy at National and International Levels, which is a one-week specialised EU certified course delivered in cooperation with the European Security and Defence College (ESDC). Considering the main aim of the course, this is a balanced approach to EU matters.
The European: This magazine is promoting a centralised higher military and civil education. Some weeks ago, both of us participated at a conference in Paris on higher European General Staff Education, where France was proposing a concept (see page …).
Ilmar Tamm: More work still needs to be done to identify the learning objectives for a common course, to avoid duplication on topics and subjects that nations are already covering. It could kick off as a working group of higher military education institutions of interested EU members, led by the ESDC in Brussels. This is one of the recommendations of the Paris symposium. From the Baltic Defence College’s perspective, we are willing to contribute to the working group effort.
The European: General, I am grateful for this interview, and wish you every success in your continuing endeavours.