Global Insights: Breaking Down Estonia's Defense AI Landscape

Photo credits: Aastels from Adobe Stock

Estonia stands at a pivotal moment in its defense strategy, as outlined in the “Caught Between Today and Tomorrow: Defence AI in Estonia” study by Tomas Jermalavičius, released by the Defense AI Observatory (DAIO) on December 8, 2023.


Estonia is fully aware of the transformative potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in reshaping its society, economy, and defense sector. The Estonian leadership recognizes AI as not only a force multiplier in defense but also as a catalyst for faster, more effective decision-making and resource allocation. Drawing on its robust track record in cybersecurity and a thriving ecosystem of AI startups, Estonia is keen to participate in collaborative efforts with international partners to advance AI applications in defense.

Defense AI in Estonia is no sure-fire success

Estonia faces a complex set of challenges. It must address significant capability gaps and stockpile munitions within compressed timeframes, driven by concerns over the evolving threat landscape posed by neighboring Russia. Resource limitations and a degree of skepticism within the military toward emerging technologies have relegated investments in defense AI development down the list of priorities. A lack of internal structures for defense innovation, coupled with the absence of a formal national military doctrine and a gap in operational analysis and concept development, further hinder the mainstreaming of defense AI.

Estonia leverages European grants for their defense AI

Interestingly, Estonia's progress in digitalizing public services for the AI era has not been paralleled on the military front. Nonetheless, the country's burgeoning security, defense, and space industry, largely comprising agile startups and SMEs, is emerging as a critical driver of defense AI development, buoyed by government support grants. Estonian enterprises have excelled in harnessing European-level funding opportunities for collaborative technology development, particularly in the realm of robotic solutions for land and maritime applications. While Estonian firms are rapidly becoming influential in shaping AI applications in defense and security, their products and services based on these concepts are often adopted by foreign customers before they are embraced domestically.

The Ukraine conflict and Allied Forces’ interest drive defense AI in Estonia

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has provided valuable insights into the potential of AI in a battlespace, igniting interest in how smaller states like Estonia can leverage this technology to counterbalance the forces of numerically superior adversaries. The Estonian military's enthusiasm for AI applications has also been bolstered by demonstrations by allied forces stationed in Estonia. Several in-house projects aimed at digitizing "kill webs," promoting information sharing, and enhancing battlespace awareness are emerging as crucial avenues for introducing AI.


Furthermore, the Estonian military's growing interaction with state-of-the-art weapon systems and equipment, including AI components, necessitates an increase in AI knowledge and competence. Estonia must strengthen its military training and education system, explore more effective ways to leverage conscription and reserve training, and attract and retain talent in hardware and software engineering. This will likely require strategic personnel policy and human resources management adjustments, aligning with Estonia's world-class education system, which now fosters disciplines like robotics and coding from an early age.


More information:

Jermalavičiu, Tomas (2023). Caught Between Today and Tomorrow: Defence AI in Estonia. DAIO study 23/20. Hamburg: Defense AI Observatory.

https://defenseai.eu/wp-content/uploads/2023/12/daio_study2320_caught_between_today_and_tomorrow_tomas_jermalivicius.pdf (20.12.2023).