An acquaintance suggested that I write about the defence of a small country facing a less than very friendly, much larger neighbour.
Most texts here were written because of a spontaneous idea of mine (that may have been old at the time of writing, though). I'm not sure how good a "by request" text may be, but I'll give it a try.
- - - - -
The first idea is to obviously avoid conflict. The small nation should not only avoid violent conflict; it should also avoid political conflict, maybe even ally with the larger power.
Regrettably, this option is not available in his (Estonian) case.
To seek other, sufficiently powerful, allies is another option. Sadly, even a written alliance treaty may ultimately fail to deter. Nevertheless, such a treaty pretty much ends the political challenge.
Next, the small nation should decide what form of armed resistance it wants to be able to put up. It signed an alliance treaty, after all - and that's a two-way commitment unlike a unilateral guarantee of sovereignty. This means also that even a small ally is supposed to be ready to help others. The minimum commitment would in my opinion be a readiness to deploy rear security troops and troops for handling prisoners of war.
Next, let's think about the military defence strategy and the suitable force structure.
There's a "miniature military" trap; some small armed forces attempt to mimic large ones, with a full set of capabilities ranging from simple infantry to heavy artillery, armoured forces, multi-role fighters, air defences and naval forces.
Israel is probably the only example that really worked well. Many militaries that adopt such a course fail and cannot reach good quality and readiness.
A tailored approach to national defence - coupled with some thought about the potential contribution to alliance defence elsewhere - looks more promising.
The defence of a very small alliance member against a much superior potential invader is quite a challenge without very suitable terrain and without forward deployed allied forces.
The first problem is the budget. Both its likely small size and the necessity of very efficient spending pose some tough challenges. Compromises are necessary - even compromises that say "no" to certain standard capabilities of bigger militaries.
Cost-efficiency is extremely important and this forces the usage of older and used equipment for most purposes. Only very, very influential key equipment can justify high procurement and operating costs.
Examples of such key equipment could be encrypting jam-resisting radios, capable anti-tank missiles, (very) short range air defence systems and possibly also equipment that's necessary for key actions. The latter could for example be some equipment for the destruction of the tunnel that connects South Ossetia with Russia (in the case of Georgia).
The defence of a given area against numerically superior invaders is a tough job. It's especially tricky if no continuous front line can be established for a lack of forces. Even a fortified front line wouldn't hold indefinitely, though. An army needs no overall numerical superiority in order to achieve a local 3:1 or 6:1 superiority. A breakthrough attempt with such a local superiority tends to lead to mobile warfare (just as the case without a continuous front line).
Success in mechanised mobile warfare requires skills and equipment that's unlikely to be found in small armies. There's nevertheless a temptation to add an armour battalion, regiment or brigade to the army.
The biggest advantage of doing so is probably the training effect for those who're supposed to resist enemy armour.
What could an armour brigade be worth? It adds primarily some offensive striking power, gives some headaches to invasion planners.
Those invasion planners would have much more severe headaches in other scenario planning, though. A single armour Bde isn't exactly a large force even by modern standards. NATO has dozens and even Germany's shrunk army has five active armour and mechanised brigades.
The failure of such a expensive and high profile component of the defender's arm would furthermore risk to break all defenders' morale.
It's reasonable to expect that the potential invader will prepare properly and have at least one very good answer for every obvious challenge.
The not-so-obvious, unpredicted obstacles would have less political deterrence value (not that this would make a difference when you're already allied with great powers), but they would cause unanticipated problems for an invader. It would be a good idea to strengthen the defence with something that poses an unmitigated challenge to the invader. Strengths that he doesn't know about, doesn't understand, cannot counter due to his own restrictions or doesn't want to counter due to arrogance might work.
Let's face it; main battle tanks are the last thing that an invader is not prepared to defeat. The necessary air defences alone could furthermore easily double the costs of the tank force.
Air and naval forces are often a waste of budget money as well. A fighter squadron or fighter wing would not stop an invasion. It might be crushed or stuck in its own base - or be defeated by superior air power in the air. Taiwan's air force gets a good share of their national defence budget, but its position is quite hopeless against the only realistic threat, the mainland Chinese air force.
Navies - well, let's recall the utterly irrelevant role played by the Polish navy in September of 1939. Navies are sometimes mere toy ship collections. Some nations really should limit themselves to simply blocking their harbours with some demolition experts in order to prevent their usage by the enemy.
- - - - -
A quite fine example of a successful defence against a powerful neighbour is the Vietnamese defence against the Red Chinese punitive invasion in 1979. Vietnam - then unified only for a few years - had decided to put an end to the excesses and border violations of the crazy Red Khmer and sent its field army into Cambodia. The PR China was not amused and invaded Vietnam. This invasion got stuck quickly even though it faced only second-rate defence forces.
Invasión de China sobre Vietnam, 1978 - 1979
(Fuente: Nam, Crónica de la guerra de Vietnam)
The Vietnamese did not use high-tech tools, expensive weapons, much ammunition and as far as I know they did not desperately open dams to flood the terrain.
They had instead a kind of militia defence with many local defence networks (including underground networks) and a partially war-experienced light infantry force. The Chinese army on the other hand stumbled in part because of incompetence and previously unknown training deficiencies.
I don't want to suppose that this kind of defence would work in many or most cases world-wide, of course.
Well, I'm not exactly an expert on this particular conflict, but I'd suggest to small army planners to look more closely at it.
- - - - -
It could also make sense to look at the bigger picture. I consider Estonia to be indefensible against a Russian invasion if the latter is well-prepared. Russia would most likely not want to annex only Estonia, though. A complete grab of the three Baltic countries is a more likely scenario. Estonian defence planners could therefore ask themselves how to spoil such a bigger invasion instead of a small invasion of only their country. (No matter how unlikely the scenarios are; preparing is what they get paid for, after all.)
Time would be a critical component of any such invasion plan. They would need to create a strong signal that discourages invasion planners by indicating that a quick invasion is too difficult.
This might lead to consider the defence of the Southern neighbour and ally Latvia instead of the own defence. This may sound strange, but waging a war abroad instead of at home does make sense. The French learned this thoroughly during the first World War.
An Estonian readiness to defend Riga (the Latvian capital and traffic node) could improve its own national security more than greater efforts to secure its own border and capital. Just food for thought.
The speed of an invasion could also be hampered by small and large landscape-shaping and infrastructure projects. The terrain can be shaped to be more of a problem to an invader (although trees grow slowly, for example) and the road network could be modified to be more easily blocked along possible invasion routes.
Settlement projects could be located with the creation of defensible closed terrain along invasion routes in mind.
Intra-alliance politics could also be important. NATO could invest in much better road connections between the Baltic states and Poland (to enable a quicker reinforcement and thus cut the invader's time table even more).
The richer, bigger allies could also subsidise Baltic armies in order to create army strengths way beyond the capability of the small countries themselves. That's certainly cheaper than forward deployment of allied brigades.
I do usually prefer to think about peer, 1-on-1 conflicts because these provide the kind of ceteris paribus scenario that allows for rather clear thinking about how to gain advantages purely by military skill.
Nevertheless, the defence policy problems of small alliance partners or even non-allied, isolated countries offer much food for thought as well. It's a much more refreshing case than the budget-busting high technology orgy fantasies that often pass as military thought in the Western World.
There's the case of indefensible nations, though. These nations depend on others and no military skill will ever change that.