Estonia, officially the Republic of Estonia (Eesti Vabariik) is the northernmost and smallest of the three Baltic countries. It shares borders with Russia in the east, Latvia in the south, whereas it has sea borders in the north and west, being the Finnish Gulf and the Baltic Sea, respectively. For many centuries Estonia was a part of the Russian Empire, until it declared independent in early 1918. Germany did not recognize the Estonian independency and occupied the country. At the end of the First World War, the Russian Red Army invaded Estonia, marking the beginning of a 2-year war, which ended when the independent status of Estonia was established in 1920. In the Second World War, Estonia was first occupied by the Soviet Union and later by Nazi Germany. In 1944 it was re-occupied by the Soviet Union and then Estonia became an autonomous Soviet republic. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Estonia became independent again in 1991 as a parliamentary democracy. Estonia successfully applied for membership of Nato and of the European Union and entered both organizations in 2004.
The Estonian Air Force (Eesti Öhuvägi) is currently the smallest air force in Europe, but was previously much larger. The air force was founded in November 1918 and grew rapidly during the Independence War against Russia. It started with a confiscated Russian Farman HF30 and by 1930, the Estonian Air Force comprised more than 130 modern aircraft, including fighters, bombers, training aircraft and even seaplanes. After WW II all Estonian armed forces were disbanded and compulsory service in the Soviet Red Army was installed. During the Cold War era Estonia became heavily militarized; the Soviets built a number of air bases, some of which were top secret because long-range bombers and nuclear missiles were stationed there. On 3 September 1991 the Supreme Council of the Republic of Estonia decided to form the Defense Forces and shortly after, on 18 December 1991, the Estonian Air Force was officially re-established. The mission of the air force is to gain control over Estonian airspace and to supply air defense of strategic objects in the country. Before the Red Army left Estonia, they damaged or destroyed nearly all military installations, and left no useful military equipment. Therefore the new Estonian Air Force had to be rebuilt from scratch. The initial focus points were establishing air surveillance capability; reconstructing Ämari air force base and bringing it to NATO operational standards; developing communication and information systems in accordance with NATO standards and finally, preparing a rotary wing component for the Air Force.
The Estonian Air Force includes approximately 200 persons, making it the smallest of the three Estonian Defence forces.
The first aircraft for the Estonian Air Force were three Mi-2 helicopters and three An-2, all delivered in October 1994. Although they were obtained from civil sources, all had a Soviet military history. They were used in transport, liaison and observation roles. In 2002 the Mil helicopters were replaced by four Robinson R-44’s donated by the USA. Two of these are specially equipped for police tasks; the other two can be equipped with floats for SAR operations off the coast. The old An-2 are believed to be replaced in 2015 by two Short SH-330 (C-23 Sherpa) transport aircraft which will be donated by the United States Army.
In 2007 and 2008 the Air Force temporarily leased civil L-39 Albatrosses for pilot training; during this period the aircraft carried Estonian roundels. In 2012, two other L-39C were leased for pilot training. Air defense of Estonia and the two other Baltic countries is currently provided by different NATO partners, which temporarily base a small number of modern fighters on air bases in eastern Poland. These aircraft often intercept Russian bombers and other aircraft that threaten to invade Baltic airspace.
In order to meet the needs of heavy air transport capacity, Estonia decided to participate in the NATO SAC (Strategic Airlift Capability) program which provides the Air Force 45 flying hours per year, mainly for supporting the Estonian Army operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Within the SAC program 13 NATO countries jointly operate three C-17 Globemasters, which are based at Papas Air Base in Hungary.
In 2010, the Police and Border Guard Board (Politsei- ja Piirivalveamet) was instituted, unifying three separate departments (police, citizenship and migration board and border guard). This new board is a fully military organization belonging to the Ministry of the Interior. It is responsible for law enforcement and homeland security of the Estonian republic.
The Border Guard Aviation Corps (Piirivalve Lennusalk), is not a part of the Estonian Air Force, but is the air wing of the Border Guard. For air surveillance it operates a small fleet of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters, which are based at Lennart Meri (Ülemiste) international airport in Tallinn.
The first Border Guard aircraft were two Let-410 aircraft, which began their career in the East German Air Force and were donated by the German government to Estonia in February 1993. These are still in service. One year later arrived four ex-German Mi-8 helicopters that are now all retired. Three factory-new Agusta Westland AW139 were obtained as a replacement from 2007 onward.