Given the mounting tensions between Russia and NATO, it was to be expected that the recently concluded “Zapad-2017” Russian military exercise would receive plenty of attention. But while fears were being voiced that Russia might be preparing for an attack on NATO member states in the Baltic, a fundamental transformation of Swedish defense policy was about to redraw the regional security map – in favor of NATO.
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Following a couple of decades of hibernation, Sweden’s military has suddenly come alive. In a deliberately planned response to Zapad-2017, the country simultaneously conducted its largest military exercise since 1993. Suggestively named “Aurora 17,” it involved some 19,000 troops, including conscripts, reserves and home guard units.
The scenario was to counter a “strategic assault,” whereby a foreign power (guess which) was seeking to achieve two strategically important objectives – to take control over the island of Gotland and to launch a decapitation strike against Stockholm.
The main political objective was to dispel two fears that have marked Sweden’s internal security debate
The main political objective was to dispel two fears that have marked Sweden’s internal security debate over the past two decades of effective defenselessness. First is whether the dispersal of a numerically small force over a geographically very large area would make effective territorial defense impossible, and second whether in a time of crisis NATO really would come to the rescue of a non-member state.
The exercise was heavily focused on the rapid deployment and concentration of forces, sending a strong message that Sweden considers itself de facto a part of NATO. For the latter purpose, the drills invited participation by forces from NATO members Denmark, Estonia, France, Lithuania, Norway and the United States, and from non-NATO member Finland. The U.S. contingent alone included more than 1,400 troops.
The opening move of Aurora 17 was a demonstration of NATO’s commitment to repel a Russian attack. In accordance with a recently signed agreement on “Host Nation Support,” French and American air defense units arrived in Gothenburg, on the country’s west coast, before traversing the island to engage invading forces in the east. The U.S. force was equipped with Patriot missiles.
The rapid deployment element not only saw Swedish armored units being shifted by rail from the far north to theaters in central Sweden; it also included airlift, involving Swedish Air Force C-130 Hercules and huge American C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft from the Heavy Airlift Wing in Hungary. The population in Uppsala, north of Stockholm, was invited to watch the planes landing to unload supplies and equipment. Norwegian supply units also deployed to refuel U.S. helicopters.
The first real encounter saw a mechanized unit from the Minnesota National Guard, equipped with Abrams main battle tanks and Bradley infantry fighting vehicles, engage a Swedish defending force with German-made Leopard 2 tanks and Swedish-made Stridsfordon 90 infantry fighting vehicles. Having accumulated plenty of desert war experience, the Americans received a healthy dose of Swedish mud and of having to struggle through minefields and evade aggressive anti-tank operations by forces with thorough knowledge of their home terrain. Both sides learned important lessons.
Battle for Gotland
The most politically significant part of the drills was the battle for Gotland. During the Cold War, the strategically located island was home to a formidable garrison of armored, artillery, air and coastal defense units, along with air force and naval assets. The concentration of forces was such that the island was colloquially known as “Aircraft Carrier Gotland.”
After the Cold War, those defenses were drawn down. By 2000, the island had been essentially demilitarized, generating growing concern that in a time of crisis it might be seized in a lightning Russian operation. Under the new Swedish military doctrine, Gotland will again be defended. Tanks have been moved to the island, and barracks and other facilities are being built for a new regiment.
The exercise was designed to repel a combined-arms Russian attack
Aurora 17 was designed to repel a combined-arms Russian attack. American Apache Helicopters deployed to challenge Swedish air defenses. Paratroopers from the Nebraska National Guard were dropped to challenge defenders on the ground. An American destroyer, the USS Oscar Austin, led a naval task force, including two Swedish stealth corvettes and a Lithuanian minesweeper, to support a simulated amphibious assault. Generous allowance was made for the public to observe how their island was being defended.
Attack on Stockholm
The ambition to repel a decapitation strike against Stockholm was equally pronounced. Inhabitants could watch not only heavy troop movements through the city, from north to south, but also fierce urban combat in multiple locations. South of Stockholm, the scenario included the biggest simulated airborne assault ever undertaken in the country, with American Chinook helicopters landing U.S. marines and Swedish Black Hawks landing Swedish forces. It had armored columns moving to repel the invader, while Swedish marines conducted amphibious operations along the coastline.
In addition to the various helicopter operations, the Swedish air force also conducted joint operations with Finnish forces. Operating out of a remote base in the forest, testing logistics to the limit, Gripens from Blekinge air force base flew missions with F-18 Hornets from the Finnish 31st Fighter Squadron.
The main takeaway is that the security map in the Baltic region is about to be fundamentally redrawn. If Sweden stays on course, avoiding political backlash from parties wishing to see further disarmament and a continued commitment to steer clear of NATO membership, then it is a whole new ball game.
NATO can then cease worrying about the anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) “bubble” in Kaliningrad. Coming to the rescue of Estonia will no longer require moving up the Baltic, past formidable Russian missile batteries. Resupply and reinforcement routes through Sweden will be much easier and safer. The Kremlin may have to backtrack on its proud claims of having stopped NATO expansion. Its increasingly aggressive stance toward Sweden has generated severe blowback, ending decades of Swedish neutrality.