Sweden rebuilds its military force, maybe

Sweden’s defense budget is to grow by about one-third in the next three years, as the country aims to rebuild its once impressive territorial defense capabilities. The plan hardly surprises in today’s neo-Cold War context, but given the scope of the challenges faced by Swedish defense planners, the ambitious endeavor may still fizzle. 

Defense ministers of Sweden and Germany shake hands before the defense heads’ “Northern Group format” meeting at Villa Borsig on Lake Tegel
Sweden’s Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist – here pictured in June 2019 with then-German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen – has the financing for his ambitious new military programs secured only until 2022. © dpa

In a nutshell

  • Sweden set out to reverse its 40-year trend of disarmament
  • The strategic aim is to rebuild the territorial defense system
  • The program faces financial and logistical roadblocks

At the end of August 2019, the Swedish government announced it had agreed with key opposition parties on a program to rebuild the country’s armed forces. Marking the first defense spending increase in 40 years, the policy decision was unsurprisingly branded as “historic.”

On paper, the program also looks like a game-changer. Funding is to increase by 5 billion Swedish kronor (approximately $500 million) in 2022 and then by an additional 5 billion kronor annually over the subsequent three years, bringing the total for 2025 to 84 billion kronor ($8.4 billion), compared to 56 billion kronor ($5.6 billion) in 2019. 

The manpower of the Swedish Defense Force (Forsvarsmakten) is to nearly double, to 90,000 men and women. Conscription, reintroduced in 2017, will increase from 4,000 to 8,000 recruits annually. The ground force will expand from one to four brigades. The arsenal of the new Archer artillery systems will double to 48 units. The navy will receive one more submarine, bringing the total to five, and the existing five corvettes will be modernized. The air force is to be strengthened with 60 fourth-generation JAS Gripen E aircraft, to be added to the 97 (version C/D) of the existing fighter fleet.

Ambitious goal

The ambition is to recreate a credible territorial defense. The outlook is that the wager is too little, too late. To understand why this is so, one needs to consider the extent of Sweden’s previous disarmament.

The force of the garrison was such that the island was colloquially known as ‘aircraft carrier Gotland’.

In the early 1970s, at the peak of its military power, Sweden had the fourth- largest air force in the world, with a thousand aircraft, and a sizable navy with advanced submarines able to operate silently in the shallow, brackish (low-salinity) waters of the Baltic. The country’s defense budget accounted for 3.4 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP). At the end of the Cold War, the Swedish Defense Force was still able to mobilize 700,000 men (no women then). Conscription was mandatory for all men, and all who had served were liable to be recalled for several month-long drills to ensure that skills and training were kept up to date. 

The jewel in the crown was the heavily garrisoned island of Gotland, well- positioned to rule the center of the Baltic. The Gotland Military Command (GMC) included an Armored Regiment (P 18), a Mechanized Brigade (MekB 18), an Artillery Regiment (A 7), an Anti-Aircraft Corps (Lv 2), and a Coastal Artillery Regiment (KA 3). The force of the garrison was such that the island was colloquially known as “aircraft carrier Gotland.” Several air force bases on the mainland were within easy reach, to provide air cover.


Facts & figures

Sweden's military strength in 2019

A chart showing critical data on Sweden’s defense force
Sweden’s armed forces are cutting edge, with high-tech equipment and highly trained and motivated personnel. However, these forces are presently too tiny for territorial defense. © dpa

The end of the Cold War brought severe downsizing. Funding for defense dropped to merely one percent of GDP in 2018, the lowest level of all the Nordic countries excluding Iceland. The rationale for these cuts was derived from abandoning the traditional doctrine of territorial defense. Armed invasion was no longer viewed as a credible threat. 

Although Sweden continued making significant military contributions to international peacekeeping, its ability to defend its territory has seriously degraded. Sweden’s elaborate system of hardened defenses, once erected to protect the very long coastline, was demolished. Air force bases with hardened bunkers were closed. The navy lost its anti-submarine warfare capabilities. The ground forces were slashed, with artillery and air defense units almost entirely eradicated. 

Ignored warnings

Although the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia did send shockwaves through the media, causing many to claim that rearmament was badly needed, the downsizing continued. In 2010, national conscription was declared “dormant.” The recruitment of troops for international missions was on a contractual basis. Given the poor pay and the risks entailed in being required to serve in foreign conflict zones, such recruitment was falling far short of targets.

In January 2013, then-Commander in Chief Sverker Goranson created a stir when he stated that if Sweden were to be attacked, the armed forces would be able to hold out for about one week, after which time help from abroad would be essential. 

A surprise cruise missile strike could cause the entire Swedish air force to be wiped out on the ground.

The remaining Swedish armed forces are indeed cutting edge, with high-tech equipment and highly trained and motivated personnel. However, they are tiny. The total size of the Swedish Defense Force at the end of 2018 was 52,000 men and women (including 5,700 civilian staff), of which 21,000 are members of the volunteer home guard. The entire force could fit into one of Stockholm’s football stadiums.

In contrast, neighboring Finland, spending merely 1.4 percent of GDP on defense, is able to mobilize 253,000 men and women. It has 834 artillery pieces and 120 tanks, compared to Sweden’s 24 artillery pieces and 120 tanks. The difference is striking.

The Swedish mood for disarmament became clear when even the conservative party abandoned its traditional pro-defense stance. In 2013, Conservative Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt referred to defense as a “vested interest,” among other such interests. During his time in government (2006-2014), defense spending shrunk from 1.3 to 1.1 percent of GDP. Those who claimed that the war in Georgia called for rearmament had nowhere to turn. Military defense of the homeland was a nonstarter.

Uphill battle

With the war in Ukraine, the exposed position of the island of Gotland became a hot issue. In the case of Russian aggression against the Baltic republics, it was deemed more than likely that attackers would move to seize the island. Sweden would be pulled into a war it was not equipped to fight. Dislodging Russian troops from Gotland would not be easy.

The first step toward remilitarizing Gotland was taken in 2016 when a token battlegroup of 300 soldiers was organized. It was to be supported by a tank company with 12 modified German Leopard tanks. The first troops arrived in June 2017, to be quartered in temporary barracks. At the outset of 2018, a Gotland Regiment was again declared operational, representing a resurrection of the old Armored Regiment (P 18). Tank crews, however, had to be flown in from the mainland.

Although it does send a strong political signal, the ambition to remilitarize Gotland provides an eminent illustration of just how hard it will be to resurrect a credible territorial defense. The GMC was disbanded in 2000. Five years later, all its military units were gone, the military installations sold. Now that defense forces are returning, all the necessary infrastructure will need to be rebuilt from scratch. It will be a long slog.

On a national scale, abandoning territorial defense in favor of military operations far away from home also implied abandoning the existing system of dispersed logistics, with prepositioned stocks of food, munitions and other materiel scattered in forests across the country. When the task of the military was reduced to dispatching troops to serve in Afghanistan and Mali, a system of centralized logistics made much sense. With the return to territorial defense, that centralized system becomes highly vulnerable: a well-aimed cruise missile strike could wipe it all out. 

Purchasing sophisticated weapons systems without enough qualified personnel to handle them makes little sense.

The same goes for the Swedish Air Force. During the Cold War, it operated on a system of scattered basing. Straight stretches of wide highways in forested areas served as landing strips, combined with camouflaged parking and underground stores of fuel and munitions. At a time of crisis, all assets could be dispersed to operate from these bases, with very short turnaround times between missions.

At present, aircraft operate from the only three remaining peacetime bases, at Lulea, Satenas and Ronneby. They are housed in hangars that may protect against the rain but not against attacks from the air. The absence of robust air defenses implies that a surprise cruise missile strike could cause the entire force to be wiped out on the ground. 

In addition to the daunting task of recreating coastal defenses, rebuilding hardened aircraft bunkers and recreating a system of dispersed logistics, the past three decades of disarmament have also caused a vast degradation of institutional capital.

It is highly doubtful that there are any serving officers left who know much about military mobilization – about which roads to use, which bridges can take heavy vehicles, what collection areas are suitable for troop concentrations, where emergency fuel can be obtained and where local farmers may be enlisted to provide assistance.

It is equally doubtful that there remains civilian officials who know about civil defense, evacuation routes and emergency provisions of food, water, and electricity. It is only in the last couple of years that the government has initiated a public awareness campaign on what to do in case of an emergency, giving simple instructions such as stocking up on water and canned food.

The direction of the current move toward rebuilding territorial defense is laudable. Given the scope and nature of the challenges, however, it is doubtful that the drive will have much effect. The most likely outcome is that it will only fizzle. 

Tight money

Significantly, the government is opaque about sources of financing. Following lengthy deliberations, in May 2019 the Parliamentary Defense Committee was ready to present a proposal that all parties could support. But at the very last moment, Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist let it be known that the government could not commit to the implied financing. The opposition parties left the talks in anger, claiming that pacifist circles within the Green Party and the left wing of the Social Democrats Party had gained the upper hand, scuppering the consensus. 

As things now stand, following the August announcement financing is secure for 2022, but open beyond that. The escalating costs of Sweden’s acute migrant crisis combined with the economy sliding into recession make it difficult to see the government could live up to pledges of significant defense spending increases.

The ambition of Defense Minister Hultqvist is to sign every possible agreement on cooperation with NATO.

Another caveat concerns the blurred line between industrial policy and defense policy. The cornerstone of Sweden’s neutrality has been the presence of a powerful military-industrial complex, featuring global hi-tech companies like arms manufacturer Bofors AB, communications giant Ericsson or aerospace and defense group SAAB AB. Although this industrial base provided much freedom for defense policymaking, it also gave rise to voices questioning the rationale for major acquisitions. 

Beyond suspicions of support for Swedish defense contractors, there is a track record of budget over-commitment to weapons procurement. When costs of the hardware escalate, cuts inevitably are made in the expenses for training and ensuring troop readiness.

A case in point is the decision to build the new version E of the JAS Gripen. With no contracts for export of the warplane that would spread the development outlay, the danger is that escalating costs will create large holes in the defense budget – which, in turn, will hollow out recruitment and training. The same goes for the new-generation submarine. Purchasing sophisticated new weapons systems without enough qualified personnel to handle them does not make much sense, beyond keeping the contractors happily in business.



What does matter is the growing commitment to international cooperation. The security architecture in the Baltic region has long been marked by the fact that Sweden and Finland have remained outside NATO. Given that Finland is not going to join the Western alliance alone, it is highly significant that Sweden has taken steps in that direction.

In May 2016, Parliament cleared the way for signing the Host Nation Support agreement, implying that Sweden will be ready to receive military aid from NATO. In May 2017, the armed forces staged the most extensive military drills since 1993, involving 19,000 men and women. Titled Aurora 17, the drills included several NATO member participants. In a show of practical Host Nation Support, French and American troops landed in Gothenburg, on the west coast, for transit eastward. Aurora 20, to be held next year, will involve even more units.

At the core of the current reorientation is the deepening cooperation between Sweden and Finland, including joint air force operations. Looking ahead, it is highly significant that one of the four brigades (about 5,000-men strong) of the new Swedish force structure will be assigned to stand ready to support Finland. 

The question of NATO membership has long represented the third rail in Swedish security policy – touch it and you are politically dead. Although it remains highly contentious within the government, the ambition of Defense Minister Hultqvist has been to sign every possible agreement on cooperation with NATO short of membership application. 

The minister’s main achievement to date has been to defeat a campaign waged by former Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom for Sweden to sign the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Doing so would have severely damaged cooperation with the United States and thus with NATO. Ms. Wallstrom’s recent resignation may have been a consequence of losing that battle.

In the short- to medium-term, the prospects for improving Sweden’s security boil down to this: although the government may not score much success in rebuilding its territorial defense, it makes it clear that in the case of  Russian aggression against the Baltic states, the territory of Sweden will be open for NATO reinforcements – in close cooperation with Finland. 

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