(CS Monitor 7/2/15) STOCKHOLM. “The Swedish armed forces are too small to defend their own territory,” says Lt. Colonel Johan Wiktorin (ret.), a leading Swedish security consultant and fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of Military Sciences.
Wiktorin would seem to be stating the obvious: with an active front-line military personnel of 20,000 to cover an area of approximately 450,000 square kilometers, Sweden is the most thinly defended of the so-called Nordic Four—Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark. By comparison, Denmark, which also belongs to NATO (which Sweden does not), has a roughly equal number of personnel to cover an area one tenth the size.
Not that that seems to have mattered to most Swedes—until now.
Wiktorin, who retired in 2008 after 23 years with the Swedish Armed Forces, is one of a number of critics who have questioned the size, capability and combat readiness of the SAF, as it struggles to adapt to a rapidly shifting Baltic security picture, including a suddenly aggressive Russia. At the same Swedish government and society are struggling to adapt to the possibility that hostilities could actually come to this long peaceable corner of the Baltic.
That possibility—including a possible Russian attack on the island of Gotland—was spotlit in a recent report by CEPA, the Center for European Policy Analysis. The report, written by Edward Lucas, senior editor at the Economist, which claimed that in March Russia had staged a large exercise involving over 30,000 troops, including the seizure of the strategically located island, has caused a stir. (Lucas says he got his information about the drill from “NATO sources.”)
“It is a general fact that Russia is carrying out bigger, more complex and in some cases, provocative exercises,” Peter Hultqvist, the Swedish defense minister declared, in response to the Lucas report. “We are now following that development and are strengthening our military capability.” Amongst other things, Hultqvist said that Sweden would be having more exercises with NATO, including ones on Swedish territory.
Meanwhile, the new defense bill which the Swedish Parliament sent to the government calls for the creation of a “Task Force Gotland,” consisting of two companies of troops. The bill, which has the broad support in the parliament, calls for an increase in defense spending to 10.2 billion kronor (about $1.2 billion dollars), or about 1.2% of the Swedish GDP, an increase from last year, though still considerably less than what the SAF originally requested. (The corresponding figures for the other Nordics are 1.4 for Norway, and 1.3 for Denmark and Finland, still far less than the 2% which NATO recommends for its members and partners.)
Swedes have been increasingly anxious over the state of the country’s defenses as a result of a series of provocative Russian moves over the last two years, including several overflights of Swedish airspace, and a widely publicized—and futile—search for a foreign submersible, presumed to be Russian, last October. That anxiety was revealed in January when a poll by the Swedish civil defense agency which showed that 57% of respondents, wanted to increase defense spending—the highest figure in the history of the poll–while only 30% of respondents expressed confidence in the government’s policy.
In the meantime, the level of support for Swedish membership in NATO, once unthinkable in a country which has long prided itself on both its military self-sufficiency—and its “separateness” from the rest of the world—has risen to new heights. In January a poll by Dagens Nyheter, the Swedish daily, showed that 37% of Swedes were for membership, up from five per cent from a similar poll taken last year, while 47%, also down from the prior poll, still a formidable number, were still opposed to membership.
Slowly but surely, Swedish attitudes towards defense are changing—not easy in a country which, technically, has not been at war since the Napoleonic Wars (Sweden managed to maintain its neutrality during both World Wars.) “The big problem,” says Oscar Jonsson, a Swedish defense commentator, “is the Swedish mentality, which is based on the idea that a) an armed conflict will not happen, b) it will not involve Sweden, and c) if it does it can be solved through peaceable means. As a result defense has essentially been a non-issue in Swedish politics for some time.”
Swedish exceptionalism, or the Swedish mentality, was less of a problem, per se, during the Cold War period, when Sweden was spending 3% of its GDP on defense and, bolstered by a large, well-equipped military, including an army of 350,000, could afford to take its defense for granted precisely because it was being taken care of.
Now, as recent developments have shown, it can’t. A corresponding problem, Col. Wiktorin and others assert, was Sweden’s decision in 2010 to cashier its conscription system and convert to a professional force.
By contrast, neighboring Finland, which has a professional military force of 37,000, backed by an active reserve of over 350,000 men and women, decided to keep its conscription system, and is all the more stronger for it, according to Keir Giles, an analyst at the London based think tank, Chatham House. “You can use Finland as a contrast, where conscription still enjoys broad popular support because of the clear and obvious role in protecting society. Those aspects of popular consciousness about the military are a casualty when conscription is abolished.”
So, evidently, was the notion of protecting the Swedish motherland, including Gotland. “We threw out the territorial defense organization very recklessly without maintaining capabilities and material that could have had a good effect for very little money,” says Mr. Jonsson. “Things are not moving in a linear fashion,” declares Wiktorin, who, while lauding the fact that troops will (finally) be sent to Gotland, still feels that the number is way too low.
For its part, the hard-pressed SAF command welcomes the new attention. “Defense issues have not been really been high on the public agenda in Sweden for quite some time,” General Michael Claesson, deputy head of planning for the SAF, agreed in an exclusive interview at SAF headquarters in Stockholm. “However as a consequence of the evolving and deteriorating security situation in our region, this has started to change, and of course we welcome that change.” Claesson, who formerly commanded the Swedish contingent of troops in Afghanistan, denied that Sweden was under imminent threat from any country, including Russia.
At the same time, the general concedes, “with regard to Russia we have seen a major shift in their military posture as well as a lowered threshold for the use of military force in support of political objectives.” General Claesson asserted that the SAF “may be in a state of transition, but make no mistake, the SAF still has a sharp bite, on our own or together with our partners.” Still, given how thinly spread SAF currently is, many wonder how sharp that bite can be.
Mr. Giles is sympathizes with the SAF, and the challenges it has faced while dealing with a country whose political class didn’t feel the need to maintain a viable territorial armed forces—at least until Vladimir Putin reminded them otherwise. “The Swedish Armed Forces are doing the best they can in the face of a persistent view over the last few decades that their raison d’etre did not include the defense of Sweden—a view had sharply reduced their ability to deploy the kind of high-end defensive capability that’s needed for territorial or maritime defense.”
Or, as Martin Gelin, the New York correspondent for Dagens Nyheter put it “In the period after the Cold War the notion that Sweden needed a strong army became a fringe notion. However, now the notion that Vladimir Putin is dangerous and irrational that idea has re-entered the mainstream.”
Note: this is a longer version of the article that was published in the Monitor on July 9.