Sweden’s massive opportunity to rethink its role in Nordic defense
This is the latest in a series of regular columns by Robbin Laird, where he will tackle current defense issues through the lens of more than 45 years of defense expertise in both the US and abroad. The goal of these columns: to look back at how questions and perspectives of the past should inform decisions being made today.
Of the four Nordic countries, Sweden faces the longest journey towards a new regional defense approach — but also has an opportunity to undergo significant, smart transformation for a modern era that sees it finally join the NATO alliance.
It has the longest journey due to its unique and long tradition of neutrality in European defense, and its subsequent historical experience in navigating political blocs in Europe. It has a significant chance for innovation because it can rebuild its defense forces within a wider context and perspective while relying heavily on domestic defense companies that the country has not yet tapped to its full benefit.
The legacy of Swedish neutrality was seen in the Swedish experience in World War II. In John Gilmour’s insightful book, “Sweden, the Swastika and Stalin,” he concluded about the Swedish approach: “Sweden prudently looked after its own interests and spurned the tutelage of the self-interested and evidently untrustworthy combatants. The responsibility for Sweden rested in Stockholm and nowhere else.”
What has changed is that Stockholm now sees its own interests as being best served by enlightened participation and leadership in the two key alliances shaping modern Europe, the European Union and NATO. It is by accident of timing, but perhaps a sign from history, that Sweden will take over presidency of the European Union in 2023 — the same year that should see them formally entering NATO.
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Sweden faces a double challenge. How can it lead an effort for a significant strategic rethink about the defense of the region and Europe as a whole? And can it do so by being bold in thinking through what this really means in terms of a redesigned force structure?
Following the end of the cold war, Sweden let its forces draw down to very low levels. As Stefan Hedlund noted in a 2019 article about Swedish defense: “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.”
Despite that historical slowdown, Sweden began its rethink in defense posture and structure in the wake of the initial Ukraine crisis in 2014. And it was clear that the Swedish leadership woke up to the fact that being neutral does not mean that can avoid being dragged into any conflict between Russia and other European states, given the nature of the new combat systems, and the Russians lowering the nuclear threshold in their declaratory strategy and force acquisition. Neutrality may be nice — but not if your society is nullified by military action going through the region.
Notably, since 2014, Sweden has had an increasingly robust international/partner-engaged strategy tied to the NATO members, even prior to its formal membership application earlier this year. For example, in 2017, the Swedes held the exercise Aurora 17, which was the largest Swedish military exercise in more than 20 years and was clearly intended as an exercise of Swedish defense capabilities against a larger, more sophisticated opponent. France, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Germany, and the United States — all NATO members — joined Finland in participating in the exercise.
The Aurora 17 exercise involved triggering a revival of Sweden’s approach to total defense, and involved around 40 Swedish agencies other than their Ministry of Defense. And in the runup to applying for NATO membership, a key element has been an emphasis on evolving their total defense or whole of nation approach, including the return of conscription. The total defense concept includes cyber defense, mobilization enhanced approaches, and working how reinforcements might operate from Swedish territory.
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There are several areas of innovation which Sweden will be key player in going forward in a more integrated approach to Nordic defense.
The first will clearly be operations with Norway and Finland in the High North, working as well with non-Nordic allies. Notably, during recommendations by the Swedish Armed Forces Supreme Commander Gen. Michael Bydén on Nov. 1, among them was to enhance Swedish presence in the High North and find innovate ways to support force operations with allies in the region.
One of his recommendations underlay any serious Swedish defense rethink: “Developing a Nordic dimension is especially important because the conditions in Northern Europe require joint and coordinated defense concepts. Sweden must accept a special regional responsibility since NATO’s defense concept is based on regionally existing capabilities. The Swedish Armed Forces stipulate that the Nordic countries belong to the same operational area and are led by the same command structure (Joint Forces Command.)”
A second area of focus is clearly force mobility. Simply having a ground force that operates as a hedgehog on its own territory is not enough – how will the ground forces operate with allies in forward defense of the region, notably the Baltics?
A third is to change how the Air Force and Navy work together. The Air Force has historically provided the air defense for a small naval force. As the Air Force and Navy operate at greater distance, how will the combat air and combat ships be outfitted differently, or platforms developed differently in the future? (Here Saab’s participation in the UK led Project Tempest could lead not only to changes in the Swedish Air Force but in allies as well.)
The Swedish Navy has been focused on operating in the Swedish archipelago, forward leaning operations in the Baltic Sea and along on their west coast focused on control of the inlets/outlets to the Baltics Sea. As it is built out to play a broader role in providing strategic depth to the region, the Navy will share more maritime defense interests with Denmark and Norway and could look to collaborate in their approaches to shipbuilding.
And as the Baltic Sea sees greater cooperation among the NATO allies who would now surround the area (Finland, Sweden, the Baltic states, Poland, Germany, and Denmark), how will they work together to deal with the Russians operating from the Gulf of Finland and Kaliningrad? How will Sweden approach maritime and defense and security in this contested sea bordering Russia and directly confronting Russian maritime interests in the North Atlantic? Here the potential cross-national cooperation on joint ISR and command and control could lead to significant innovation involving maritime unmanned systems, both USVs and UUVs, plus even more significantly working ways for the two types of maritime unmanned systems to work together.
There’s a lot to consider, and Sweden must do so while balancing the need for careful thought with speed. If managed correctly, Sweden can draw on its unique location and strengths to help shape a broader kill web defense and security structure with its allies in the region. Finding ways to innovative in connecting land, air and maritime assets in a cross border, and cross cutting force able to operate from security operations to high-end ones could bring significant innovation to the region, while also demonstrating the kind of multi-domain innovation that could serve as a model for other NATO states.