Sweden Looks to the Past to Prepare for Its Defense Future

The long national awakening to a renewed threat presented by Russia has prompted Sweden’s political leadership to dip into its past to prepare for potential future conflict.

The new preparations – encapsulated in the government’s Total Defense (Totalförsvaret) 2021-2025 bill introduced in December – seek to safeguard the country’s independence and territorial integrity by enhancing the military deterrent and drawing upon a whole-of-society approach traditionally referred to as Civil Defense.

Resiliency against myriad threats forms the basis of Sweden’s Total Defense concept, which originated in the 1940s but has now been dusted off and brought up to date to deal with modern gray-zone warfare tactical challenges.

Foremost in the country’s Total Defense preparation will be enhancing the force structure of the Swedish armed forces (Försvarsmakten, or Defense Force).

The first step involves expanding the number of personnel across the military organization from the current 60,000 to 90,000, a 50 percent increase. In addition, the annual number of conscripts absorbed into the military ranks will grow from about 4,000 currently to 8,000 by 2025.

The government plans to retain the Swedish Army’s two existing brigades while beginning to organize and stand up a third mechanized brigade and a reduced motorized brigade in the area of the capital, Stockholm.

An additional marine amphibious battalion will be created and based in Gothenburg, on Sweden’s western coast along the Kattegat Sea area, with both of these battalions receiving new vessels and unmanned systems.

The strategic island of Gotland will have its defenses further strengthened with air defense systems.

Back in late 2017, the Swedish government opted to reinstate a permanent military presence on the Baltic Sea island under the re-raised Gotland Regiment (roughly 350 troops), which had been disbanded in 2005. The disbanding of the regiment left the island – situated strategically in the middle of the Baltic Sea, and thus crucial to controlling naval traffic through the Baltic waterways – with no military presence. This step marked the nadir of Sweden’s reform measures begun in 1999 that significantly pruned the overall size and capabilities of the armed forces in order to generate cost savings for the government.

Also on tap is an expansion of the peacetime organization of the armed forces. This will entail the re-establishment of former regiments and building up a military presence across the country, the latter with the twin goals of increasing the security footprint and deterrent and bolstering popular national support for the military.

Along with more soldiers and units, the stand-by territorial defense force, the Home Guard, will receive additional materiel including vehicles, sensors, and nighttime combat equipment.

In terms of additional hardware capabilities, the Swedish Army will see a gradual replacement of its Leopard 2 (Stridsvagn 122 in Swedish service) main battle tanks and CV90 infantry fighting vehicles. These projects will begin in the timeframe of the Total Defense bill, resulting in the replacement of platforms introduced into service by the early 1930s. Additional firepower in the form of artillery pieces supplemental to the existing Archer wheeled self-propelled howitzers (SPHs) is also on tap.

On the naval side, the Royal Swedish Navy fleet of submarines will grow from four to five, as the third of three Gotland class submarines, HSwMS Uppland, will receive a service-life extension and upgrade to keep her in service into the latter half of the decade. This upgrade was earlier recommended by Sweden’s Defense Commission in its white paper presented to Parliament on May 14, 2019. With the two new-generation Blekinge class submarines (Type A26) expected to be delivered by 2025, this will provide the service with five active submarines just as a program to replace the Gotland class fleet kicks off.

The Navy’s surface fleet will receive some attention as well, with the five Visby class corvettes undergoing midlife upgrades that will  equip them with new air defense, torpedo and unmanned systems, allowing them to remain in service out to 2040. Replacement projects for the other two types of corvettes – the pairs of Gavle and Stockholm class ships – will get underway on one-for-one bases, with the Gavle class successors arriving between 2026 and 2030 and the Stockholm class replacement to be ordered by 2030.

The minesweeping fleet – consisting of two classes of ships (Sparo  and Koster) – will be put through a life-extension program.

For the Swedish Air Force, the combat aircraft fleet will remain at 100 fighters in six squadrons – more than originally envisioned. The earlier goal was for the new JAS 39E Gripen models to replace the older JAS 39C/D variants outright, but instead up to 40 C/D models will be retained through 2035 to bolster combat aircraft capacity. This will result in 60 Gripen Es based in four squadrons, with the C/D variants filling the remaining two squadrons. The Gripen Es are to achieve Final Operational Capability (FOC) by 2027.

Additional missiles, electronic warfare capabilities, new unmanned systems, and new airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) platforms to replace the existing two Saab 340 Erieye units will also be acquired.

To cover the cost of these ambitions, the government plans to significantly increase annual defense expenditures with the goal of hitting a topline allocation of SEK89 billion ($10.7 billion) by 2025, a 27 percent rise in nominal value from the 2020 earmark. The annual upticks to the budget between 2021 and 2025 will average nearly SEK5 billion ($600 million) per year, with the 2021 budget already nominally 10 percent higher than the previous year’s budget and 8.3 percent higher in real terms.

The funding will no doubt be received gratefully by the armed forces, which have pressed for significantly higher allocations than previously provided. Now they will do better than what the cross-party Defense Committee called for in its white paper on development of Sweden’s defense released in May 2019, which was a defense spending increase to SEK84 billion by 2025. In an indication of the heightened concerns about Russia, the actual funding will instead come out 6 percent higher than the Defense Committee request.

The slow re-focus on defense has taken years and multiple indications of Russian aggression along the European periphery (most crucially in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014) and into Swedish waters and airspace to gather real momentum.

The following all contributed to the buildup of concern in Stockholm: a simulated air attack on Sweden during a Russian military exercise in March 2013; submarine intrusions in the Stockholm archipelago in October 2014 that stoked remembrances of the infamous October 1981 “Whiskey on the Rocks” incident near the Swedish naval base in Karlskrona in which a Soviet Whiskey class submarine ran aground in national waters;  and a Russian amphibious operation rehearsal in  Kaliningrad in August 2019, followed by the appearance of Russian vessels in Swedish waters near Gothenburg one month later.

Still, the slowness in responding to Russia’s provocations alarmed many in Sweden’s military.

Now Stockholm is trying to make up for lost time.

It has responded by re-equipping its coastal defense anti-ship batteries, reinforcing the defense of Gotland, restarting military conscription, and issuing  civil defense brochures to all citizens in preparation of national emergencies. Parliament has even flirted with the idea of joining NATO – more as a statement aimed at Russia rather than a practical political measure.

Meanwhile, Sweden has stepped up security cooperation with the U.S. and military exercises with American forces. It has even allowed the permanent stationing of a U.S. Army Green Beret team on its soil to help train the Home Guard in resistance operations.

The proactive steps being taken by Stockholm represent a “past is prologue” template, one that allowed Sweden to maintain its independence and neutrality during the Cold War.

Back then, of course, Sweden retained a significant combat component in terms of both capacity and capability. With exorbitant costs for cutting-edge military technologies and post-Cold War-era societal changes factored into the equation, Sweden is highly unlikely to embark on an effort to reconstitute a combat aircraft fleet of 300 fighters or a naval component featuring 12 submarines, for instance.

But it will once again devote enough attention and funding to its high-end military capabilities, while identifying and combatting cyber- and information-warfare tactics practiced by Russia, to lend the Kremlin pause before seeking to test Sweden’s mettle.

International Military Markets – Europe

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About Daniel Darling

Dan Darling is a senior analyst covering both the Europe and Asia-Pacific regions for Forecast International's International Military Markets group.

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