Sweden and stability in the Baltic Sea region

MIN READJun 25, 2013 | 15:26 GMT

Access to Swedish territory and airspace will be decisive if NATO is called on to defend the Baltic States. Denying an opponent the same access would also be crucial. By lacking the capacity to defend its own territory and failing to make any preparations to either support NATO-led operations or receive assistance, Sweden is undermining NATO’s credibility defending the Baltic States. In this way, Sweden jeopardizes its own security and that of its neighbors. This article demonstrates the importance of Swedish territory to NATO’s ability to support the Baltic States and discusses Sweden’s lack of contribution to security and stability in the Baltic Sea region.

The reason why access to Swedish territory and airspace is so crucial to NATO in the event of a crisis or conflict in the Baltic Sea region is illustrated bellow.

Iskander 2

The red circles show the approximate range of Russia’s S-400 air defense system and the Iskander M ballistic missile, which is currently deployed on Russian and Belorussian territory. It is obvious that NATO would have great difficulties basing aircraft or naval units in the Baltic States. It is also clear that flying combat sorties to the central and northern parts of the Baltic States from Germany or Poland would involve flying through several hundred kilometers of heavily defended airspace, which would be an risky option. Using Swedish airspace is therefore the most attractive option. In addition, basing in Sweden would provide other important advantages. The sortie rate could probably be doubled if aircraft were flying from Swedish bases rather than, for instance, bases in the United Kingdom, and the reaction time to counter unforeseen contingencies would be much shorter.

All this is unlikely to have escaped Russian planners. If Russian long-range air defense systems were deployed on Swedish territory it would make it extremely difficult for NATO to deliver substantial air support to the Baltic States – especially in the early stages of a conflict, before an air campaign to suppress enemy air defenses had been launched and successfully concluded. Flying in reinforcements would be out of the question. The Russian option is illustrated by the yellow circles on Map 2.

Iskander 1

 “The Baltic campaign” could be won even before it had even begun. The worst case scenario would be that NATO, realizing that it could do nothing substantial to help the Baltic States, might have to accept a fait accompli, which would have incalculable consequences for the credibility of the organization.

From a Swedish point of view this is extremely disturbing. It means that Swedish territory, especially the island of Gotland in the middle of the Baltic (the yellow star on Map 2), might become a target in the early stages of a conflict – perhaps the first target before other operations have even begun. It is also the case that the stakes for NATO would be so high that Swedish views on how military operations in the region should be conducted would carry little weight. The likelihood that Sweden would be able to keep out of a conflict affecting the Baltic States appears slim.

Perhaps the most important point is that making it clear that NATO would be able to use Swedish airspace and territory in case of a crisis would probably increase stability in the region, as it would greatly enhance NATO’s credibility when defending the Baltic States. This is becoming ever more important given NATO’s decreasing capabilities, the diminishing presence of the United States in Europe, and Russia´s assertive policy towards its neighbors backed up by increasing military capabilities.

Sweden military

The importance of Swedish territory and airspace to the credibility of NATO providing support to the Baltic States, or to an opponent seeking to prevent NATO from doing so, makes Sweden’s current security and defense policy hard to understand. Sweden has pledged to support the Baltic States, militarily if need be, but has no means through which to do so. It has made no efforts to help NATO fulfill its obligations to its member states in the region, or arrangements to make it possible receive help from NATO if it were needed. Perhaps most disturbingly, by not having the ability to defend its own territory, Sweden has made itself an obvious target in case of a serious crisis or conflict in the region, which means that at present Sweden is jeopardizing both its own security and that of the Baltic States. How did Sweden get into this situation? What is being done to rectify it?

Sweden remained nonaligned during the Cold War, and made this policy credible by maintaining a strong defense. In the early 1980s, Sweden spent approximately 3% of its GDP on defense. The idea was that a strong deterrent against potential aggressors would enable Sweden to remain neutral in the event of a war in Europe. If this policy failed, however, preparations had also been made for cooperation with NATO. Sweden continued to allocate substantial resources to its defense in the early 1990s after the end of the Cold War. New tanks were ordered in 1994 (280 Leopard 2), and 78 Gripen jet fighters were purchased in 1996, as an addition to the 140 already ordered in the early 1990s. Defense spending was still 2 % of GDP in 1998. At the time, the army consisted of three divisions of 12 brigades and the necessary combat support units, and the air force had some 200 modern jet fighters. The main reason for the continuing high level of military expenditure was straightforward: uncertainty over where Russia was heading. Another reason was the lessons of the interwar period of the 1920s and 1930s, during which Sweden underwent drastic disarmament that left it vulnerable throughout the Second World War.

Initially, it was business as usual in the post-Cold War period, but then a number of changes occurred that significantly altered Swedish policy. The idea of an “eternal peace” – at least in this part of the world – became fashionable in Swedish thinking, and this new thinking ignited a series of cutbacks in the armed forces. This process was not the result of a clear policy. Instead, there was a chain of more or less unrelated decisions and few people, if any, were fully aware of the consequences. In the period 1998–2008 the army was reduced in size by almost 90%, and basing and support functions were also drastically reduced. In short, the whole structure of Swedish national defense was razed. During this period all war planning ceased, the mobilization system was gradually dismantled and the logistic system transformed to meet mainly peacetime requirements and support international operations.

Sweden’s entry into the European Union in 1995 fuelled its demilitarization process. Its accession brought with it a feeling that security-related matters would be handled by non-military means, with a powerful  “soft power” in the form of the EU as the instrument. Furthermore, the movement of Russia toward democracy and pluralism enhanced the idea in Sweden that national defense was something that belonged to the past. The only function for armed forces was to participate in international peace operations.

The Defense Review Board that reported its deliberations and findings in June 2008 was very much influenced by this mindset. It suggested that the Swedish armed forces should be optimized for operations abroad, that the remaining weapon systems and organizational structures tailored mainly for national defense should be scrapped, and that conscription should be abolished.

It also suggested that the  army should consist of seven combat battalions and eight combat support battalions, and that these should be manned  by professional soldiers,mainly trained for international missions. Economic constraints and the reluctance of many politicians to go “all professional” meant that manning became a matter of compromise. Only some 35% of the soldiers would be fulltime soldiers, the remaining 65% would be reservists or volunteers with the same level of training as the conscripts in the earlier  system. There were some exceptions to this “all expeditionary” concept, albeit mainly for domestic industrial reasons. The Gripen fighter program,  now set at 100 aircrafts, and renewal of the submarine fleet were to be continued.

The “bronze soldier crisis” between Russia and Estonia in 2007 and especially the Russian-Georgian conflict in 2008 were a rude awakening for many. They made it all too clear that Sweden’s postmodernist security doctrine was out of tune with developments in the real world. They also raised concerns about Sweden´s national defense. Russia’s political development, behavior towards its neighbors and military capabilities once again became something that needed to be closely studied.

These events, though, had little influence on the defense bill which parliament passed in 2009. All the main recommendations of the 2008 Defense Review Board were written into the bill. The armed forces would continue to be primarily organized and equipped for international peace operations, and the defense budget was reduced even further from 1.3% to its current 1.2% of GDP.  Still two important changes were adopted. National defense was reintroduced as one of the main tasks of the armed forces, and some equipment was mothballed rather than scrapped, but no major organizational or structural changes that could increase real capabilities were introduced.

All this makes the “Solidarity Clause”, introduced in the 2009 bill, an awkward and difficult to explain feature of current Swedish defense and security policy. It reads: “Sweden will not be passive if a catastrophe or an attack befalls another (EU) member state or a Nordic country. We expect that these countries will act in the same way if Sweden were similarly affected. Sweden should therefore be able to give as well as receive military assistance.”

Sweden’s ability to offer support to any of its neighbors, however, is fairly limited to say the least. If Sweden were to consider sending any type of unit to a neighboring country where it would expect to be engaged in combat, this would require extensive preparations. These would include mobilizing reservists, creating a suitable taskforce and providing complementary training, which would each take time. In all probability it would also be an operation run by NATO – all of Sweden’s neighbors except Finland are NATO members. This means that the Swedish unit would be subordinated to an alliance in which Sweden had little or no influence on planning and decision-making, and where no practical preparations would have been made to host a Swedish unit. Furthermore, by participating Sweden would automatically become a target for the party threatening its neighbor, which would mean that substantial military resources would have to be kept at home in order to counter different contingencies.

Given that Sweden’s territory is larger than, for example, Germany’s, it is obvious that in reality there would be nothing for Sweden to send abroad. Sweden’s supreme commander, General Sverker Göranson, said in an interview in December 2012 that he believed that in a joint operation conducted by all three services, the Swedish armed forces would have the capabilities to defend a small part of Swedish territory for approximately one week against a limited attack. He added that a precondition for his assessment was that the defense reform of 2009 had been fully implemented. At present it appears that this reform will not see the light of day. Initially, the target year for implementation was 2014 but this has now been postponed to between 2019 and 2023 – assuming a 10% increase in the defense budget, which is a highly optimistic assumption. Map 3 is a depiction of General Göranson´s assessment. It is important to note that only one of the four options shown can be chosen.

As for  receiving help, as set out in the Solidarity Clause of 2009, two issues are worth noting which each have different implications. First, as a result of Sweden’s limited ability to defend its own territory, it is evident that Sweden really would require help. The most pressing need would probably be for advanced ground-based air defense systems to protect vital installations such as air and naval bases against ballistic missiles and long-range ground attack missiles. Sweden does not possess such a capability. These systems would probably also be needed to protect foreign units based on Swedish territory.

Second, from a Swedish perspective one way of giving the Solidarity Clause meaningful content would be to allow NATO to deploy units on Swedish territory in order to support its members in the Baltic Sea region. But practical considerations, such as the ability to use airbases, organize logistics, and cooperate with Swedish military staff and units, would in most cases face the same problems as those set out above for cooperation for the purpose of defending Sweden. If so, NATO would probably have to take responsibility for defending those parts of Swedish territory which Sweden is unable to protect itself, for all practical purposes making it an operation to help defend Sweden as well as the Baltic States.

The overarching problem, regardless of the main reason why NATO forces would be deployed on Swedish territory or use Swedish airspace, is the lack of preparation. There is no organization to provide host nation support, operational planning is not coordinated and there is no integrated command chain. Swedish military airbases are too small in both size and number to accommodate even a modest increase in the number of aircraft over and above the Swedish aircraftalready in place. If NATO or the US were willing to demonstrate its resolve to defend the Baltic States by, for example, basing an Air Expeditionary Force in Sweden, this would be possible only with the use of one or two of the few large civilian international airports. Only they have runways that are long enough and staging areas that are large enough, but they lack any military infrastructure. In addition, it is doubtful whether they could be requisitioned for military use in any crisis short of a full-blown  war.

Sweden has put itself in the most dangerous strategic situation of all: making it clear to a potential aggressor that it will be in the opposite camp, while having done nothing to make cooperation with potential allies possible and being unable to defend itself. In this way, Sweden has jeopardized not just its own security, but also that of its neighbors.

Swedish policymakers are now preparing a new long-term defense bill, to be presented to parliament in 2015. Although there are some signs that theSwedish policy makers are becoming a bit more “realists” in their thinking it presently looks unlikely that this will lead to any decisions strengthening Swedish military capabilities. At bestthis will lead to some extra spending making it possible to implement the structure decided in the defence bill from 2009 – the “one week defence”. Neither does it look like NATO membership will be on the agenda for the coming years.  It seems that it will continue to be a demanding task for Swedish politicians and officials to explain how Sweden is contributing to security and stability in the Baltic Sea region.


Karlis Neretnieks, Major General (retired), is a former President of the Swedish National Defence College (University). He is currently conducting research at the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences on security in the Baltic Sea region.

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