In Sweden, the Debate over National Defense Continues

3 MINS READApr 30, 2013 | 15:10 GMT
A Swedish Air Force JAS 39 Gripen fighter plane
Patric Soderstrom/AFP/Getty Images

Recent Russian military shows of force in the Baltic region have aggravated the ongoing debate in Sweden over its military capability and just how much Stockholm is willing to pay for it. In an unannounced move made March 29, Russian bombers performed flybys of the Swedish island of Gotska Sandon.

Since the end of the Cold War, the security environment in Sweden has been relatively calm. The country no longer faces the threat of Soviet invasion, and thus Stockholm has not needed to sustain high levels of defense spending. During that time, economic consideration and other political priorities likewise persuaded lawmakers to reduce military appropriations.

But as Russia drives on with plans to modernize its own military, Swedish lawmakers and citizens alike are reconsidering this relatively newfound neglect. Many in the country are now discussing whether Sweden, a non-NATO member, should increase military spending and recapitalize much of its aging military equipment. 

The debate recently rose to prominence since Sweden began hearings to discuss the future of its military programs. The Armed Forces Command, backed by the opposition, and some within Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt's center-right government are pushing for $30 billion in additional spending through 2020 for procurement and infrastructure needs. And a new opinion survey released April 30 showed that 83 percent of those who responded doubted whether Sweden could defend itself, with only 6 percent expressing confidence in Sweden's defenses.

But Sweden has long been a military power in the region; much of Finland, some of Norway and Latvia and Estonia were members of the Swedish Empire until the early 18th century. With a strong armaments industry, Sweden is one of only a few European countries that make their own fighter aircraft. It thus took many by surprise when in January Swedish Supreme Commander Sverker Goransson said that Sweden had the military capability to defend itself for only one week were it attacked by an outside power — likely an allusion to Russia. Defense Minister Karin Enstrom responded by citing the unlikelihood of multipronged invasion of Sweden by a foreign power.

The gradual decline in Sweden's relative military capability has taken place for more than a decade. Swedish defense spending decreased from 2.5 percent of gross domestic product in 1998 to 1.2 percent in 2012. In fact, Norway has now supplanted Sweden as Scandinavia's top military spender. Sweden's political opposition has eagerly cited that fact and has lobbied to increase military spending by $500 million to $700 million annually.

The debate in Sweden reflects similar budgetary dilemmas throughout continental Europe. With austerity spreading across Europe, many EU countries have curtailed their projected defense spending. With both France and the United Kingdom looking at significant defense cuts, concerns abound that even limited military operations, such as those in Libya and Mali, would not be possible in the future. This has led to increased concern that European countries will continue to rely disproportionally on the United States through NATO (the United States accounts for 75 percent of NATO spending).

But Sweden is not a NATO member. Thus Stockholm understands that it would have few options if it found itself in a full scale war with Russia. This understanding was reinforced in January, when NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the alliance could not guarantee the security of Sweden as long as it remained a non-member state.

Given Sweden's demonstrated record of neutrality, it is unlikely that Sweden will join NATO anytime soon. In fact, Sweden has gradually been trending toward more cooperation with some NATO countries and other Nordic states. However, many in Sweden believe such cooperation distracts the government from enhancing the country's territorial defense.

Despite Sweden's relative military decline over the past decade, the country remains a military industrial powerhouse in the region. Increases in defense spending could rapidly enhance its military capabilities. With Russia modernizing its military and with significant domestic political will for increased defense spending, the Swedish military may find itself with new resources.

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