Sweden’s minority government and political opposition Alliance bloc have agreed to a new defense deal that will provide SEK8.1 billion ($1 billion) in additional funding for the country’s broad security needs over the upcoming three-year period through 2020. The agreement bolsters spending on the Swedish military (which will receive SEK6.8 billion – or $841 million – worth of the additional funding) and civil defense (SEK1.3 billion, or $160 million).
This latest step by the government is yet another indicator of the growing political consensus that years of disinvestment, force structure downsizings, and broad neglect have left Sweden vulnerable in a shifting strategic landscape.
The reality of Sweden’s altered security environment dawned on the nation’s political class in 2014, owing to two events. First, Russia completed an abrupt takeover of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. Then later in the fall a mysterious submarine – believed by the Swedish military to be Russian – penetrated the Swedish archipelago.
With Sweden jarred by these events, its national security outlook underwent an abrupt turn. Oftentimes oblivious, dismissive or naïve from the mid-1990s onward, the majority political parties have now slowly coalesced around recognition that Sweden – despite being ostensibly outside any NATO-versus-Russia paradigm – remains vulnerable should conflict erupt along its periphery. This recognition is particularly important as it relates to Sweden’s offshore island of Gotland, strategically located in the middle of the Baltic Sea.
In 2015, a study was commissioned by the Swedish government to analyze the country’s current and future defense and security cooperation alternatives. The inquiry’s final report (“Security in a New Era”) was issued on September 9, 2016. The report’s conclusions reiterated earlier assessments by the Swedish Defense Commission that Russian actions – including the return of Russian military aircraft close to (or violating) Swedish airspace in 2011, a Russian military exercise in March 2013 that simulated an air attack on Sweden, and the aforementioned annexing of the Crimea from Ukraine – had altogether undermined international law and the European cooperative security order. It noted that “Russia’s actions are characterized by a tendency to exploit opportunities it perceives in any given situation.”
The study also made the observation that any Russian attempt to exert military control over the nearby Baltic region would likely draw Sweden into the conflict, possibly in the initial stages of any operation.
Under this scenario, the study pointed out, Russia might seek to move troops onto Swedish territory in order to deploy air defense systems that could be used to deny NATO forces access to Baltic Sea airspace. Gotland’s relative proximity to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad would also provide Russia with the ability to deny NATO sea-based support elements access to shipping lanes that could be used to come to the aid of the Baltics.
Recognizing the importance of the island as a crucial link in the larger Baltic Sea security chain, Sweden began returning troops and equipment to Gotland on a permanent basis in September 2016 following an 11-year hiatus.
Later, in December, Sweden’s Civil Contingency Agency began notifying local authorities across the country that operations centers in underground bunkers should be maintained and a system of emergency sirens put into place. The mass directive hinted at a return to Sweden’s old Total Defense Strategy of the Cold War era, instructing local governments that in the event of war, municipality defense efforts should be as natural as performing civil services in peacetime.
Then in March, the Swedish government announced it was reintroducing military conscription as a means to backfill a shortage of incoming military volunteers.
Now comes the release of more funding for the country’s defense and security needs, money that will go toward – among other things – buying new armored vehicles and ammunition and bolstering basic training, military recruitment, and officer education. Yet while the latest defense spending agreement is an improvement, it should be noted that it remains 10 percent short of what the Supreme Commander of the Swedish Armed Forces, Micael Byden, earlier this year stated would be needed to fulfill the five-year Defense Policy Plan (or Defense Bill 2016-2020) agreed to in 2015.
Nonetheless, taken altogether the recent steps to bolster Sweden’s weakened military and national defense apparatus mark a shift in Stockholm’s strategic calculus. No longer content to regard Russia’s actions as the dying murmurs of a fading power, and no longer able to call upon a large, well-equipped standing force and capable reserve system with which to guarantee its sovereignty, Sweden’s political leadership has little choice but to revisit the national security approach.
The country’s next five-year Defense Bill (covering 2021-2025) should speak volumes about that approach.