Sweden Developing Greater Regional Defense Role

Fighter jet used in Loyal Arrow exercise, Sweden

From Magnus Nordenman, the Atlantic Council:  In August the sunny calm and quiet that is a Swedish summer will be shattered by the impact of Joint Direct Attack Munitions dropped by F-16CM Fighting Falcons from US Air Force Europe. No, this is not an pre-emptive strike against a northern European country more known for Abba, IKEA, and its much touted social safety net than high intensity combat. This is a Swedish-US military exercise and Swedish JAS-39 Gripen fighter jets will work closely with their American counterparts near the city of Lulea, about 35 miles from the border with Finland.

While Sweden has hosted NATO exercises in the past, most recently the Loyal Arrow air exercise in 2009, this summer’s exercise is the first US-Swedish bilateral exercise on Swedish soil.

This exercise signifies a major step in Sweden’s security and defense transformation that has progressed rapidly in recent years. In order to make its forces more deployable and relevant to 21st century security challenges, Sweden’s conscription system was ended July 1 and replaced by an all-volunteer force. Last year, the Swedish parliament adopted a “Solidarity Declaration,” promising Swedish military aid and assistance to any neighbor or EU country in case of a crisis.

These latest moves build upon operations and policies that have been undertaken in a steady stream since the end of the Cold War. In recent years Sweden has dispatched special forces to Congo and Afghanistan (where two of its members were killed by an IED attack three years ago), led one of the EU’s Battle Groups, intervened in Bosnia and Kosovo as part of the NATO missions there, suppressed piracy off the coast of Somalia, and currently deploys around 500 soldiers in the increasingly restive provinces around Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan.

Sweden also wants to do more in terms of international and bilateral exercises on Swedish soil, having open air space and exercise fields of a size that is just not possible to find on the more cramped continent of Europe. Sweden is the size of California, but with a population of only 9 million, mostly concentrated in the south, making the sparsely populated north ideal for large scale military exercises. Some in the defense and security establishment in Stockholm view these exercises as an opportunity to expand regional defense cooperation as well. Joint hosting of exercises between Sweden and, say, Norway, would allow a vast space for air, ground, and maritime exercises, including parts of the North Atlantic off the coast of Norway. 

Magnus Nordenman is an associate director of the Atlantic Council’s International Security program.  (photo: Swedish Armed Forces)

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