Sweden Developing Greater Regional Defense Role

Fighter jet used in Loyal Arrow exercise, Sweden

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.

Sweden has also gotten significantly closer to the US in military terms. While cooperation was limited during the Cold War, today Swedish forces exercise and operate with the US and NATO on a regular basis. In 2005 Sweden loaned a submarine, with crew and all, to the US Navy to conduct anti-submarine warfare exercises off San Diego. Swedish submarines have a unique propulsion system that allows them to remain submerged and silent for much longer than a traditional conventional submarine, making them an extremely attractive partner for American anti-submarine warriors struggling to prepare for defeating anti-access strategies in the Pacific, the Middle East, and elsewhere. Found to be highly useful by the US Navy, the anti-submarine warfare training program with Swedish participation was extended for another year in 2006. In addition, Swedish fighter jets and their support crews have also made the long trek to Nevada to participate in the US Air Force’s annual Red Flag exercise. Cooperation in Afghanistan has also been close. For example, Swedish wounded have been rushed to field hospitals by U.S. Black Hawk helicopters.

NATO and the US have welcomed Sweden’s defense transformation with open arms. In Washington and Brussels, Sweden is seen as arguably NATO’s strongest outside partner. This is perhaps not surprising since Sweden has a highly competent military, and in some instances has cutting edge capabilities, such as the aforementioned fighter jets and submarines, that are above and beyond what many NATO allies bring to the table.

While the transformation of Sweden’s defense and security policy has been rapid and quite impressive, all is not well. The rapid changes in Sweden’s policies and armed forces have not been well anchored among the Swedish public.

The Solidarity Declaration was a non-event in Sweden, and perhaps more discussed in Washington than in Stockholm. Swedish opinion shapers will still refer to Sweden’s neutrality, while in fact it was done away with for good with the parliament’s Solidarity Declaration. Furthermore, many Swedes did not realize the full extent of Sweden’s engagement in Afghanistan under ISAF until Swedish units got themselves into serious firefights with, unfortunately, deadly consequences for two Swedish officers in recent days.

Swedish newspapers were full of editorials about the end of conscription, both for and against, on July 1 of this year, the day the decision went into effect. But little was written on it in the mainstream media before the decision was taken. The hosting of multi-national and bilateral exercises is not uncontroversial in Sweden in any case. Political leaders on the left claim that bringing NATO and US forces to the north of Sweden heightens tensions with Russia (who have held its own major exercises in the Nordic-Baltic region in recent times), risks a regional arms race in response, and inadvertently increases NATO’s and the US’ capability to undertake offensive operations. While these opinions are not only coming from the fringe of Swedish politics, one should bear in mind that the two major Swedish parties (the Social Democrats and the Moderate Party) broadly share the outlook of the importance of Sweden working in concert with the US and NATO.

Anchoring and socializing the concept of a Swedish military fully engaged in NATO, EU, UN, and even coalition operations is a job for Sweden’s political leadership, not for its soldiers and sailors. However, if the political leadership does not step up to plate to fully explain Sweden’s defense and security transformation support for Swedes operating in the Hindu Kush or outside the coast of Somalia may not be able to be sustained for very long, especially if things go horribly wrong in the field, which it tends to do in the dangerous corners of the world where Swedes now work shoulder to shoulder with US and NATO troops.

Magnus Nordenman is an associate director of the Atlantic Council’s International Security program. Photo credit: Swedish Armed Forces. This article is published under the umbrella of the Atlantic Council’s new Nordic-Baltic Security Initiative, which seeks to raise the level of awareness about Nordic-Baltic security issues, facilitate dialogues between experts and policy leaders from the region and the United States, and formulate a way ahead for the role of the EU, NATO, and the United States in the Nordic-Baltic region.

Image: Fighter%20jet%20used%20in%20Loyal%20Arrow%20exercise.jpg