Attrition: Swedes Reconsider Conscription

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March 19, 2017: Sweden has revived conscription, after ending it in 2010. Back then Sweden was following a trend that had led most European nations to abandon conscription. While Britain had eliminated conscription in 1963, most European nations did not follow that example until the Cold War ended in 1991 with the collapse of Soviet Union. Suddenly the huge “Red Army” (Russian armed forces) that had threatened Europe since the end of World War II was gone. But the Russian threat returned in 2014 and Sweden was reminded that two decades of defense budget cuts and a lack of volunteers for military service had left Sweden unable to defend itself. By 2016 opinion polls revealed that over 70 percent of Swedes wanted conscription revived. As a result of this shift in public opinion the government did just that, but with a few changes.

The revived conscription is unlike the original concept, which took nearly all men who were physically, mentally and psychologically able. The 2017 version is more selective and includes women as well as men. Conscription will now put a lot more emphasis on accepting only those who want to serve and especially those who are willing to accept positions of responsibility in the reserves. Thus the new conscription will only take about 31 percent of the young men and women available each year and keep them on active duty for 8-12 months. The percentage selected for mandatory service will increase if need be, but the military experts and most voters agree that with some degree of mandatory military service again in force, many young Swedes will find that such service is something they can live with.

The military expects the revival of conscription to help with the growing shortage of technical specialists in the military. In particular the military needs a steady supply of troops who are expert at various types of electronics and software as well as medical and any other unique skills a modern military needs. After 2010 the Swedish military found that even extraordinary measures failed to attract enough men to join the volunteer military force. Even the growing public outcry for adequate defense against the growing Russian threat was not sufficient. This was put into perspective when personnel shortages forced the elimination of full time and reserve troops based on the island of Gotland to defend it against surprise attack. The island used to have a military garrison but that was eliminated in the 1990s as Sweden dismantled its substantial Cold War era defense forces and with the end of conscription it proved impossible to attract enough volunteers from Gotland to sustain the tradition force of military reservists.

Gotland is the largest (at 3,200 square kilometers) of many Swedish island in the Baltic Sea. It had long been a key military target for any invaders, be they from Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union is gone but Russia has again become a threat once more and parliament authorized a Gotland defense force consisting of a 168 man infantry company and a 70 man tank company. The infantry would be full time soldiers while the tank company would be manned by reservists (part time soldiers.) The purpose of this small garrison is to make it impossible for the Russians to take control of Gotland quickly and without loss. The island has a population of 57,000 and during World War II and the Cold War that meant there were over 4,000 local reservists who were armed and organized to deal with any attack. Times have changed and now the army found that even with some energetic recruiting they could not get 200 local men to volunteer.

The government had managed to upgrade the weapons for the Gotland defense force, which now includes some Swedish made CV90 Infantry Fighting Vehicles (IFV). This a 22 ton tracked vehicle needs a crew of three and has room for eight passengers (usually infantrymen). The vehicle turret carries a 40mm autocannon and a coaxial 7.62mm machine-gun as well as a thermal imager for night operations.

The CV90 was needed in Gotland because by 2015 Swedish politicians came to agree with their generals and admirals that over two decades of reductions in their military has made the country unable to do much about any aggressive Russian moves. This despite the fact the Russian armed forces have been reduced 80 percent since 1991. That was still a million troops while by 2016 all Sweden had available was 38,000 troops. This includes 5,600 full timers, 10,500 reservists and 22,000 Home Guard. Most troops, namely the Home Guard, are another form of reserves but instead of reinforcing full time troops in wartime, the Home Guard are organized into 70 infantry battalions (each with 2-5 companies) that are assigned to areas where their part-time soldiers work and live. The Home Guard was created in 1940 and now depends on volunteers who are either former full time or reservist personnel who have at least three months of basic training and hold two four day long training exercises a year in which they practice mobilization and doing what they are expected to do in wartime. In addition most Home Guard companies (about 70 troops each) hold weekend training session ten times a year. The Home Guard take their training and readiness very seriously, especially when there is an obvious threat. In 1940 it was the Germans but after the 1945 it was the Russians, at least until 1991. Now the Russians are once more a threat.

 


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