Leadership: Sweden Seeks A Secret Weapon


August 26, 2015: Swedish politicians now agree with their military leaders that over two decades of reductions in their military has made the country unable to do much about any aggressive moves by Russia. This despite the fact the Russian armed forces have been reduced 80 percent since 1991.

Even before the Cold War ended Sweden began dismantling its formidable World War II era armed forces. In 1990 Sweden had an active force of 63,000 troops, 75 percent of them conscripts getting their training before going into the reserves. That reserve force had over 700,000 troops. The armed forces had over 1,500 armored vehicles, even more artillery and mortars plus over 450 combat aircraft, over fifty warships (including twelve submarines) and plans to quickly mobilize and fight. That was all fairly recent and came to be in the early 1940s.  Alarmed at how ill-prepared they were for a German invasion in 1940 the Swedes declared themselves neutral, agreed to allow Germany access to Norway via Sweden and supply essential ores for German industry and before the war was over had quietly built up a large army based on the Swiss model. This force was shrunk after the 1980s and in 2008 it was decided to go even further by freezing its defense budget at about five billion dollars a year through 2014. At the same time it was decided to raise the readiness of its active duty units for deployment overseas on peacekeeping missions. To accomplish this the old self-defense forces was gradually disbanded. That meant the deactivation of several infantry and tank units so it could improve the readiness of the remaining 12,500 troops who were now eligible for peacekeeping deployment. The 2008 plan meant that some 30 percent of the infantry units were be cut along with half the 150 Leopard 2 tanks. With the Soviet Union gone (since 1991) and Russia much less of a threat, Sweden did not see the need to have as many tanks on active duty. Sweden has long maintained a "mobilization army" (like Israel and Switzerland), where most troops get their military training, then go to reserve units (where they receive refresher training for up to twenty years.) During the Cold War, the Swedes could mobilize up to a million troops. By 2008 this had been reduced to 330,000 and was to be reduced still more under the 2008 plan.

Military leaders are not happy with all this, but the politicians, legislature and voters had spoken. The Swedes were still able to mobilize over 30,000 troops in a few hours, for any military emergency or natural disaster. Unfortunately the 2008 plan was put together the same year Russia unexpectedly invaded its tiny southern neighbor Georgia. That made many Swedes nervous and they were right to be concerned because the Russians became increasingly aggressive and by 2014 were again secretly sending submarines into Swedish territorial waters and had openly invaded Ukraine.

Yet the 2008 plan continued. Then in 2011 Sweden realized it was running out of soldiers. It all began in 2010 when Sweden abolished conscription. Sweden has been reducing the size of its armed forces over the past decade, and has been discussing the mechanics of abolishing conscription for over three years. As a result of that, fewer (recently only 10,000 a year) young men were being conscripted, and for shorter (11 months) terms. With conscription gone, Sweden thought they could rely on volunteers, serving for longer terms of service. Sweden wanted a more capable force, and raised standards to get it. In 2000 Sweden was drafting 50,000 men a year. But the new plan, to recruit 16,000 volunteers by 2014, was soon in trouble. By 2011 only half the needed recruits are joining. Most of the new troops would be reservists, part-time soldiers who would only be called to full-time duty as needed (for an emergency, or a peacekeeping mission for which there were not enough "career" or active duty soldiers available.) The recruiting shortfalls meant that career troops will be going on peacekeeping missions more often, thus encouraging many of them to leave the military.

There was no ready solution for the recruiting problem, other than offering more money. But that was very unlikely because Swedish voters refused to increase the defense budget and only agreed to freeze its defense budget at about $5-5.5 billion a year for the next five years or so. At the same time the military was ordered to raise the readiness of its active duty units for deployment overseas on peacekeeping missions. The goal was to have all units of the active military capable of deployment outside Sweden, within a week. But only a third of the active duty troops could be sent abroad and many of these required up a year of preparation.

By 2014, the volunteer force was seven, battalion size "battle groups". The navy's amphibious infantry battalion ("marines") were turned into an infantry battalion with amphibious capabilities. The air force and navy underwent less stress and transformation at first. In 2011 the Swedish Air Force is one of the more powerful in the region, and the Swedish Navy had maintained much of its strength, as other Baltic navies downsized enormously when the Cold War ended. But by now even the air force and navy have suffered from the inability to maintain the few ships they have.

Military leaders are not happy with this and until very recently the politicians, legislature and voters demanded more cuts. There were growing doubts about the enthusiasm of officers and NCOs to turn the military inside out to conform to a plan formulated by politicians. Many of those officers and NCOs simply left the military. Even in 2011 there was some anxiety about what shape the Swedish military would be in by 2014. When 2014 arrived the military was indeed much reduced and the public was alarmed. The defense budget has now been boosted to about $6 billion a year but the military points out, and civilian analysts agree, that this is not enough to make much of a difference in the short term. Swedes now realize that the Russian threat is now and it is growing. The Swedes are now more aware of their precarious defenses but have not really done much to remedy the problem. Going back to the old “reserve army” will require the reintroduction of conscription and that is not popular. It is really all up to the Russians. If they become a scary enough threat the Swedes will rearm, otherwise it is mostly posturing and angst.





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