Paramilitary: Sweden Scared Straight


February 1, 2021: In late 2020 the Swedish parliament voted to increase defense spending 40 percent during the next five years. By 2025 annual defense spending will be $11 billion. This was the largest increase since the 1950s and repeats a reaction not seen since then, when Sweden realized that Russia was once more a major threat. The increased spending will mean the armed forces will grow from the current 55,000 full time personnel to 90,000 by 2030. Many army units disbanded over the last two decades are being revived. New warships and combat aircraft are to be purchased as well as new weapons for the ground forces. Conscription is being expanded to increase the reserves and the number of troops that can be mobilized in an emergency.

Even before the Cold War ended Sweden had begun 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 1990 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 well thought out and practiced plans to quickly mobilize and fight.

Historically all these military preparations were fairly recent and came to be in the early 1940s. Back then, alarmed at how ill-prepared they were for a German invasion after 1939, the Swedes declared themselves neutral in 1940, agreed to allow Germany access to Norway via Sweden and supply essential ores for German industry. Meanwhile before the war was over Sweden had quietly built up a large army based on the Swiss model. This force began to shrink in the 1980s and in 2008 it was decided to go even further by freezing the 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 were 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 operations overseas. The 2008 plan meant that some 30 percent of the infantry units were to be cut along with half the 150 Leopard 2 tanks. With the Soviet Union gone Sweden did not see the need to have as many tanks on active duty. 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 after 2008.

Throughout the Cold War (1948-91) Sweden actively prepared for the possibility of an attack by Russia. That ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the threat returned starting in 2008 and has grown since then. All of this contributed to a fundamental basic shift in Swedish defense attitudes. After 2014, with Russian declaring the West a dangerous foe of Russia, most Swedes favored joining NATO. Even without NATO membership Sweden has entered into a growing number of military agreements with NATO members.

There were some other reactions that were, literally, closer to home. In 2018 Sweden did something it had not done since 1961, it put together a brochure on dealing with a national emergency. The pamphlet was for distribution to all 4.7 million households. The brochure contained advice on what to do in the event of war, as in a Russian invasion. At the time there were some sharp political differences on the possibility of war, so the brochure also covered similar actions Swedes should take if the catastrophe was some aspect of the “Climate Change” threat or a massive hacker or terror attack. Since 2018 Russia has pushed aside all other potential catastrophes and focused attention on how to prepare for an old, before the Cold War ended in 1991, threat. That explains and justifies the sharp increase in defense spending and the return of conscription.

Neighbors of Sweden have reacted in a similar fashion and concentrated on the Russian threat. Across the Baltic Sea, NATO members Lithuania and Latvia issued similar publications to all their citizens. Lithuania led the way when, in late 2016, a 75 page “how to survive another Russian occupation” manual appeared. What all citizens received was called; "Prepare to survive emergencies and war." Lithuania has plenty of experience with being invaded and occupied by Russia and wants to remind its citizens what works, especially now that Lithuania has a mutual defense treaty with the United States and all other NATO members. NATO membership does not guarantee reinforcements quickly enough to keep the Russians out. The “prepare to survive” guide provides tips on how to behave when dealing with the invader while also spying on the occupation force. The Lithuanian manual provided illustrations and description of most Russian weapons and details of how the Russians use secret police, local informants and special operations troops to try and control an occupied population. The manual also pointed out that Russia will send in agents, or activate ones it has already recruited, before an invasion and provides tips on how to detect the presence of these agents, especially in preparation for an imminent invasion.

Denmark has always had a much smaller military (and population and GDP) than Sweden but even with NATO membership has been seeking ways to increase its security in the face of growing Russian aggression. Other Nordic nations (Finland and Norway) are also rearming and seeking allies to deal with the Russian threats. NATO is likely to do something it never did during the Cold War, welcome Finland and Sweden as members.

Sweden is aware of all these threats the Baltic States publications discuss but for Sweden it has always been theoretical. Sweden has never been invaded and has not been involved in any wars since 1814. All of their neighbors have been invaded or dragged into a war. For NATO members and nations that regained their independence when the Soviet Union dissolved, the threat of invasion and occupation is a recent experience. Combined, all three Baltic States have barely two-thirds the population of Sweden and less than half the GDP per capita as well. Despite this the Baltic States have been energetically expanding their military capabilities, something the Swedes used to be a world leader at. Now Sweden is returning to its traditional doctrine of well-armed neutrality, but with less emphasis on neutrality.

No one expected this after the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991. That marked the end of the Cold War, followed by the Soviet era armed forces shrinking to 20 percent of its 1991 size during the 1990s. Massive cuts to Swedish defense were based on a belief that the post-Soviet and democratic Russia would not return to its threatening ways employed during 70 years of communist and centuries of tsarist rule. To the dismay of many, including a lot of Russians, the Russian leadership did revert and are now threatening their neighbors. While current Russian forces are still a fifth the size of the 1991 forces, the Russians are seeking to modernize what they have and are acting like Russia was still a superpower. In that respect, the bad old days are back and the neighbors have to be prepared.


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