HELSINKI — Defense spending has driven a wedge between the four coalition parties comprising Sweden’s center-right government, with governing parties joining opposition parties to demand that the government boost the defense budget by up to $700 million annually.
Proponents say the boost is necessary to properly fund core operations, including force modernization and equipment replacement programs covering armored vehicles, helicopters, submarines and the proposed next-generation JAS Gripen-E fighter acquisition. Armed Forces Command (AFC) also is pushing for $30 billion in additional spending through 2020 for procurement and infrastructure needs.
Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s administration is under growing pressure to increase defense spending from its current level of $6.1 billion and re-establish Sweden as the Nordic and Baltic region’s foremost military power. The low level of spending, which was continued when the Moderate-led coalition took power in 2006, is regarded by military and political circles to have weakened Sweden’s overall defense capability and stalled the armed forces’ development, said Peter Hultqvist, a Social Democratic member of parliament and chairman of the parliament’s defense committee.
“The government has set the bar too low, and the bar needs to be higher,” he said. “The military needs more money than it is getting at present, or is promised. Sweden needs a strong and credible defense capability. Our top military leader openly questions our capacity to defend ourselves.”
Major procurements over the next five years include the first 60 JAS Gripen-E fighters, UH-60M Black Hawk and NH90 (Heli-14) helicopters, the development and purchase of a next generation Gotland-class submarine, renewal of the Army’s armored fighting vehicles, acquisition of a new UAV, and modernization of the Army’s ground-to-air defense platform and mortar systems.
AFC estimates the military will need to spend an additional $30 billion by 2020 to strengthen air, land and naval capabilities, including equipment buys, infrastructure upgrades at ports and bases, and recruitment for Sweden’s professional forces, said Allan Widman, defense spokesman for the Liberals, one of the four parties in Reinfeldt’s coalition. This includes projected maintenance costs for the JAS Gripen-E.
“I am not happy with the level of spending on defense,” Widman said. “It was also disappointing to observe Defense Minister [Karin] Enström’s response to military chief Sverker Göransson’s recent assessment that Sweden could defend a localized attack but not a general multipronged invasion. Enström’s response that this is a reasonable evaluation of Sweden’s capability is just not acceptable.”
An increase on the scale of $500 million to $700 million annually would reverse the trend where defense spending has declined from 2.5 percent of gross national product in 1998 to 1.2 percent in 2012.
Enström’s controversial comments came in response to Göransson’s statement, made on the eve of the 2013 Sälen Society and Defense conference, that the military had concluded Sweden could not be defended against a general invasion for longer than one week.
“In basic terms, Göransson is saying that sustained underinvestment has left Sweden’s military without the equipment or the trained manpower to properly defend the country to any credible degree,” said Cristian Mertens, a Brussels-based political analyst. “The present yearly budget of just over $6 billion is not enough. Even if the budget is raised to $7 billion, it will still be less than the $7.3 billion Norway will spend on defense in 2013.”
The divisions now visible within Reinfeldt’s Cabinet were also triggered by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s message, delivered at Sälen, that non-aligned Sweden could not depend on the alliance for assistance in a crisis.
“This admission ... has played a key role in reopening the political debate on defense and military spending,” Mertens said. “Underinvestment has been tolerated by all parties, but the realization that neutral Sweden may be left on its own is quite another issue. I believe we will soon see a significant upward shift in spending policy.”
Sweden must ensure that its military can defend its sovereign territory and achieve regional ambitions to boost the overall security of the Nordic High North and the Baltic Sea area, Widman said.
“In my view, a neutral country must have higher ambitions for its defense and security irrespective of the current economic or geopolitical situation,” Widman said. “Enström contends that the threat of attack is low, but no government can ever rule out the risk of an invasion. Add to this NATO’s position that Sweden has no guarantee of support in a crisis, and we have no plan B. We are largely on our own.”
Enström has promised the government will review its defense spending policies. The state Defense Commission is examining the forward-looking needs of the military, including new cost-efficiency solutions, she said.
“This coalition government is implementing the largest defense reform in a long time. The priority is to ensure that the reform is implemented, and we have a modern and efficient defense that can defend the whole of Sweden,” Enström said.
With the Defense Commission not due to report until 2015, the government likely will raise spending this year, said Staffan Danielsson, the Center Party’s defense spokesman.
“How much the increase will be is not certain, but the Moderates are now isolated, while their partners in government, the Center, Liberals, and Christian Democrats, all favor a significant increase in the defense budget,” he said.
A militarily powerful Sweden is the best contribution to stability in the High North, Nordic and Baltic Sea regions, he said.
“We have traditionally been the biggest military power, and we must regain this status in partnership with our Nordic neighbors,” Danielsson said. “To do this, our military must have the funding it needs to be fully functional and have the manpower and equipment to defend this country and region.”