HELSINKI — Political support has surged to boost spending on Swedish defense, with one leading official urging the government to restore Sweden as the Nordic region’s primary military power.
“As a nation, we have reduced our national defense capabilities over the past 20 years. The defense resolutions we adopted in 2004 and 2009 were almost totally focused on international operations. It is now time for some self-criticism and reflection. We need to have stronger national defense capabilities,” said Jan Björklund, deputy prime minister and Liberal Party leader.
Central to any new policy on defense spending, the Liberals want a government commitment to procure and position U.S. Patriot missiles on a refortified Gotland, a formerly militarized island off Sweden’s southern coast in the Baltic Sea.
Such an investment, which the military estimates could cost up to $10 billion, would serve as a deterrent to a resurgent Russia and greatly enhance Sweden’s air-defense capability in the Nordic and Baltic Sea regions, Björklund said.
“It would not be correct to say Russia is a threat today, but for the first time since the Cold War, Russia is substantially rearming,” Björklund said.
The Liberals have pushed to establish a government-appointed working group to review Sweden’s defense capabilities and propose capacity and funding improvements.
“Our ambition is that we can see a fundamental increase in spending starting in 2015,” Björklund said.
Concern over a rearming Russia in the High North has helped the Liberals win broader support within an administration headed by Prime Minister Fredrik Reindfeldt’s Moderates, and which includes coalition partners the Center and the Christian Democrats.
Foreign Minister Carl Bildt (Moderate) described Russia’s growing economic power and “massive” capital spending on its military installations in the High North as “worrying,” although spending levels as a ratio of gross domestic product are lower than during the Cold War period of the Soviet Union.
“We cannot say Russia poses a serious security threat to the region at the present time, but we do not know what may happen in the future,” Bildt said.
The Christian Democrats have emerged as the most enthusiastic supporter for the Liberals’ drive to elevate Sweden’s military capability.
“Defense chief Gen. Sverker Göranson’s recent assessment that Sweden had the capability to only defend its territorial sovereignty for one week tells its own story. It also shows that much more focus needs to be put on defense,” said Mikael Oscarsson, the Christian Democrats’ spokesman on defense.
The $6.1 billion, equivalent to 1.2 percent of GDP, that Sweden spends on defense is inadequate if the country wants to remain the Nordic region’s chief military power while fulfilling ambitions to expand its protective reach — in collaboration with NATO-aligned Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — to cover the Baltic Sea area, Oscarsson said.
“Sweden was spending 1.5 percent of GDP on defense in 2007 when the real decline started. We need to restore this level of spending, or go even higher,” Oscarsson said.
The Liberals’ argument about a weakened military is supported in the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences’ analysis, “Can We Defend Ourselves For a Week?” released Feb. 14.
The report concludes that the government’s focus on international operations has left the country’s national defense capability so undermanned and underfunded that there is no guarantee the armed forces could defend its territorial sovereignty for one week.
Sweden’s defense structure is optimized to operate overseas under well-defined, efficient logistics and resupply systems. However, shortcomings arise when the military is asked to defend Sweden, says the report’s author, retired Maj. Gen. Karlis Neretnieks, a fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences (RSAWS).
“For territorial defense, the fighting units would have sufficient ammunition, fuel and other supplies when the battle begins. But there will be little potential for resupplies. The major difficulty is that we may not know what area of Sweden may be attacked. In areas where the military has not organized, it would be impossible to offer any effective measure of defense at all,” Neretnieks said.
The RSAWS analysis, conducted in 2011-2012, estimates that Sweden will have seven battle-ready battalions in 2019, but only two would have a resupply capability for essential munitions, food and fuel. The report also questions whether core naval, air and land forces’ units would be able to communicate with one another in coordinated battle situations.
The weakening budget is also hurting support for international operations. The latest example has seen the Army scramble to find C-17 cargo capacity to support military operations in Mali. However, defense spending cuts mean that to fly equipment to Mali, the Army has to postpone resupply operations to Afghanistan.
Sweden needs to rethink how it defends itself, Björklund said.
“Rather than recruiting professional soldiers for six to eight years, soldiers could instead serve on active duty for two years before being placed on reserve for the next decade. This method would be sufficient to operate four to five well-resourced and funded rapid-response brigades with a very high capability and some 30,000 soldiers dedicated to national territorial defense,” Björklund said.