Finnish President of Finland Sauli Niinistö, left, and Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt speak at the annual Society and Defence conference in Sälen, Sweden, on Jan. 12. (Henrik Montgomery/AFP)
HELSINKI — Signaling impatience in perceived shortcomings over intrastate Nordic military cooperation, non-aligned Sweden and Finland have agreed to pursue a “special” defense partnership to include joint operations and material procurement.
A provisional pact emerged from talks between Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and Finnish President Sauli Niinistö at the annual Society & Defense conference held Jan. 12 in Sälen, Sweden.
Finland and Sweden view the building of a special defense relationship as reinforcing their non-aligned positions to remain outside NATO.
For Sweden, the move comes as Reinfeldt’s ruling center-right coalition government faces harsh criticism over its handling of defense spending ahead of September parliamentary elections.
The projected partnership will aim to strengthen the military capabilities of each country, said Karin Enström, Sweden’s defense minister.
“Where we have similar needs, we can look to common procurement or development,” she said. “We are talking about a serious initiative here that can reduce our defense costs through joint projects.”
It remains to be seen how the relationship will work in practice, said Jussi Niinistö, Finland’s Parliamentary Defense Committee chairman.
“Sweden and Finland are already redefining and restructuring their defense policies and military organizations,” said Niinistö, a member of parliament from the nationalist Finns Party. “Then there is the general area of Nordic defense cooperation, which some consider slow to deliver concrete results. NATO-aligned Denmark and Norway will continue to develop their security needs through the alliance. On the other hand, neutral Finland and Sweden will look more to the European Union for defense and security support.”
Initially, the Finnish and Swedish MoDs will appoint task-based and joint expert groups to examine how the national defense organizations in each country could benefit from greater coordination of operational units and resources.
This appraisal process, said Finnish Defense Minister Carl Haglund, will also include holding regular common exercises and providing joint force contributions to international operations. Engaging with Sweden on joint equipment and system buys would be a “natural area” for strategic military cooperation, he said.
Prime opportunities for practical cooperation in joint procurements will develop as Finland and Sweden push ahead with plans to modernize the services. In the short term, both militaries will need to add more tactical and transport helicopter capacity, high-speed littoral combat craft and armored combat vehicles.
Sweden’s defense capability is in a precarious state, said Stefan Löfven, the leader of the opposition Social Democrats.
“We should have a capability that stretches from properly defending our national territories to policing the Baltic Sea and contributing to regional security,” he said. “We should, but we don’t. We abandoned mandatory conscription to focus far too much on participating in international operations. As a consequence, core areas of the military are insufficiently funded, and general trust in our defense capacity is dwindling.”
By prioritizing international operations, the center-right government has stripped Sweden of its role as the Nordic region’s primary military power and reduced its ability to adequately police the Baltic Sea area, Löfven said.
Sweden’s military capability has weakened to such a degree, he said, that the armed forces no longer have the manpower, skills or overall capacity to defend the country from an all-out attack.
Swedish spending on EU missions, including its leadership of the Nordic Battle Group, also must be examined, Löfven said. Sweden’s cost to achieve NBG-readiness and standby is $200 million.
The administration’s management of military spending and national defense has also come under attack from within. Mikael Odenberg, the former Moderate Party defense minister who resigned over cuts to military spending in 2007, saidthe lack of public confidence in national defense will make it hard for the center-right government to win re-election.
“Rather than improving, the situation continues to deteriorate,” he said. “Deepening cooperation in Finland will only work if there is a meaningful effort at real joint defense projects that cut costs and share materials and functions.”
Reinfeldt told the Sälen conference that greater defense cooperation with Finland would reduce the pressure on each state to join a military alliance like NATO. “This is not a defensive alliance, but we are ready to cooperate in new areas in order to improve the operating conditions of our armed forces,” Reinfeldt said.
Joining NATO is not a priority for Sweden “at present,” he said, although public support for joining has been rising.
“It simply does not enjoy broad support in the Swedish Parliament. We must progress in this manner at the same pace with Finland. It is imperative that we are open in our discussions and act collectively.”
Finland’s position on NATO membership mirrors Sweden’s, said President Niinistö, who is the commander in chief of Finland’s military, but that does not permanently shut the door to future NATO membership.
“What this means is that we are not planning to apply to join NATO at this time, although membership will continue to remain an option,” Niinistö said. Both Finland and Sweden, said Niinistö, would continue to develop relations with NATO under the existing Partnership for Peace program.
Support for NATO membership continues to rise in Sweden amid public fears, and regular admissions by military chiefs, that the military lacks the funding and capacity to defend Sweden without external help, Brussels political analyst Poul Renier said.
“Reinfeldt leads a Moderate Party administration which has been traditionally strong on defense and spending on the military,” Renier said. “The facts are that under a Moderate leadership, every budget since 2006 has seen a weakening in real spending on defense. That Reinfeld now wants a special defense relationship may be too little too late for this administration, which looks like it may fall to the resurgent Social Democrats and the nationalist Sweden Democrats in upcoming elections.”
The Swedish government has promised to add $233 million to the defense budget over the next three years, but the Armed Forces Command (AFC) wants the budget to be strengthened by $700 million annually over the long term to cover increasing procurement and manpower costs.
According to a poll conducted Jan. 12 by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency, Swedes’ support for NATO membership has risen from 30 to 36 percent year-on-year; 40 percent of Swedes oppose NATO membership while 24 percent are undecided.
In the same survey, just 26 percent of Swedes expressed a high degree of confidence in the government’s defense policies, down from 35 percent in 2012 and 40 percent in 2011. ■