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Russian Threat Re-Energizes Sweden's Push To Join NATO, Boost Spending

Mar. 16, 2014 - 03:45AM   |  
By GERARD O’DWYER   |   Comments
Swedish Buildup: ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems is developing the A26 next-generation submarine for Sweden. Top Swedish officials are angling to increase the procurement from two to five.
Swedish Buildup: ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems is developing the A26 next-generation submarine for Sweden. Top Swedish officials are angling to increase the procurement from two to five. (ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems)
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HELSINKI — Sweden’s government is examining a proposal to boost military spending to defend its own territories and the strategic Baltic Sea area in the face of renewed Russian aggression in Ukraine. There is also a movement among high government officials to re-examine the long-running issue of joining NATO.

The Swedish Cabinet will discuss, in coming weeks, a cross-party coalition proposal to signifi­cantly increase capital spending on the Navy’s submarine fleet.

In a direct response to Russia’s military actions in the Crimean Peninsula, Jan Björklund, the Liberal Peoples’ Party leader and Sweden’s deputy prime minister, is pushing for a “comprehensive strategic military re-think on capability.” Björklund also wants Sweden to “set the wheels in motion” to join NATO.

“What the crisis in the Ukraine shows is that we need to return to our original defense doctrine of having the capability to defend our borders,” Björklund said at a March 12 news conference. “The crisis highlights our vulnerability in the Baltic Sea. We need to strengthen our presence and capability here. NATO membership is the best long-term option.

“How many people thought that Russia would go into the Crimea? The same argument could hold true for the Baltic states. The crisis in the Ukraine should be met with action by Western powers to offer it fast-track membership to the European Union,” Björklund said.

Sweden’s defense capability has been seriously weakened by more than 10 years of low spending by governments on defense, Björklund said. The armed forces’ budget for 2014 amounts to $6.2 billion, equivalent to 1.05 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) and down from 1.5 percent of GDP in 2006.

Russia’s expansionist actions in Ukraine pose a real threat for Sweden, and one that could be repeated in the Baltic states, said Peter Hultqvist, chairman of the Parliamentary Defense Committee (PDC).

“We need to build a stronger and better resourced defense. Having a robust air and naval presence in the Baltic Sea and a strengthened military base on Götland Island is fundamental to defending future threats,” Hultqvist said in an interview.

The Swedish Cabinet will examine in coming weeks a proposal by Foreign Minister Carl Bildt to expand the Navy’s submarine modernization program to cover the acquisition of five rather than two next-generation subs at an additional cost of $1.6 billion.

“We need to strengthen our military presence on Götland and our overall capability in the Baltic Sea. Two new subs is not enough. The ambition should be to have the best fighter and submarine capability for our size of any European nation,” Bildt said in a statement. “This is vital if Sweden is to create a credible defense.”

The Riksdag in June 2010 approved plans to buy two new submarines. The first of these were to have been delivered in 2018. However, the project has been delayed by several years, with the prospect that Saab, and not the Malmö-based, German-owned ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (formerly Kockums), will get the contract.

Sweden’s armed forces maintained a strong air and naval presence on Götland, which lies 90 kilometers from the country’s southeastern coast and 130 kilometers from NATO-aligned Latvia, up to the end of the Cold War era.

Serial annual cuts in the military’s budget have reduced the island’s military value. However, the armed forces, in response to the crisis in the Ukraine, sent a squadron of Gripen aircraft to Götland on March 4.

Russia’s flexing of its military muscles in Ukraine poses a very real long-term threat to Sweden, along with other Nordic and Baltic states, said Staffan Danielsson, the Center Party’s representative on the PDC.

“Russia’s strengthening military capability is nothing new. We are seeing it in the High North, and in its Baltic military in Kaliningrad, which is just 248 kilometers from Götland,” Danielsson said in an interview. “The significance of Götland to Russia was evident in last year’s staged mock attack against Sweden.”

That “simulated” nighttime attack on mainland Sweden’s defense, industrial and government facilities took place March 29. The exercise was led by two Tu-22M3 Backfire heavy bombers escorted by four Su-27 Flanker fighters.

Götland’s strategic value for Russia is further heightened by the location of the $11 billion Nord Stream-operated Baltic Sea gas pipeline, which runs near the island’s eastern coastline. The pipeline transports 55 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually to markets in Western Europe.

“Cutbacks meant that Sweden offered no response to this act, which took place less than 32 kilometers from Götland and Swedish airspace,” Danielsson said. “Instead of Gripens, it was left to two Danish F-16s from NATO’s Quick Action Alert station in Lithuania to scramble and shadow the war-games aircraft back to Russia.”

The “incident” came two months after an Armed Forces Command report that conceded Sweden lacked the capacity to defend the country for longer than one week without external help.

“In the Cold War era our air-defense comprised 20 squadrons and 400 aircraft in four strategic air bases. We now have about a quarter of the aircraft we had, and this could fall to between 80 and 100 aircraft,” Hultqvist said.

The Center Party and the LPP are confident that their coalition partner, the Moderates, will back plans to increase military spending, Danielsson said. The Moderates hold key ministerial portfolios, including the prime minister’s chair, defense, foreign affairs and finance.

Finance Minister Anders Borg has promised the government will revisit defense spending.

“It is no longer acceptable that Sweden spends less money, as a ratio to GDP, than any other Nordic country,” Borg said in a statement.

Borg’s turnaround to a pro-spending position was echoed by Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt.

“We have a powerful and unpredictable neighbor which is not behaving according to international structures developed after the Cold War. This unpredictability creates uncertainty in our neighborhood, and this must be a starting point for revising defense spending needs,” Reinfeldt told the Riksdag on March 11.

Email: godwyer@defensenews.com.

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