Swedish Defense Minister Karin Enström (Esquilo via Wikimedia Commons)
HELSINKI — Sweden’s parliament, the Riksdag, has endorsed a government plan to increase defense spending by more than 10 percent in 2015-2024. To a great degree, this level of investment is in response to regional tensions over Russian aggression in Ukraine, and Sweden’s need to strengthen its military organization and defense capability, with an emphasis on reinforcing its presence in the Baltic.
The crisis in Ukraine also has re-opened debate on Sweden’s traditional position of military neutrality and its long-term relationship with NATO. Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, together with its defense-strengthening near Nordic borders, has resulted in a slow but not dramatic growth in Swedish popular support for NATO membership. The Moderates, the party to which Defense Minister Karin Enström belongs, and which leads the country’s Alliance coalition government, supports NATO membership.
Q. How important to Sweden is Saab’s acquisition of ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS)?
A. It was important for Sweden that we retained the technologies, skills and capability to produce advanced submarines. The Swedish government had already identified having an underwater capability as a national security interest. This was not really a surprise as previously we had identified having a strong capability to produce advanced fighter aircraft as also being a national security interest.
The acquisition gives Sweden greater control over the entire chain of submarine design and construction. It gives Sweden the ability to produce the submarines that it needs. It also gives Sweden the opportunity to establish cooperation with one or perhaps more international partners who are in the same position as we are, and who have a high degree of underwater competence. We needed to have a new industrial solution in the underwater area for the future. It was not just about Sweden having control, it was also influenced by a wish to have the possibility to pursue strategic international cooperation.
Q. Sweden has had the capacity to build submarines to a competitive standard for decades. How does the TKMS AB acquisition fit into the government’s defense reform plans?
A. That we have the capability to build advanced submarines means we can now act more freely in this area, including the possibility that we may seek one or more international partners.
As an aside, Russian aggression in the Ukraine has of course profound implications for security in Europe, including the Nordic region and the Baltic Sea area. We have stated our intention to bolster Sweden’s defense capacity and capability.
Q. What is the next phase in the armed force’s submarine acquisition and modernization program?
A. The next phase will see our defense materiel administration, FMV [Försvarets Materielverk], place new orders both for the development of the next-generation submarine and the modernization of the Gotland-class submarines. We took a decision in 2010 to acquire two new submarines. The preconditions to commence this project are in place and we therefore hope that the development can start as soon as possible.
Q. Does the government’s new underwater defense-industrial solution have an export dimension?
A. With the knowledge and expertise in place, as well as the intellectual properties fundamental to the continued development, production and maintenance of advanced submarines, we’re convinced that there’s an excellent capacity to meet both the needs of the Swedish Armed Forces and the needs on the international markets.
One shouldn’t be careless when identifying national security interests. Within Europe, we are working hard to develop an open and transparent defense market, so we want the Sweden-based defense industry to be very competitive and develop solutions to stay relevant in the more open and competitive nature of the defense sector in Europe.
Q. What is the background to Sweden’s decision to withdraw from its underwater cooperation, which included the design and possible construction of the A26 sub with TKMS?
A. The background to the Saab acquisition of TKMS began in 2010 when the Swedish government decided that the armed forces should have two new submarines. Negotiations between FMV and TKMS followed for the development and procurement of a new submarine. Last spring FMV concluded that the requirements for moving forward did not exist, and it wasn’t possible to achieve a solution.
Taking into consideration the huge undertaking that this project presented, we want to establish cooperation with one or more strategic international partners. That would not have been possible to do under the cooperation that then existed. This is one important reason why it was necessary to seek out a new solution to secure the future of Sweden’s underwater capability. FMV was unable to achieve the requirements we sought under the then-arrangement with TKMS. Following on Saab’s acquisition of TKMS and its primary shipyards, we now have that solution in place.
Q. Apart from a strategic need, does Sweden see international cooperation as a means to grow its defense-industrial base and competitiveness?
A. International cooperation stands as the cornerstone for providing our armed forces with the equipment it requires. It is natural to want to know if there are others who are interested in acquiring what the Swedish defense industry develops. We always look to see if there are any other potential partners in other nations interested, and have the same needs as we have, both regarding the Nordic countries and within the framework of the European Defence Agency, or other countries.
Sweden’s defense industry is highly competitive, and it has developed a unique capability to build advanced platforms across the whole spectrum of land, air and sea. We are striving for an open and transparent harmonized market in Europe based on fair competition. I believe this will benefit the European and the Swedish defense industry.
Q. Is it becoming more difficult for smaller states, such as Sweden, to compete against much larger players in the sale of aircraft and submarines?
A. It’s a challenge. Nowadays, our defense companies must be open to cooperate and collaborate with other countries in terms of strategic partners and exports. The technical demands today are very very high. It’s favorable for us to have the high level of competence that we have within Sweden and Sweden-based [companies]; this applies for most countries. At the same time, competition, competitiveness and cooperation must be the way forward.
Q. Sweden is at an advanced stage in the sale of 36 Gripen-E aircraft to Brazil. What is the status of talks, and why did Sweden decide not to enter the Danish fighter replacement competition?
A. Negotiations between Saab and Brazil are ongoing, and we have not heard anything to indicate they will not be able to reach an agreement by the end of 2014.
Regarding Denmark, the decision we reached followed a thorough assessment, and we decided that it was better if we did not enter the Danish bidding process. I know there are other countries that have shown interest in the Gripen fighter jet, but I do not want to speculate in any numbers.
Q. What is Sweden’s view on the process of strengthening Nordic defense cooperation [NORDEFCO]? And what would Sweden like to emerge from a bilateral defense arrangement with Finland?
A. The Nordic defense ministers in December signed a joint vision of our defense cooperation, [stating] that “deepened and strengthened Nordic defence cooperation will create opportunities for our respective countries to develop, maintain and use our military means more efficiently and in a more cost-effective manner.” This will also be the baseline for the Swedish chairmanship of NORDEFCO in 2015. From a Swedish perspective, NORDEFCO is a very natural complement to the cooperation within the EU and NATO.
As regards defense cooperation between Sweden and Finland, both countries signed an action plan for deepened cooperation in May. This plan aims at increasing capabilities and efficiency through combined use of resources, increased interoperability and a closer dialogue on common challenges. We have identified a number of cooperation areas that are now being studied. The defense forces will deliver a preliminary joint report on feasible cooperation areas by October.
Q. Public support for NATO membership in Sweden is growing, but at a modest level. Does the government see NATO membership as a viable long-term option?
A. Sweden has a strong partnership with NATO. Our partnership will evolve with our contribution to the NATO Response Force and its Response Forces Pool. A NATO membership would be a major decision. For security and defense, Sweden has a tradition of seeking broad political agreements. Currently, there are only two out of eight parties in the Riksdag which are in favor of joining NATO. Our aim is therefore to develop our partnership with NATO in other ways.
Q. How does the government’s backing for defense-industrial solutions for underwater and the Gripen-E fit into the reorganization of Sweden’s military structure?
A. We intend to step up and increase the pace of defense reform, including in training, exercises and procurement. We have also reiterated the strategic importance of the Baltic Sea region. This is a strategic interest, and having an underwater capacity is a national security requirement for Sweden. ■