HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — Days after Sweden announced its largest military aid package yet for Ukraine, its lead defense officials are positioning the Nordic country’s contributions as an example of what to expect from Stockholm as a NATO member.
Ramping up aid from portable anti-tank weapons to heavy-duty anti-aircraft systems was just the latest in a whiplash-inducing array of changes for Sweden after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. After 200 years of nonalignment, Sweden is now a NATO aspirant, prompting a fast-tracked rewrite of its defense strategy and – from its new center-right government – a major defense budget boost.
Ticking off his top priorities for Defense News on the sidelines of the Halifax International Security Forum last month, Sweden’s newly appointed defense minister, Pål Jonson, started with aid to Ukraine. Days earlier, the government announced a package worth $287 million that was larger than all of its previous aid combined.
“First priority: stepping up economic, military, political and humanitarian support for Ukraine, including the transfer of more advanced weapons systems,” Jonson said Nov. 19. He added that the latest package included “air defense and winter equipment – because that’s what the Ukrainians need.”
Swedish military’s supreme commander, Gen. Micael Bydén, in a separate interview, pointed to the political unity to support the new aid package.
“All of the sovereign countries need to be able to defend ourselves, and I would argue there’s a greater understanding to take more national risk and make sure the Ukrainians have what they need,” Bydén said.
Jonson said the next priority is to become a NATO member “as soon as possible,” with Stockholm “eager” to contribute to NATO’s collective defense through the alliance’s enhanced forward presence arrangement along the eastern boundary, air policing or standing maritime forces.
Sweden, along with fellow unaligned Nordic nation Finland, is currently awaiting unanimous consent from NATO members to join the alliance, a process that could reach its conclusion in 2023 despite reservations about their applications from Hungary and Turkey.
The new government, meanwhile, has set a course under its civil-military “Total Defense” plans to boost the defense budget by $800 million in 2023, backed by higher investments in cyber-defense, signals intelligence, defense preparedness and the expanded intake of military personnel. The aim is to increase defense spending by 40% by 2025 and keep rising, Jonson said.
Stockholm wants NATO allies to know it plans to carry its weight. Sweden’s new government has accelerated the goal for defense spending to hit 2% of gross domestic product from 2026 to 2028 – as Germany and others have vowed to take similar steps.
“Just because we’re joining NATO doesn’t mean we can in any way reduce the pace of our own defense investments,” Jonson said.
In recent days, top defense officials in Europe say arms shortages among Ukraine’s Western allies are forcing difficult conversations about how to balance support for Ukraine with concerns Russia may target them next, and just how much equipment the defense industry can quickly produce.
Jonson said the push to support Ukraine and increased defense spending from Sweden and other Western nations has put “quite a lot of pressure” on the defense industrial base, and it must meet the moment. “It’s important to ramp up industrial production in order to keep up with these expectations,” Jonson said.
Front of mind for Johnson is a government finding in May that Sweden must think not only in terms of industrial capacity but reliable supplies. The idea is to fix capacity that is lagging from Europe’s underinvestment in defense after the Cold War.
“We all need to step up and get better burden-sharing across the Atlantic,” Jonson said. “Exports were very important for [Sweden’s] industrial base outside Europe, but now the demand is going to pick up inside Europe.”
Jonson said that Sweden’s robust defense industry, which already has “strong and viable transatlantic links” is yet another way it will improve NATO.
“For being a quite small country, we have quite a vibrant defense industrial base,” he said. “There’s no other country of 10 million that can produce submarines, surface combatants, advanced artillery systems, combat vehicles and fighter aircraft.”
For Bydén, one challenge is that nearly every Western country is looking to the defense industry to ramp up to meet their defense needs simultaneously.
“If you end up too far down in the row, you will not get what you need, you will not get deliveries,” Bydén said. “We’re in a close dialogue with the defense industry, where the needs are greater than the capacity to step up ― if we continue the way we have done.”
The Swedish defense industry must make a “mental transition” as it is called upon to quickly refill weapons stockpiles sent to Ukraine, he said.
In the haste to ramp up production, there’s the dilemma of who moves first – industry, by building new manufacturing capacity, or governments, by firing up their military-procurement machinations, Bydén said. “I wouldn’t point fingers here because we have challenges just to make sure we do our part, and industry has theirs.”
To Jonson, the war highlights the importance of civil resilience, troop morale and training – but also the role of counter-drone capabilities, space-based information and reconnaissance satellites, rocket artillery and long- and medium-range cruise missiles.
Roughly a year after Sweden became the first non-NATO partner to acquire the Patriot missile system, Bydén last month visited Fort Sill, Oklahoma. It’s home to the U.S. Army’s fires school and where Swedish troops were training to use the Raytheon-made system.
Bydén said Patriot satisfies a requirement in Sweden’s new plans, but there’s a gap for a long-range precision strike capability. He said the gap could one day be filled by a multiple launch rocket system like the Lockheed-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) – or even a fighter jet with a strike capability.
While the military would typically hold a competition to fulfill that need, Bydén said a discussion with political leaders was underway, and the ability to move quickly was a priority.
“It’s a discussion now, what are the capabilities and what are our requirements, and then we’ll find the system,” he said.
With Moscow’s land forces tied up in Ukraine, Sweden sees more of a diplomatic, economic, political, informational and cyber threat to be ready for. “They still have an air force that, if not fully intact, they can use; they have maritime forces, but we don’t see Russian conventional forces around our border in a way that we are worried about,” Bydén said.
As Sweden prepares for NATO membership, Bydén argued Sweden has done “the bulk of the job over the years” of integrating with NATO, as a close partner after cooperating in Afghanistan and Libya operations, and through many joint exercises.
“We know each other at the command level down to soldiers and sailors. They know what we’re capable of, and we know the requirements,” he said.
A major shift will come in the form of integrated operational planning, and another will be the inclusion of 200 Swedish personnel into dedicated NATO roles – a significant number for Sweden’s force.
“They will not happen the first day, but we need to prove and show we are serious,” Bydén said.
Adding Finland and Sweden to the alliance essentially turns the Baltic Sea into a NATO lake, and Bydén called the two countries the “missing pieces of the puzzle.” He said Sweden also brings modern thinking and equipment as well as cold-weather fighting knowhow.
“We will from day one be net contributors when it comes to military capabilities,” he said. “It’s not that Sweden will bring volume, but we will bring quality, and we are a modern force.”
Bydén said Sweden’s relative independence for so many years and well-developed civilian total defense concept mean it has something to teach other countries in the realm of NATO’s Article 3, which requires civil resilience and preparedness.
“This is a part where we also can contribute with our knowledge about a strong defense, total defense – civil and military defense in combination,” he said. “Look at Ukraine right now. Russia is not only fighting a military force that’s strong but they are fighting an entire country where the willingness to defend [is] tremendous.”
Still, Bydén said he felt the Swedish mindset, after two centuries of non-alignment, will have to adjust to absorb what it means to be in NATO.
“We will be a country that needs to understand that we will, in harsh times, be secured and defended by the alliance – but we are also expecting to defend the alliance every given hour or time,” Bydén said. “We are not there, and this is a mental transition for the entire country that we need to work on with more proactive information, education.”
Despite fears that spiking energy costs will hurt European support for Ukraine, Jonson said he was glad to see strong support in Sweden, and he predicted it would endure.
“I know in some other countries there’s a certain degree of fatigue, but I feel there’s both political and public support for stepping up support for Ukraine,” he said. “There’s a lot of momentum, and that’s great.”
Along similar lines, Bydén said he expects more decisions from Stockholm to aid Ukraine.
“What we talk about back home is we need to bear the consequences of the war that is being fought in Ukraine,” Bydén said. “Everything that happens right now, whether it be economic, energy, we just have to bear. Those consequences will always be less tough than ending up in a war.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.