WASHINGTON ― The supreme commander of the Swedish Armed Forces, Gen. Micael Bydén, recently met in person with the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chief’s of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, to discuss the threat posed by Russia’s military buildup on Ukraine’s border.
In a Dec. 15 interview with Defense News, Bydén said this visit, and future ones, to Washington are part of Sweden’s efforts to deepen international defense cooperation. He also visited Marine Corps Base Camp LeJeune in North Carolina, weeks after American and Swedish marine units practiced seizing maritime terrain on the Stockholm Archipelago.
Sweden borders the Baltic Sea — a body of water also adjoining Russia. The northern European nation is not a NATO member but cooperates closely with the alliance. Like others in Europe, Sweden bolstered its defense budget after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine 2014, and the government is continuing to deepen pan-Nordic defense cooperation.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
What was your message to Gen. Milley, and what progress did you make during the meeting?
In our region, there is no secret that Russia is the challenging [factor] and has been over the years. There was a clear indication of its activities in 2014, and operations in Crimea continue. It’s still a war going on in southeastern Ukraine, and what is happening now around Ukraine is of course in focus. So that was an obvious thing we talked about.
We deal with sharing information on a regular basis, on the intel side, and it’s important to understand what is happening. So when it comes to unit numbers and capabilities, we share the same view, and the discussion and the big question would be: What would be [Russia’s] next step? When would the next step be? Why? [Essentially an] assessment of what is happening.
We have different perspectives, which is good. It’s not only Ukraine right now — we see things in a greater perspective. It starts in the Arctic, which we share with our neighboring countries, not least of which is Finland and Norway. So we talked about that [as well as the] Baltic Sea, Ukraine, the Black Sea, all the way down to the Middle East and Africa. It’s a variety of challenging developments right now around the globe, and these are interlinked one way or another.
What’s your assessment of Russia’s forces and intent? How close are we to seeing a military confrontation?
The military confrontation has been there since 2014. You should never underestimate a country that has now built up their capabilities over time. Listen to their rhetoric, listen to their communication. It’s obvious that they do have ambitions. They also protect their long-term interests. If we’re close now to some kind of a major operation, I wouldn’t go into that discussion. But this is really the question right now, and that’s why it’s so important to talk to our partners.
If there’s been a military confrontation all along, what’s the most troubling thing you see that’s different?
We never took our eyes and ears off of Russia — not even when times were different and we [had more optimistic views]. We do have a good understanding about what capabilities they have. But the question will always be: What would the next step be, and why? They have proved [they will] use their military capabilities to reach their aims and goals.
One should not be surprised if they act, but what would the act would be? It’s really hard to to be very clear and 100% sure. This is the tricky question.
How would Sweden react if Russia invades Ukraine?
At a politically high level in Sweden, the support to Ukraine has been there over time. What is happening in Ukraine will definitely have an impact on security in Europe. So it’s bilateral; the support is very clear. What we have done has been under the umbrella of unifier, so it’s multilateral, under the umbrella of the Canadians. That would be training, it would be advising, that support down to the practice level. We would continue on; we would probably add more in that direction. There’s clear support from the Swedish side to Ukraine, whatever happens.
What’s your level of confidence in the West responding, specifically the U.S. and NATO?
When I spoke with Gen. Milley yesterday [Dec. 14], I also expressed my appreciation for the very clear support they have given us ― meaning sharing information, sharing their views ― because it has been very transparent and open.
Sweden recently received the Patriot air defense system. What capability does that provide? What is the timeline beyond the initial handover?
We took delivery from our procurement agency a few weeks ago, so now it’s under the ownership of the Armed Forces. We’ll go from [initial operational capability] to [full operational capability] in line with our plans. Our procurement of the Black Hawk helicopter was another one that met requirements when it came to time, economics and capability requirements. We will continue to work very closely with the U.S. Army in this case.
[The Patriot is] very promising, and it will add tremendously to our capability when it comes to air defense. We had another system before, but it’s from the 1960s, so this opens up a new way of working.
What’s driving the planned 40% increase in Sweden’s defense spending? Is it linked to Russia’s recent activities?
A general answer would be “regional security,” and that would be very much focused on Russia and what Russia has done over time: in 2008, Georgia; and in 2014, the illegal annexation of Crimea and starting a war in southeastern Ukraine. It’s a mix of a World War I and a more modern warfare with high-end capabilities. On a political level, I have the mandate and the budget. The political administration has done its part. Now it’s up to me to deliver, and I welcome it. After years of decline, now we build.
It’s a combination of investments in manpower and modernization. What will that look like?
Five new Army regiments, one air wing. We inaugurated three regiments during the fall.
What we call the “wartime organization” would be about 55,000 people. By 2025, we will be at 80,000; and by 2030, more or less 100,000. Most of that would be conscripts after the reintroduction of the conscript system in 2018. It’s gender-neutral, it’s very positive. We have 100,000 young women and men every year, and right now we take about 5% of them — 5,500 this year, which will go up to 8,000 in 2024.
New capabilities would also come. What we need to develop would be under headlines like “cyber,” so we started the cyber training for soldiers, but it also needs to be complemented with new technology. We will hopefully sign an agreement with the U.S. during the spring when it comes to space. Other areas include electronic warfare and artificial intelligence. We don’t have contracts for everything, but we do have plans, and now it’s high time we go from plans to acquisition.
What’s coming in the near term?
We had plans to acquire GlobalEye [airborne early warning and control aircraft] after 2025, but we will now do it earlier because it will add significantly to our capabilities. With the Saab 340 [aircraft], it’s hard to sustain and it’s a bit slow, but a new platform and new sensor will definitely be a gamechanger for us. Both fighters and submarines are on contract and will be delivered in this five-year period to 2025. Submarines [are coming] in the next five years.
What are the implications of Finland’s decision to buy the F-35 fighter after Sweden pushed the Gripen?
Finland is our closest partner. The relationship we now have, we haven’t done anything like this in modern times. We have plans to fight together beyond peacetime, pending political decisions. I hoped for another outcome, but I fully respect the Finnish decision, and the process has been very thorough. Me and my counterpart have agreed that this will not have an impact on our cooperation because it’s too important right now that we just continue as we have. A fighter system like the F-35 will of course add to our common capability.
How has Sweden deepened security cooperation agreements?
With Finland, its obvious, and we started a few years ago. What it comes down to is trust between individuals at all levels, and we are there. Regionally, we have a trilateral agreement with Finland, Norway and Sweden based on our common responsibility in the Arctic. We have a new trilateral agreement with Norway, Denmark and Sweden, which protects the major harbors in the western part of our country. Otherwise, we work very closely with with all the countries around the Baltic Sea.
With the U.K. and France, we took a few steps, including in Mali together with special forces.
I couldn’t be more clear: The U.S. is one of the most important bilateral cooperation [setups] we have. We also have very important trilateral ties with Finland and the U.S.
We’re part of the U.K.-led Joint Expeditionary Force. From a political level, there is no limit here — from statements of intent to memoranda of understanding.
How long has the intelligence sharing relationship with the U.S. existed? Is it deepening, given the current situation with Russia?
I was an attache [in the United States] 20 years ago, from 1999 to 2002. The relations and cooperation then was built upon research and development, acquisition, and procurement ― on the defense industry side. Intel has always been there to levels I can’t talk about, and I probably don’t know everything about it. But it’s been very important because we are where we are, we see things and it’s easier for us to follow developments here.
The cooperation today is very much operationally driven, so now it’s exercises, it’s training, it’s operating together. Exercises today are very close to operations. You can decide the time and place where to run an exercise, which will definitely have an impact on an operational level or operational outcome. It’s been a very interesting path from 20 years to now, and it’s very promising. We’re looking at new [approaches in] certain areas: joint fires, combining new technologies, making sure that we can communicate securely. It could be a lot of things.
Offer some insights about Russia’s approach to warfare, both in Crimea and this recent massing of troops.
It’s modern capabilities and modern technology like electronic warfare and unmanned platforms. I went to the trenches to see the bad guys over there.
They are experts in what they call “nonlinear warfare” ― which others would call “hybrid warfare.” It could be military, diplomatic or economic. They know exactly how far they can go before [passing a threshold that would lead to traditional conflict]. It could also be information operations, influence operations, cyberattacks continuously happening; the challenge here would be attribution. They are ready to use their military assets, and they take the opportunity while it’s there. As long as it’s in line with their interests ― to be a major power again, to protect their territory ― they are able and capable and ready.
Is the West ready if it comes to that?
We are more ready today than we were just a few years ago. We are more aware [and focused]. If we are ready to go to action if things happens, [time will tell].
Back to my visit here: Having a very good dialogue with with one of my most important counterparts is not only a good start — it’s a good place to work from.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.