WASHINGTON — Like many other nations in Europe, Sweden began to reassess its national security plans following Russia's 2014 invasion of Ukrainian territory. While careful to remain a neutral nation, the Swedish government has created a new web of bilateral military agreements with a number of countries — including a 2016 agreement with the U.S. — while strengthening ties with its Nordic neighbors.
Peter Hultqvist, Sweden's minister of defense since Oct. 2014, is in charge of overseeing Sweden's defense growth. He spoke with Defense News on May 17 while in Washington for his first meeting with officials from the Trump administration, including Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
Have you seen any changes between the U.S. and Sweden under the new administration?
I have no signals that anything has changed between the United States and Sweden. I think we have the same position we have had with all administrations. So I think there is stability in our relations. I am looking forward to discussing with him how to move forward and what we are going to do in the future.
What's been the impact of last year's bilateral agreement with the U.S.?
More exercises together. We continue with our information sharing. They also have a strong connection around different sorts of material systems, and that continues. We have strategical dialogue about the security situation in the northern part of Europe. And I think we have done a lot since we signed the agreement, and we have a close connection between our ministry of defense and the Pentagon.
Do you expect other bilateral agreements to be signed, and how do they vary country by country?
We are now in the process with Germany. I hope that we can sign an agreement in June this year. We'll talk about the German agreements when we have it — it's early now. There are differences, but the main thing is that we are doing activities together, and in that way, building interoperability. Exercises lead you to interoperability, and I'm also very glad U.S. troops will participate in Aurora '17 in September. It's a huge exercise we will have with around 20,000 soldiers [from] Nordic countries, Baltic countries, U.S. and France will participate, and I think that is also very good because we are going to exercise host nation support in these exercises.
Are you worried about Russia's reaction to these exercises?
They have claimed in the past big military exercises are destabilizing. I think exercises create stability because it is a signal. It's a signal that we do things together and we have capabilities together, and for example, we have weekly exercises in the northern part of Sweden, Norway and Finland that we call them cross-border training with the air forces, and then we can exercise in [bigger] formations. That way, we can train the pilots in a better way, but it is also a security signal.
Can you see NATO membership in the cards?
We will not apply for NATO membership. We have the strategy to upgrade the military capability at the national level and deepening our cooperation with other countries with bilateral agreements, multilateral agreements, and be very active in the NATO partnership and advance the procurement program. So that is our strategy and it is broadly accepted in the parliament. We will not apply for NATO membership. I cannot see that. That is a governmental position, and the reason why is, our signal is stability in the region. We will not change the security doctrines.
We want security. But we are not naïve, and because of that, we are working to upgrade our military capability from the national level and deepening it with other countries. We do a lot now with Finland. We exercise a lot together. We build units together — for example, Swedish-finish naval task force. We also cooperate around amphibious capabilities, and we have troops from Sweden in Finland exercising a scenario like defense of Finland, and we have Finish units in Sweden exercising defense of Sweden. So we are very close together, and we have civil servants in Helsinki from our ministry and the same [the other way], so we work together more and more here.
Are ties between Nordic countries being tied quickly enough?
We have done a lot in two and a half years. We have a very close cooperation, and we have done more than I think in many, many years. Many years. So I think this has a real impact. I don't know if anybody can do more in a short time. I don't think so. We're working on more interoperability exercises, sharing information, how to use each other's infrastructure, aerospace, how to organize if we need to help each other. We have planning that can be used if needed. Secure communications between the ministries. It's more about that, just not right now.
Some in Sweden have said the planned budget increases don't go far enough. What's your response?
We have a very good dialogue with the Supreme Commander and the leadership of the defense forces. We try to make analysis together and always step forward together. So I cannot see that we have any tensions between the ministry and the defense leadership. I think we have an approach to solve this together. We have a platform with the parliamentary position of 17 billion Swedish crowns until 2020. And now in the spring budget we decided to enlarge it with a half billion more, and now we have negotiations between these five parties about the budget for 2018. So we are in the process. But you need to be very careful also. If you put in more money, you must also have capabilities delivered. It must do the right thing. I prefer to start the discussion [with] which military capabilities do you need, and what can we deliver? What is realistic, and what can have a real impact on the security? I will never start talking about money. I will start [by] talking about what we need.
So what do you need, then?
We have a lot of challenges. There is need of reinvestments in naval vessels. There are a lot of weapon systems that we have to refurbish. We have ambitions to make the air force stronger; we have procured two new submarines and connected to all these things. We have a lot of things that we've been investing in the Army, Navy and Air Force. One thing that is very clear is we need to do more on [the island of] Gotland. On Gotland we are now building a tank company, a mechanized company, and we will deliver ground-based air defense systems there that year. And we also need to do more. We had a general visit from the United States, and he said Gotland is an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" and said it's very good to be friends with the captain, Sweden.
It seems fair to say Gotland is the major focus of your military buildup, then.
It's an important focus. Because Gotland island, in the middle of the Baltic Sea, has a direct effect on the Baltic states. It's about defense of Sweden, defense of the island of Gotland, but also for the Balts and for the Finns, it has a strategical impact what happens there. So we will continue with investments there — mechanized company, tank company, ground-based air defense systems, naval vessels, repairs of the airport, more exercises, special exercises connected to air defense systems. I will not talk about the next step, but I can say we need a next step.
Can you share any details on the air defense system plan?
It's very important to procure a new air defense missile system, and we are in the process right now. This is for the armed forces as a whole, not only for Gotland. We need to renew our systems. The political will is to procure a new system and decide about a new system, and we are in that process right now.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.