Leadership: Nordic Unity Against Russia


February 13, 2016: Sweden and Denmark have agreed to increased defense cooperation to improve the defense capabilities of both nations (which together control the entrance to the Baltic Sea) and make the most of shrinking Defense budgets. This agreement will involve joint maintenance and basing arrangements as well as new rules that make it easier to ships and aircraft from both nations to easily operate in each other’s territory. Sweden has a larger problem because it, unlike Denmark, does not belong to NATO and is also a lot closer to Russia.

This new agreement is a side effect of Swedish politicians, in 015, finally agreeing with their military leaders about the fact that over two decades of reductions in their military had made the country unable to do much about any aggressive moves by Russia. This despite the fact the Russian armed forces have been reduced 80 percent since 1991. The massive cuts to defense were based on the belief that the post-Soviet and democratic Russia would not return to the threatening ways employed during 70 years of communist and centuries of tsarist rule. To the dismay of many (including a lot of Russians) the Russian leadership did revert and are now threatening their neighbors. The bad old days are back and the neighbors have to be prepared.

Even before the Cold War ended Sweden had begun dismantling its formidable World War II era armed forces. In 1990 Sweden had an active force of 63,000 troops, 75 percent of them conscripts getting their training before going into the reserves. That reserve force had over 700,000 troops. The armed forces had over 1,500 armored vehicles, even more artillery and mortars plus over 450 combat aircraft, over fifty warships (including twelve submarines) and plans to quickly mobilize and fight. Historically that was all fairly recent and came to be in the early 1940s. Back then, alarmed at how ill-prepared they were for a German invasion in 1940 the Swedes declared themselves neutral, agreed to allow Germany access to Norway via Sweden and supply essential ores for German industry. Meanwhile before the war was over Sweden had quietly built up a large army based on the Swiss model. This force began to shrink in the 1980s and in 2008 it was decided to go even further by freezing the defense budget at about five billion dollars a year through 2014. At the same time it was decided to raise the readiness of its active duty units for deployment overseas on peacekeeping missions. To accomplish this the old self-defense forces was gradually disbanded. That meant the deactivation of several infantry and tank units so it could improve the readiness of the remaining 12,500 troops who were now eligible for peacekeeping deployment. The 2008 plan meant that some 30 percent of the infantry units were be cut along with half the 150 Leopard 2 tanks. With the Soviet Union gone Sweden did not see the need to have as many tanks on active duty. During the Cold War, the Swedes could mobilize up to a million troops. By 2008 this had been reduced to 330,000 and was to be reduced still more after 2008.

Military leaders are not happy with all this, but the politicians, legislature and voters had spoken. The Swedes were still able to mobilize over 30,000 troops in a few hours, for any military emergency or natural disaster. Unfortunately the 2008 plan was put together the same year Russia unexpectedly invaded its tiny southern neighbor Georgia. That made many Swedes nervous and they were right to be concerned because the Russians became increasingly aggressive and by 2014 were again secretly sending submarines into Swedish territorial waters and had openly invaded Ukraine. Russia began making public threats to most of their European neighbors and in 2015 was threatening to go to war with Turkey.

Yet the 2008 plan continued for a while. By 2011 Sweden realized it was running out of soldiers. This was mainly because 2010 Sweden abolished conscription. Sweden had been reducing the size of its armed forces since the 1990s and has been discussing the mechanics of abolishing conscription for years. As a result of that by 2010 fewer (only 10,000 a year) young men were being conscripted, and for shorter (11 months) terms. With conscription gone, Sweden thought they could rely on volunteers, serving for longer terms of service. Sweden wanted a more capable force, and raised standards to get it. In 2000 Sweden was drafting 50,000 men a year. But the new plan, to recruit 16,000 volunteers by 2014, was soon in trouble. By 2011 only half the needed recruits are joining. Most of the new troops would be reservists, part-time soldiers who would only be called to full-time duty as needed (for an emergency, or a peacekeeping mission for which there were not enough "career" or active duty soldiers available.) The recruiting shortfalls meant that career troops will be going on peacekeeping missions more often, thus encouraging many of them to leave the military.

There was no ready solution for the recruiting problem, other than offering more money. But that was very unlikely because Swedish voters refused to increase the defense budget and only agreed to freeze its defense budget for the next five years or so. At the same time the military was ordered to raise the readiness of its active duty units for deployment overseas on peacekeeping missions. The goal was to have all units of the active military capable of deployment outside Sweden, within a week. But the reality was that only a third of the active duty troops could be sent abroad and many of these required up a year of preparation.

By 2014, the volunteer force was seven battalion size "battle groups". The navy's amphibious infantry battalion ("marines") were turned into an infantry battalion with amphibious capabilities. The air force and navy underwent less stress and transformation at first. In 2011 the Swedish Air Force is one of the more powerful in the region, and the Swedish Navy had maintained much of its strength, as other Baltic navies downsized enormously when the Cold War ended. But by now even the air force and navy have suffered from the inability to maintain the few ships they have.

Military leaders are not happy with this and until very recently the politicians, legislature and voters demanded more cuts. There were growing doubts about the enthusiasm of officers and NCOs to turn the military inside out to conform to a plan formulated by politicians who ignored the growing Russian threat and the shrinking Swedish capability to do anything about it. Many of those officers and NCOs simply left the military. Even in 2011 there was some anxiety about what shape the Swedish military would be in by 2014. When 2014 arrived the military was indeed much reduced and the public was now alarmed. The defense budget has now been boosted to about $6 billion a year but the military points out, and civilian analysts agree, that this is not enough to make much of a difference in the short term.

Swedes now realize that the Russian threat is real and growing. The Swedes are now more aware of their precarious defenses but have not really done much to remedy the problem. Going back to the old “reserve army” will require the reintroduction of conscription and that is not popular. It is really all up to the Russians. If they become a scary enough threat the Swedes will rearm, otherwise it is mostly posturing and angst.

Denmark has always had a much smaller military (and population and GDP) than Sweden but even with NATO membership has been seeking ways to increase its security in the face of growing Russian aggression. Other Nordic nations (Finland and Norway) are also rearming and seeking allies to deal with the Russian threats.


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