Paramilitary: Sweden Goes Old School To Survive


July 4, 2018: On June 4th Sweden held its first nationwide, unannounced mobilization of the Home Guard since 1975. This is another effort to prepare Sweden to deal with the renewed Russian threat. The Home Guard consists of reservists and volunteers whose job is local defense and maintenance of order in a national or local emergency. The Home Guard currently has about 22,000 members organized into 70 infantry battalions (each with 2-5 companies) that are assigned to areas where their part-time soldiers work and live. The Home Guard was created in 1940 and now depends on volunteers who are either former full time or reservist personnel who have at least three months of basic training. Twice a year Home Guard personnel two four day long training exercises. These four-day events involve practicing mobilization and doing what they are expected to do in wartime or a major emergency. In addition, most Home Guard companies (about 70 troops each) hold weekend training sessions ten times a year.

The unannounced mobilization of the Home Guard serves to find out how well the Home Guard as a whole would function. The Home Guard is voluntarily and members can leave the force any time they choose to. Since 2014 there have been more volunteers and the Home Guard units could be more selective in who they accepted. The Home Guard mobilization is but the latest effort by Sweden to rebuild its traditional defense. The Home Guard take their training and readiness very seriously, especially when there is an obvious threat. In 1940 it was the Germans but after 1945 it was the Russians, at least until 1991. Now the Russians are once more a threat and the government had to agree that the Home Guard required more attention, resources and training.

Yet the Home Guard is more a police and emergency services than a military one. While the guardsmen are armed they are not expected to be a primary defense against invaders. This point was made when the people of Gotland Island recently pointed out that the local Home Guard was not enough to protect areas like Gotland from a surprise attack. The resulted in the government taking action to put a military garrison back on Gotland.

The Home Guard is not the only component of Swedish military readiness being tested. In late 2017 Sweden held its largest military exercises since the 1990s. Some 19,000 full-time soldiers and reservists were involved and the exercise was based on Russia attempting to seize and hold the island of Gotland after a surprise attack. The defense of Gotland has been an issue in Sweden ever since conscription was ended in 2010. Since the 1990s the military budget and number of full-time troops were cut. That led to the elimination of the Gotland garrison, a small force of full-time soldiers to watch for a Russian surprise attack and alert the reserve forces on the island to mobilize. With the end of conscription, it proved impossible to attract enough volunteers from Gotland to sustain the traditional force of military reservists, who would quickly mobilize and confront the invaders.

Gotland is the largest (at 3,200 square kilometers) of many Swedish island in the Baltic Sea. It had long been a key military target for any invaders, be they from Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. In 2015 the army found it could not attract enough volunteers from among the island population of 57,000 to serve to serve in the new garrison of 168 full-time troops and 70 reservists. Gotland has been demanding the return of the garrison to make it difficult (if not impossible) for the Russians to take control of Gotland quickly and without loss. But without conscription, there were far too few volunteers and that meant not enough full time and reserve troops for the defense of Gotland. By early 2018 Gotland again had a garrison of 350 troops and, with the revival of conscription, a growing force of reservists. The Gotland garrison consists of 150 full-time troops and 200 reservists. As the reserve force grows (as young men are conscripted, go through months of training and then become reservists) the Gotland garrison will grow. During the Cold War, the Gotland defense force grew as large as 25,000 trained and equipped troops (most of them reservists).

Russia still has nearly a million troops on active duty (compared to five million before 1991). By 2016 all Sweden had available was 38,000 troops. This included 5,600 full-timers, 10,500 reservists and 22,000 Home Guard. Most troops, namely the Home Guard, are not recruited or trained to be combat troops but can do so if there is no other option. By 2020 the Gotland garrison will consist of over a thousand troops equipped to fight and regularly called up for training and to make sure their skills and equipment are ready.

In addition to increasing the defense budget, Sweden surprised themselves and revived conscription, after ending it in 2010 due to over a decade of political and popular pressure to do so. Back then Sweden was following a trend that had led most European nations to abandon conscription. While Britain had eliminated conscription in 1963, most European nations did not follow that example until the Cold War ended in 1991 with the collapse of Soviet Union. Suddenly the huge “Red Army” (Russian armed forces) that had threatened Europe since the end of World War II was gone. But the Russian threat returned in 2014 and Sweden was reminded that two decades of defense budget cuts and a lack of volunteers for military service had left Sweden unable to defend itself.

By 2016 opinion polls revealed that over 70 percent of Swedes wanted conscription revived. As a result of this shift in public opinion the government did just that, but with a few changes. The new conscription will starting in 2018, take at least 4,000 young men (mostly, and fewer women) each year for training and up to 12 months of active duty. The revived conscription is unlike the original concept, which took nearly all men who were physically, mentally and psychologically able. The 2018 version is more selective and includes women as well as men. Conscription will now put a lot more emphasis on accepting only those who want to serve and especially those who are willing to accept positions of responsibility in the reserves. Thus the new conscription will only take about 31 percent of the young men and women available each year and keep them on active duty for 8-12 months. The percentage selected for mandatory service will increase if need be, but the military experts and most voters agree that with some degree of mandatory military service again in force, many young Swedes will find that such service is something they can live with.

The military expects the revival of conscription to help with the growing shortage of technical specialists in the military. In particular, the military needs a steady supply of troops who are expert at various types of electronics and software as well as medical and any other unique skills a modern military needs. After 2010 the Swedish military found that even extraordinary measures failed to attract enough men to join the volunteer military force. Even the growing public outcry for adequate defense against the growing Russian threat was not sufficient. So conscription is back and more Cold War measures may follow.




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