Tim Hepher/Reuters/File
Anti-submarine depth charges are seen on the deck of Swedish naval mine-hunter HMS Ulvon at Karlskrona naval base, Sweden, in April.

Is Sweden's military too small even for its peacenik ways?

Increasingly, Swedes are saying yes – especially as Russian military exercises and patrols come more frequently and closer to Swedish territory.

With fewer than 20,000 active military personnel to cover an area of 170,000 square miles and nearly 2,000 miles of coastline, Sweden is the most thinly defended of the so-called Nordic Four – Sweden, Finland, Norway, and Denmark. So it is not exactly a secret that its military may be too small to defend its own territory.

That doesn't seem to have mattered to most Swedes – at least, not until Russia annexed Crimea and engaged in more muscular military exercises around Europe.

Now, amid a rapidly shifting Baltic security picture – and a report claiming that Russian military drills have entailed the simulated invasion of Swedish territory – the Swedish government and public are struggling to adapt to the possibility that hostilities could actually come to this long peaceful corner of the world.

Swedes have been increasingly anxious over the state of the country’s defenses. Over the past two years, Russian aircraft have conducted maneuvers near Swedish airspace, and last October saw a widely publicized – and futile – search for a foreign submersible in Swedish waters, presumed to be Russian.

And last week saw the release of a report by the Center for European Policy Analysis that claimed Russia had staged a large exercise involving more than 30,000 troops – that included the pantomimed seizure of the strategically located Swedish island of Gotland. The report's author, Economist senior editor Edward Lucas, says he got his information about the drill from “NATO sources.”

“It is a general fact that Russia is carrying out bigger, more complex, and in some cases provocative exercises,” Peter Hultqvist, the defense minister declared last week, in response to the Lucas report. “We are now following that development and are strengthening our military capability.”

But the size, capability, and combat readiness of the Swedish Armed Forces (SAF) have come under fire from a number of critics, including Lt. Col. Johan Wiktorin (ret.), a leading Swedish security consultant. The SAF is “simply too small to defend its territory,” he asserts.

The concerns are already driving funding changes: the parliament has called for an increase in defense spending to 10.2 billion kronor (about $1.2 billion), or about 1.2 percent of GDP, though that is still considerably less than what the SAF originally requested and NATO recommends for its partners, of which Sweden is one.

The Swedish mentality

More significant is the shift in the public's thinking. A January poll by the civil defense agency showed 57 percent of Swedes wanted to increase defense spending – the highest figure in the history of the poll – while only 30 percent of respondents expressed confidence in the government’s policy. 

Support for membership in NATO, long unthinkable in a country that has long prided itself on its military self-sufficiency, is on the rise as well. In January a poll by newspaper Dagens Nyheter indicated that 37 percent were for membership, up from 5 percent from a similar poll taken last year. Forty-seven percent were still opposed to membership.

Such changes have not come easily in a country which, technically, has not been at war since the era of Napoleon. “The big problem,” says Oscar Jonsson, a Swedish defense commentator, “is the Swedish mentality, which is based on the idea that a) a regional armed conflict will not happen, b) it will not involve Sweden and c) it can be solved through peaceable means.  As a result, defense essentially has been a non-issue for some time."

Swedish exceptionalism, or the Swedish mentality, was less of a problem during the cold war period, when Sweden was spending 3 percent of its GDP on a large, well-equipped military, including an Army of 350,000.

A corresponding problem, Colonel Wiktorin and others assert, was Sweden’s decision in 2010 to end its conscription system and convert to a professional force.

“You can use Finland as a contrast, where conscription still enjoys broad popular support because of the clear and obvious role in protecting society," says Keir Giles, associate fellow with the Russia-Eurasia program at the London-based think tank, Chatham House. Finland has a professional military force of 37,000, backed by an active reserve of more than 350,000 men and women. "Those aspects of popular consciousness about the military are a casualty when conscription is abolished.”

Mr. Jonsson, who served with Swedish troops in Afghanistan, adds that the notion of protecting the fatherland, including Gotland, also faded. “We threw out the territorial defense organization very recklessly without maintaining capabilities and materiel that could have had a good effect for very little money,” he says.

'Still a sharp bite'?

The SAF command, of course, welcomes the new attention. “Defense issues have not been really been high on the public agenda in Sweden for quite some time,” Gen. Michael Claesson, deputy head of plans and policy for the SAF, said in an exclusive interview at SAF headquarters in Stockholm. “However as a consequence of the evolving and deteriorating security situation in our region, this has started to change.”

Claesson denies that Sweden is under imminent threat from any country. "However," he concedes, “with regard to Russia, we have seen a major shift in their military posture as well as a lowered threshold for the use of military force in support of political objectives.”

He also declared that the SAF “still has a sharp bite, on our own or together with our partners” in NATO. Still, given how small and spread out the SAF's numbers are (just 50,000, including national guard and reservists), as well as the uneven quality of their equipment, many wonder how sharp that bite can be.

Chatham House's Mr. Giles is sympathetic to the challenges the SAF has faced while dealing with a country which at least until recently felt no need to maintain a robust territorial defense. “The Swedish Armed Forces are doing the best they can in the face of a persistent view over the last few decades that their raison d’être did not include the defense of Sweden.”

Or, as Martin Gelin, the New York correspondent for Dagens Nyheter, put it, “In the period after the cold war the notion that Sweden needed a strong army became a fringe notion. However, now partly in response to the growing notion that Vladimir Putin is dangerous and irrational, that idea is entering the mainstream again.” [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mr. Gelin's surname.]

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