A couple of decades ago, Sweden had a strong military. Its air force was one of the capable in the world, its navy had dozens of ships and submarines, and artillery guarded the coastlines from a multitude of secret mountain hideaways.
Now, after a number of fatal decisions, based on the belief that wars in Europe were a thing of the past, most of its military is gone and Sweden has virtually no means of protecting itself.
According to Sweden’s Supreme Commander Sverker Göransson, we can, at best and in five years, defend ourselves in one place for one week.
Sweden is a large country: with 447,435 square kilometers, it is the fifth largest in Europe. It also has one of the longest coastlines in Europe (3,200 kilometers), which not easily defensible.
Four days before the Second World War broke out, then Prime Minister Per Albin Hansson declared that “Sweden’s preparedness is good.” But that statement was a lie. Sweden’sfinancial preparedness may have been good, but its military preparedness was abysmal. The Swedish Army was outdated. Since the 1920s, Sweden’s military had been cut almost in half. Sweden could perhaps have resisted Hitler’s Germany for a few hours.
By declaring itself neutral — and allowing Germany to use the Swedish railway system to transport weapons and personnel to and from Norway — Sweden was able to avoid the fate of Denmark and Norway, which were occupied by the Germans. During that war, however, Sweden did start mobilizing substantially. By 1943, it had achieved a respectable military strength.
The clever things about Sweden’s military doctrine were the draft and the “mobilization repositories.” The draft meant that all young men were required to do military service — a tradition going back to the Viking Age, then known as ledungen, a native army at the king’s disposal.
The mobilization repositories were a Swedish innovation. Instead of having a standing military force in centralized bases as in other countries, Sweden went for a military that could be quickly mobilized — with weapons and other equipment hidden in many small secret stashes out in the woods. According to some sources, there were as many as 6,000-8,000 repositories. Everybody who had served in the military regularly underwent refresher training exercises, and knew exactly where to go in the event of war. If an enemy were suddenly to attack Sweden, hundreds of thousands of fully armed soldiers could be deployed within hours.
This strong Swedish military endured until the mid-1980s. At that time, there were 100,000 active-duty soldiers in Army combat units; and counting local defense units and Home Guardsmen, another 350,000 men were available. The Air Force had over 300 airplanes; the Navy had some 40 warships and 12 submarines, and the Coastal Artillery had 28 battalions.
On April 16, 2015, Swedish public television (SVT) broadcast the documentary, “What Happened to Defense?” It was a complete review of the military that had disappeared.
“Sweden had a home defense, manned by conscripts who could be called upon when needed,” Wilhelm Agrell, a military historian, says in the documentary. “You could enhance preparedness and mobilize step-by-step. The potential was huge if you went full throttle, which we never did.”
But the upkeep was expensive. When the Cold War ended and the Berlin wall came down in 1989, and when the Soviet Union collapsed shortly thereafter, the quality of the Swedish military began to wane. Why care, the thinking went? The Russian Bear was at peace.
That was when a strange thing happened — the leaders of the Armed Forces decided to take a “time out.” The highest military leaders in the country were convinced that the threat of invasion was all in the past, and that the country’s defenses could therefore be shut down. They convinced the politicians that a complete military makeover was the right thing to do; they wanted a “pause” and to come back in ten years — more modern and stronger than ever.
We now know what happened. “Half of the transformation went very well,” Wilhelm Agrell states. “The dismantling of the old structure.”
One of the advocates for the military transformation was Army Lieutenant General Johan Kihl. He became Chief Strategy Officer at military headquarters in 1996, and was amazed to find that so many things in the Swedish military were outdated. “For example,” Kihl says in the documentary,” we had 850,000 flyswatters in stock. We had loads of cars from the 1960s, trucks that ran for only a couple of miles. This wasn’t sustainable; we needed to phase that out.”
But what should replace it? Ideas flowed. Maybe the wars of the future would be completely different — maybe fast, agile forces were the way to go? Maybe forces that could use this internet everybody was talking about — what if everything could just be connected?
In 1994, Kihl spoke of “hacker platoons,” sensors that could monitor all of Sweden, unmanned airplanes and balloons that could report on everything that moved.
General Owe Wictorin, Supreme Commander of the military during that period, was just as enthusiastic. In a television interview, he said: “Maybe a future Supreme Commander can use the phone to stave off an attack, instead of bullets and gunpowder. Maybe say: ‘I see what you are doing. Stop or we will fight you.'”
In the same period, a severe recession hit Sweden. In 1992, interest rates were raised to a staggering 500%, and politicians were searching everywhere for possible budget cuts. When General Wictorin suggested defense cuts and reform in favor of modern and flexible armed forces, the idea sounded as if it were a Christmas present.
In the fall of 1998, General Wictorin had his plan for the historical transformation all worked out. But his big mistake was that he had not grasped that the politicians had now identified defense as an area ripe for major budget cuts. When the state budget was presented, two days after General Wictorin proposed his plan, the defense budget was 15 billion kronor short (about $1.9 billion USD in 1998 dollars). In the documentary, General Wictorin says: “It demanded magic tricks we could not perform. Our plan went straight in the trash; with these cuts, it was not possible to implement it.”
Then everything just unraveled. In 2000, the Swedish Parliament made a new decision on defense — to cut the budget by half. Compared to 1985, there was now only:
- Fifteen percent as many Army combat units
- One tenth as many local defense units
- Half as many Home Guardsmen
- Half of the Air Force
- One quarter of the Navy
The modern Swedish military, built up over a hundred years, was scrapped in ten or eleven years. According to the military historian Wilhelm Agrell, the dismantling process was inconceivably vast. Every last item stored in the mobilization repositories was hauled away to central storage bases. The process quickly got out of control, and before long, no one knew where anything was. The whole maneuver also turned out to be quite a bit more costly than expected. Nothing went according to plan, and then it was time for the next big decision on how the military should be handled.
In 2004, more units were scrapped and 5,000 military personnel (25% of the total) were let go.
“The new defense,” said Agrell, “was supposed to be in place in 2004, but at this time, everything was a screaming mess. There was no new defense and not enough money. What to do? Well, the politicians once again ordered more cutbacks.”
This was what was left:
- Six percent of the combat units
- No local defense
- The Home Guard was once again cut in half
- 100 airplanes instead of 200
- A navy cut in half, with only seven surface vessels and four submarines
The focus of the Swedish military now turned to international operations. Troops were sent to Afghanistan on a mission that dragged on for 13 years. However, conscripts could not be ordered to serve abroad; that mission required professional soldiers. Therefore, in 2010, national service was repealed and professional armed forces were introduced.
Meanwhile, in 2008, the unthinkable happened: Russia invaded Georgia, and a five-day war took place. The Russian bear had awakened.
“Now,” according to Agrell, “there was a stone in our shoe. The consensus had been that no state in Europe would ever attack another state. But someone just had, and it wasn’t just anybody. It was Russia. It was not supposed to happen, but it had. Suddenly Swedish politicians understood that we need to have some kind of ability to defend ourselves, if we against all odds were to be threatened again.”
Armed Forces brass, which until then had pretty much kept quiet, suddenly came to life. In 2011, Russian military aircraft once again started to fly close to Swedish airspace (which was a common practice during the Cold war but had ceased during the 1990s), and there were new reports on foreign submarines sighted along the coasts. In 2013, General Sverker Göransson, Supreme Commander of Sweden’s military, made a statement that scared the wits out of the Swedes — and made the politicians furious. Asked how good the Swedish military was, General Göransson answered, “We can defend ourselves against an attack against a localized target. We’re talking about a week on our own.”
Was Göransson really allowed to say that, or was this classified information? The Supreme Commander was accused of breaching national security, but he did not waver.
A Russian television news-parody show, joking about Sweden only being able to hold out for a week, aired a parody of the ABBA song “Mamma Mia,” mocking Sweden and its female Minister of Defense: “Mamma Mia, Russians coming here, on foot — oh my God it’s scary! … Defense Minister wears a dress…”
Comment: Good thing. It will make it easier for us to invade Sweden, and beat some sense in its inhabitants. Hell is eternal, hell is eternal, hell is eternal…