Sweden is boosting its defence following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It is set to join neighbouring Finland as the 32nd member of NATO. It will strengthen the alliance – but how?
Sweden was invited to join NATO in 2023 but is still waiting for Turkey and Hungary to approve its application. However, Sweden is expected to become NATO’s 32nd member, soon. The Nordic country is widely acknowledged for its consistent and dependable role in the transatlantic community and as a valued NATO partner.
Sweden’s extensive Baltic Sea coastline (total coastline: 2700 kms), the longest in Europe, positions it strategically to enhance NATO’s influence and military presence in the Baltic Sea. Its geographical location connects Denmark in continental Europe, northern countries of Finland and Norway, and Baltic states, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. This unique positioning allows Sweden to serve as a vital link, integrating defence strategies across the High North, North Atlantic, and Baltic Sea regions for a comprehensive regional defence.
The World’s Fourth-largest Air Force
After the Second World War, Sweden had the world’s fourth-largest air force, possessing 1,000 aircraft. The army had 1,500 combat vehicles and was able to mobilise up to 850,000 men and women could be mobilized during the Cold War.
But how strong Sweden’s own defence, now? It is ranked 37th out of 145 countries in the Global Firepower (GFP) 2023 military strength ranking. This ranking is determined by considering various factors including manpower, airpower, land forces, and naval forces. Sweden has a Power Index score of 0.5679, with 0.0000 being considered ‘perfect’ in the GFP assessment. The country’s financial commitment to defence is notable. It’s defence budget will increase by more than 2,4 billion euros between 2023 and 2024, an increase of 28 percent, exceeding the NATO threshold of 2% of GDP. The overall defence spending to 10,6 billion euros in 2024, almost double that of 2020.
Sweden’s air force total stock stands at 205 with a readiness level of 174, while the navy boasts a total of 367 assets, including corvettes and submarines but no aircraft carriers, helicopter carriers, destroyers, or frigates. However, Sweden has no need for large warships. Its defence is focused on a small inland sea, the Baltic Sea, and the brackish waters by the North Sea – not on presence and influence in the oceans. In addition, Sweden’s Home Guard consists of 40 battalions with a total strength of 22,000 men and women.
The Swedish armed forces have seen a significant reduction in active-duty personnel, dropping from 180,000 troops at the end of the Cold War to 14,700 professional and 11,400 reserve soldiers in 2022.
Since reinstating conscription in 2017–2018, the number of conscripts has been rising annually, with an aim to reach ten thousand recruits each year between 2030 and 2035. Efforts to rebuild the force to fifty thousand troops are ongoing but progressing slower than desired. Recruitment challenges include difficulty in encouraging conscripts to pursue long-term military careers post-service.
Post-Cold War Downsizing
However, there are areas of concern. Sweden’s history of neutrality and downsizing post-Cold War led to a reduction in defence capabilities. The funding for defence dropped significantly, leading to the demolition of hardened defences, closure of air force bases with hardened bunkers, and a loss of anti-submarine warfare capabilities by the navy. The ground forces were slashed, and artillery and air defence units were almost entirely eradicated. This downsizing affected Sweden’s ability to defend its territory.
Since 2014, Sweden has rethought its defence posture, particularly in response to the Ukraine crisis. The country has shifted from a stance of neutrality to an increasingly robust international/partner-engaged strategy. Notable efforts include the Aurora 17 exercise, the largest Swedish military exercise in over 20 years, involving numerous NATO members. This exercise marked a revival of Sweden’s approach to total defence, encompassing cyber defence and mobilization strategies.
Key areas of focus for Sweden include operations with Norway and Finland in the High North, enhancing force mobility, and improving collaboration between the Air Force and Navy. The Swedish Navy’s focus on the Swedish archipelago and the Baltic Sea is shifting towards providing strategic depth to the region and collaborating with Denmark and Norway. Additionally, as the Baltic Sea becomes a hub of greater NATO cooperation, Sweden is expected to play a significant role in maritime and defence security, particularly in confronting Russian interests.
Sweden faces challenges in balancing careful thought with speed in its defence rethink. However, if managed correctly, Sweden’s unique location and strengths could significantly contribute to a broader defence and security structure in the region.
Advanced Electronic Warfare
Sweden is has advanced electronic warfare systems for detecting, locating, analysing, blocking and deceiving an adversary’s radio or radar systems, but also electronic warfare designed to afford protection against improvised explosive device (IED) attacks. Europe’s first 5G defence testbed, located in Latvia, has been supplemented by two new standalone 5G networks, built by Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia, for testing defence innovations on a variety of networks. Ericsson delivers mission critical mobile communication solutions to mobile service providers and other partners. Electronic warfare knowledge is needed: during the Christmas holiday in 2023, the GPS system was disrupted in almost all of southern Sweden. The sabotage is linked to a Russian military exercise in Kaliningrad, the daily newspaper Svenska Dagbladet reported.
The Swedish Defence industry is also known for such innovations as Saab’s stealth submarines and Bofors’ advanced robot system air defence missiles. It is responding to Sweden’s needs to adapt to modern warfare challenges, especially considering the limited size of its armed forces and the outdated nature of many of its weapons.
Keeping up with the global competition, also the Swedes are investing heavily in integrating artificial intelligence (AI) to develop autonomous weapon systems, such as drones, controlling over airspace and strategic targets. AI’s role in managing and analyzing vast data is crucial for modern warfare.
Read Also: Sweden’s Defence – Strengths and Weaknesses
Read & Watch More:
ETH Zürich: The Struggle for Sweden’s Defence Policy
National Defence University Press: Rebuilding Total Defense in a Globalized Deregulated Economy The Case of Sweden
Swedish Defence Research Agency: Electronic Warfare
Svenska Dagbladet: Sabotage mot Sverige: ”Attacken var unik” (in Swedish)
Academic Accelerator: Swedish Army – Encyclopedia, Science News & Research Reviews
Swedish Armed Forces: We Defend Sweden Pocket Guide
Försvarshögskolan: Next generation warfare from a Swedish perspective
The Government of Sweden: Sweden and NATO
The Government of Sweden: Military budget initiatives for 2024
The Swedish Defence Commission’s report on security policy 2023
Atlantic Council: Navigating Sweden’s NATO membership: Insights for political and operational adaptation
BBC: How Sweden and Finland went from neutral to NATO
Global Firepower: Sweden Military Strength
Breaking Defence: Sweden’s massive opportunity to rethink its role in Nordic defence
Military TV: Sweden test fires the advanced Bofors Robot System 23 Air Defense Missile (video)