Sweden’s military is in dire straits. Since the last days of the Cold War, the Swedish armed services have been progressively defunded and disarmed by their government. Compared to only a few decades ago, the Swedish army is only a fraction of its former self, its numbers having been reduced by nearly 90 per cent since the last days of the Cold War. Russian saber rattling in the Baltic has only brought this issue more to the fore in the minds of Swedish policy makers and strategic command, with some even calling for a return to compulsory conscription, a practice officially abolished only around six years ago.

Image courtesy of Alyssa Weeks © 2016, public domain.

Image courtesy of Alyssa Weeks © 2016, public domain.

With a land area of more than 445,000 square kilometers and a coastline 3200 kilometers long, Sweden is the fifth largest country in Europe. Despite its size and geographic proximity to its perceivably restive Russian neighbor, however, Sweden’s military has been comprised by perennial staffing issues. Estimates of earlier this year found the nation’s armed forces lacking; there was a shortage of nearly 1,000 full time soldiers, besides an additional 6,500 part-time reserve troops. These numbers should not be overlooked, as the April 2016 Swedish defense budget only allowed for the training and maintenance of 17,100 troops in total. In 2013, General Sverker Göransson, Supreme Commander of Sweden’s military, commented on the state of the military in explicit terms. When questioned on the efficacy and preparedness of the forces under his command, the General answered, ‘We can defend ourselves against an attack against a localized target. We are talking about a week on our own.’

Despite its current state, Sweden’s armed forces were once a formidable presence in the Baltic. Throughout the Cold War, the nation continued its traditional emphasis on rapid mobilization capability through armament repositories, strategically placed near major population centers. When Gorbachev took charge of the Soviet Union in 1985, the Swedish Army stood at nearly half a million strong, the Navy boasted 40 warships and 12 submarines, and the Air Force maintained over 300 airplanes. The current Swedish manpower crisis has its roots in frequent budget cuts starting as early as last decade of the twentieth century. When the USSR collapsed in late 1991, Sweden began to dismantle its military structures. High Command did not immediately object, with some viewing the development as an opportunity to consolidate and modernize the armed forces into a more effective fighting machine. However, any plans for remodeling the military foundered during the catastrophic recession of 1992, as interest rates skyrocketed and the government desperately sought new targets for defunding. As part of its economic recovery program, the Swedish Parliament scrapped most of the nation’s military capabilities, dramatically reducing each branch of the armed services.

When Sweden abolished conscription in 2010, it was seen as a natural transition to substitute draft based troops with professional soldiers. International conflicts necessitated the use of modern units made up of full time recruits, as opposed to local conscript forces. However, this paradigm shift has proven more costly than practical, as Sweden incurs greater costs than any other European nation to maintain its selective, professional units. In the 2015 documentary, ‘What Happened to Defense,’ Alyson Bailes – the former head of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute – estimated that for each member of its armed forces, the Swedish government spends nearly four times more on equipment than its German counterpart to the south. In addition, Sweden has taken a unique approach to its recruit based military in dispensing with the traditional, contract based enlistment/commission process. Any member in any branch of the Swedish armed forces is free to quit after giving the necessary notice, with nearly 17 per cent of the total military doing so last year. It would seem that despite considerable financial and career-building incentives, not enough young Swedes are signing up to serve in uniform.

Concern over military unpreparedness has been highlighted by contemporary security tensions in the Baltic region. Swedish government officials have perceived recent Russian behavior towards their nation as belligerent in nature. In September of 2014, a pair of SU-24 fighter bombers were reported to have illegally violated Swedish airspace, with Foreign Minister Carl Bildt characterizing the incident as ‘the most serious aerial incursion by the Russians’ in years. In March of the same year, Säpo, Sweden’s official Security Service, identified Russia as their country’s largest intelligence threat. He also , noted that Russian espionage activities have been ‘extensive’ during the last few years. NATO has recently stepped up its presence in the Baltic region, organizing a number of training scenarios simulating the Russian occupation of Swedish territory in 2014. An unsurprised Karlis Neretnieks, former commander of Gotland’s armored brigade, used the example of his former post to illustrate his concerns at the time:

There will be a race over Swedish territory if a serious crisis should emerge in our close proximity. As far as the Russians are concerned, it would be a great advantage to ‘borrow’ Gotland. It doesn’t cost anything, it’s quick and easy and they can say: ‘You’ll get the island back. We mean you no harm, you’ll get Gotland back in 2-3 months, we just need to get the Baltic states to do what we want.

Indeed, it would appear that this particular – and strategically important – Baltic island of Gotland is representative of the larger problem, defended only by a modest infantry force and less than a score of tanks at the time.

Recent efforts have been made in order to revitalize the lackluster Swedish armed services. Early in January 2016, Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom suggested the reintroduction of mixed military and civilian conscription, citing the ongoing European refugee crisis as an additional security consideration. It would appear that many Swedes now share this sentiment. In a poll conducted the same month by the research group Ipso, it was found that nearly 72 per cent of Swedish citizens support the reinstatement of conscription in order to rebuild the military. If Sweden is to regain its former military presence in Europe, it appears the Parliament must reinstate mandatory national service.