Sweden: The Defense that Disappeared by Ingrid Carlqvist

  • According to a 2013 statement by Sweden’s Supreme Commander Sverker Göransson, Sweden can, at best and in five years, defend itself in one place for one week.

  • “One needs to always be prepared to defend the nation’s capital, vital infrastructure, power supply and telecommunications, important airports, import of basic necessities and military reinforcements. … [Sweden] today does not have that capability. … 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.” — Wilhelm Agrell, military historian.

  • “The idea of defending Sweden as the most important thing was lost.” — Owe Wictorin, former Supreme Commander.

  • “As far as the Russians are concerned, it would be a great advantage to ‘borrow’ Gotland. … it’s quick and easy and they can say: ‘We mean you no harm, you’ll get Gotland back in two-to-three months, we just need to get the Baltic states to do what we want.'” — Karlis Neretnieks, former head of the National Defense College.

  • Parliament demanded many things, but has never given the Armed Forces enough money to do them.


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 The Swedish Army was outdated.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…”

Russian TV mocks Sweden’s military capabilities. (Image source: Yesterday Live video screenshot)

Strangely, even though very little remains of the Swedish military, it still costs huge amounts of money. The defense budget has only been cut about 20%. The savings are so meager mainly because professional soldiers are paid more then draftees, but there are other explanations as well.

Alyson J.K. Bailes, a high-ranking British diplomat to several Nordic countries, and former head of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), stated in the documentary “What Happened to Defense?”:

“Sweden has cut its manpower very, very drastically in recent years, so that it now has almost the smallest forces and smallest army of any Nordic state — despite being twice as big as any other. I think that when people do see that, they become quite surprised, and I think any external defense expert looking closely at that, would conclude that Sweden does not have the resources to defend itself.

Sweden has such a large defense industry, it has been proud of having heavily mechanized forces. But if you look at how much money it has been spending on equipment and research, for each man in the Armed Forces, that figure turns out to be the highest in Europe. It is four times as high as what Germany pays for the equipment for one soldier. And then you have to ask yourself — has some of this been about protecting the industry rather than achieving a balanced and effective defense?”

Dazed and confused in the face of the new threats close to Sweden, most political parties now want more money for defense. But they are asking for peanuts. In April, Parliament decided to raise the defense budget by 10.2 billion kronor ($1.2 billion USD) from 2016 to 2020, and appointed a new security policy inquiry into the pros and cons of Sweden’s international collaborations such as the UN, OSSE, EU and NATO. That sum is far below what the Supreme Commander requested just to be able to implement what Parliament had ordered five years earlier. Parliament demanded many things, but has never given the mil enough money to do them.

Only the Sweden Democrats demanded a return to the level of defense spending Sweden had in 1999, which would require an additional 40 billion kronor (around $4.6 billion USD) from 2016 to 2020.

Mikael Jansson, defense policy spokesperson for the Sweden Democrats, told Gatestone Institute that after the Cold War ended, it was natural to make defense cutbacks, but he feels that the politicians responsible went much too far:

“If the defense cutbacks had ended in 1999, we would have had a more reasonable situation today. The goal today is to build a tiny military organization, but even though it is minuscule, it is still under-financed. We are about 50 billion kronor short (around $5.8 billion USD). So, even if the defense budget is significantly increased, it is going to take time before Sweden reaches a reasonable defense capability once again. It is easy to see why the defense budget needs to be doubled to achieve the reality the politicians speak of so beautifully: To be able to defend Sweden. We urgently need to order new submarines, to prevent the total number from dropping below eight. It is also important to order a new, modern, long-range air defense system so we can defend Stockholm, Gotland and all our bases. The order for new SAAB 39 Gripen E should be increased to 100 planes. The old Gripen airplanes should be saved for us to increase the number of military aircraft divisions.”

So how do Swedish politicians imagine defending the country if the Russians get it into their heads to, say, invade Gotland?

The island in the Baltic Sea is a strategically important outpost, close to the Baltic countries, which are all members of NATO. Joining NATO never appealed to Swedish politicians, but in 2009, the Swedish Parliament suddenly announced a “declaration of solidarity” with the EU. It reads:

“Sweden will not remain passive if a disaster or attack should hit another member state, or Nordic country. We expect other countries to act the same way if Sweden is hit. Our country will thus give and receive support, civilian as well as military.”

Estonian president Toomas Hendrik Ilves was not impressed by the declaration. “The problem with the declaration of solidarity,” he says, “is that it doesn’t contain anything concrete. You could send 10,000 bottles of olive oil and meet the demands of solidarity.”

Instead, he puts his faith in NATO, which regularly patrols Estonia’s airspace. U.S. President Barack Obama has said that, “the defense of Riga, Vilnius and Tallinn is as important as the defense of Paris, Berlin and London.”

NATO is well aware that Swedish territory is important. A NATO drill in the fall of 2014 played out a scenario in which Russia had occupied southern Sweden. This exercise was not at all surprising to Karlis Neretnieks, former headmaster at the National Defense College.

“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.’ Why would the Russians abstain from this?”

But surely, Sweden has at least made sure that Gotland is well defended? Actually no. The total defense of Gotland now consists of 14 tanks tucked away in a storehouse. The tanks are among the best in the world, and the Swedish Armed Forces have bought 120 of them; but as there are only three tank companies (none of which is stationed on Gotland), there is only enough staff to man 42 tanks — or about a third of them.

Today, the architects of the lost military are sorry for what they did. Johan Kihl says that due to lack of resources, the Armed Forces are unable to defend the country in any sensible way. In the documentary, Former Supreme Commander Owe Wictorin looks devastated. He says that the direction was right, but the ambition, quantity and pace at which the changes were implemented were wrong. “And the idea of defending Sweden as the most important thing was lost. I still think so.”

Military historian Wilhelm Agrell notes that there are several obvious needs that have to be met: “One needs to always be prepared to defend the nation’s capital, vital infrastructure, power supply and telecommunications, important airports, import of basic necessities and military reinforcements. … [Sweden] today does not have that capability.”

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