Sweden's Re-militarization of Gotland is Both Symbolic and Strategic

Sweden's Re-militarization of Gotland is Both Symbolic and Strategic
Associated Press
Sweden's Re-militarization of Gotland is Both Symbolic and Strategic
Associated Press

Sometimes it takes just a small step to leave a big imprint.

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For Sweden, the forward positioning of troops to the Baltic Sea island of Gotland marks such a small step – but one that will likely have a big impact on the country's national security in both the psychological and strategic sense.

With the broader security and political landscape of Sweden's immediate neighborhood experiencing recent shifts, the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Micael Byden, ordered 150 mechanized infantry troops undertaking an exercise on Gotland on September 14 to remain in place. Sweden's political parties had reached an agreement in 2015 to once again station troops on the strategic island starting in late 2017, but Byden opted instead to use the exercise as an opportunity to accelerate this timetable.

The last such permanent military personnel left Gotland in 2005 at a time when the government was in the midst of a series of reform measures begun in 1999. The reforms were ostensibly aimed at pairing down the once-sizable Swedish military in order to make it a small, compact, professional force with a more expeditionary footing.

Previously, during the Cold War era, Sweden had a strong standing military of around 100,000 active-duty troops, plus a fast-mobilization process enabling it to rapidly deploy hundreds of thousands of fully equipped reservists inside the country within hours. The Swedish military also had a hard-edge combat capability that included some 300 combat aircraft, 40 warships and 12 submarines (versus around 100 fighters, 9 warships and 5 submarines today).

But in the early 1990s, two things occurred that began to change Sweden's strategic calculus and political will to continue financing the military's upkeep: the dissolution of the Soviet Union and a severe recession in Sweden. Out went the expensive, manpower-heavy force laden with high-end hardware capable of deterring the aggressive designs of a potential foe. In came a slimmed-down army no longer facing the threat of invasion by a nearby military superpower.

Meanwhile, accompanying the force restructuring – more adequately described as "force reducing" – were demands that Sweden's armed forces implement efficiencies as budget allocations tightened.

In short, the Swedish armed forces were gutted in order to save the government money.

This deconstruction of the once-formidable Swedish military was mostly undertaken prior to the launch in August 2008 of a military intervention in Georgia by Vladimir Putin's Russia. That incident caused alarm amongst Swedish military planners.

Even more concerning for them, however, was the return of Russian military aircraft close to (or violating) Swedish airspace in 2011, a Russian military exercise in March 2013 that simulated an air attack on Sweden, and the annexing of the Crimean Peninsula by Russia from Ukraine in early 2014.

These actions were followed by the incursion of a mysterious submarine that penetrated the Stockholm archipelago in the fall of 2014 which the Swedish military suspected to be Russian. This stoked remembrance in Sweden of the infamous October 1981 "Whiskey on the Rocks" incident near the Swedish naval base in Karlskrona when a Soviet Whiskey-class submarine ran aground in Swedish waters.

Russia's more aggressive posture in the regions proximate to Sweden, including the Arctic and the Baltic Sea domain, therefore elicited ever-increasing security concerns within military circles.

Yet such concerns were often politically overlooked or ignored despite the warning by Army Gen. Sverker Goransson, former Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, in January 2013 that the country's armed forces would only be able to hold off an outside attack in one place for one week due to the series of reductions to the Swedish military and its budget.

It was not until April 2015 that Swedish politicians reached a consensus that rebuilding defense was a rising priority, with the country's Parliament approving a small uptick in funding of SEK10.2 billion ($1.2 billion) over a five-year period from 2016 to 2020.

Additionally, a study was commissioned by the Swedish government in 2015 to analyze the country's current and future defense and security cooperation alternatives.

The inquiry's final report ("Security in a New Era"), issued on September 9, reiterated earlier assessments of the Defense Commission that Russian actions have undermined international law and the European cooperative security order. It noted that "Russia's actions are characterized by a tendency to exploit opportunities it perceives in any given situation."

The study also made the observation that any Russian attempt to exert military control over the Baltic region would likely draw Sweden into the conflict, possibly in the initial stages of any operation.

Under this scenario, the study pointed out, Russia might seek to move troops onto Swedish territory in order to deploy air defense systems with which to deny NATO forces access to Baltic Sea airspace. Gotland's relative proximity to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad would also provide Russia with the ability to deny NATO sea-based support elements access to shipping lanes that could be used to come to the aid of the Baltics.  

Thus Sweden would find itself a pawn in a larger game between two actors, neither with which it is militarily aligned (though the country continues to increase its cooperation with the NATO Alliance to a level of peer membership without the politically dicey official imprimatur). 

Therefore, with the re-stationing of troops on a permanent basis on Gotland, Sweden is taking the proactive stance of preventing any opportunity by a non-sovereign to deploy on its soil for strategic purposes. Though 150 troops are hardly enough to withstand an incursion by an enemy force of battalion strength or heavier, these troops will be aided by the arrival of regular Swedish Army units next year that will include a mechanized company, an armored company, and command & control components.

In the current Baltic security environment, where NATO-Russia tensions persist and recent Russian operations such as in Crimea involve an element of surprise, it is the symbolism of such a step that reassures the nation – while warning others – that Sweden's military is ready to act in the national defense.  

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