“AN ARMED ATTACK against Sweden cannot be ruled out,” warned Peter Hultqvist, Sweden’s defence minister, shortly after he introduced a new defence bill on October 14th. It promises the country’s largest military expansion for 70 years. The reason is not hard to discern. Russia’s assertive behaviour across Europe, from invasion to assassination, has alarmed Swedes.
In recent years, Sweden has accused Russia of violating its airspace and waters several times, most recently with a pair of warships south-west of Gothenburg in September. Sweden has accordingly deepened military ties with NATO (though it is not a member of the alliance), America and its Nordic neighbours. If the new bill is passed, as is likely, the defence budget is set to rise by SKr27.5bn ($3.1bn) between 2021 and 2025, a 40% boost that will bring expenditure to around 1.5% of GDP—the highest level for 17 years.
The new cash will pay for a 50% increase in the armed forces to 90,000 people, a figure that includes regular soldiers, conscripts and local reservists in the Home Guard (no longer the Dad’s Army of yesteryear). The army will grow from two mechanised brigades to three, each of around 5,000 soldiers, with a smaller additional brigade for the Stockholm area.
The draft, abolished a decade ago and reintroduced for both genders in 2017, will double in size to 8,000 conscripts a year, and five new local-defence battalions will be established around the country, tasked with protecting supply lines from the Norwegian ports of Oslo and Trondheim. An amphibious unit will be re-established in Gothenburg, Scandinavia’s largest port.
There are goodies for the other services, too. The air force can look forward to newer Gripen fighter jets with longer ranges and better radar, some of which will go to a new air wing in Uppsala, 70km (43 miles) north of Stockholm. The navy will get an extra submarine, money to design a new type of warship and air-defence missiles that its ships have been in need of for 15 years.
Civil defence is also getting attention, with funding for cybersecurity, the electricity grid and healthcare. “We’ve begun to rebuild a newer version of what we had during the cold war”, says Niklas Granholm of FOI, Sweden’s defence research agency. A big exercise to test national resilience was held this year. The aim is to enable Sweden to hold out in a crisis or war for at least three months, until help arrives (assuming that it does).
It is a dramatic expansion, but much of it is to patch up a creaking force. “The armed forces were in a state of crisis for the last 20 years,” says Henrik Paulsson of the Swedish Defence University. In 2013 Sweden’s top general admitted that his forces could only defend part of the country, and only for one week. Even today Sweden’s army has only two dozen artillery pieces. They are located in the north of the country, more than ten hours’ drive from the brigades they are supposed to support, says Mr Paulsson.
Under the new plans, the army will have a more respectable 72 artillery pieces. “We are finally getting our house in order,” says Mr Granholm. But he warns that “new budgetary black holes” could open up from 2026. “The debate about the bill after this one has already begun”.