by Andrew Wallace
When I was a kid, growing up on RAF bases in the UK and West Germany during the height of the Cold War, there was a common question the other kids would ask; what do you want to be when you grow up? It didn’t matter what you answered so long as it wasn’t a “civilian”. I remember, as a kid, I had no idea what a “civilian” was but I knew it was a very bad thing to be!
Your own past, beliefs, and experience can influence a lot the way you perceive things. None of us has a complete picture of reality, so it can be useful to seek out opinions that differ from your own. Therefore, it is important to begin with a little about me so you see what influences my perspective.
I have been told that, as I am British, I have a different view of the military in Sweden compared to most Swedes. So, this article is about how I see things from my corner of the Universe.
The military has always been part of my life. I’ve always been interested in it and have studied military science one way or another during much of my life.
My step-father was in the RAF and I grew up on air bases (what the American’s call, I believe, an “air force brat”). But I could argue that the military is in my blood. My natural father was a soldier, his father a soldier, and his father a soldier, and his father a soldier, and so on back to knights in the Middle Ages. Not every generation but many. My uncle was a WO in the RAF and my cousin still is in the RAF. My plan, as a kid, was to join the RAF but things do not always go to plan. I was, however, a corporal in the Air Training Corps, which is like the Swedish “flygvapen ungdom”, and I did work for the Ministry of Defence on projects from nuclear powered hunter killer submarines to radios, and weather systems for the Fleet Air Arm.
My chance to join the military came after moving to Sweden. I started out in the Swedish Home Guard as a radio operator. I went on to do GMU as soon as I could. I also did a short stint with the Swedish Army Rangers as a radio operator before returning to the Home Guard. I ended up as a sergeant in charge of the staff and communications section.
To add to the above perspective, I can bring in my civilian life (yes, despite childhood warnings I still ended up as one of those “civilians”). I work as an engineer with some of the most complex systems around on the planet today. I did my PhD in robotics and distributed artificial intelligence (AI). The AI part deals with systems that are composed of cooperating entities. Such systems are found all around us. Our economy, and social systems are such examples (I have also studied economics and sociology). And even the military would exemplify such a system. I have also worked in psychology.
With that as a background, this is what I see from my corner of the Universe .
Officers and Professionalism
There is a standard joke that goes around in various forms; what is the most dangerous thing in the army? A second lieutenant with a map, a compass, and a vague idea of what to do. One of the biggest differences I have noticed between the military in the UK and the military in Sweden are the officers. I have always been very impressed with the standard of professionalism among most of the officers I have encountered, whether during my time in the Home Guard, or while doing basic during GMU. Their knowledge and expertise in what they do is outstanding. Whereas the old joke could apply to the UK military, it certainly doesn’t in Sweden. In the UK they say the army is run by its NCOs. Officers are half trained and the NCOs finish off the training when the officers get to their units. In Sweden, the officers are more like the UK NCOs; fully trained and knowing what they are doing.
Overall, the Swedish military does come over as a very professional and very competent military. I hear good things about the Swedish operations abroad under UN or NATO command. The individual soldier equipment is very good and the camouflage is very effective (although I do find it odd that Sweden went for a splinter pattern). That’s not to say it is perfect, and there are problems, but certainly the Swedish military has a lot to be proud of. However, it does appear to me that the Swedish military is a very professional, very competent peacetime military. It is the go to military for peacekeeping but I think it will have a serious culture shock if it was ever to find itself in a real serious inter-state war. This is another big difference between the UK and Sweden; there is a difference between a military that has fought in modern times and one that hasn’t done much since the age of muskets. As a result, it often looks to me that Sweden has created a Task Force Smith at a national level.
To start with, what would it take for Sweden to be able to engage in a serious war? It has been said that the Swedish military can only defend one part of Sweden for one week. But what about the rest of the country? From what I see, there is no vision for defence. What I mean by that is this: given the task of having to defend the whole of Sweden from varying, escalating threats (from sabotage to full scale war) what would the defence forces look like? If we could rise from our beds one morning and open the window and see the whole of Sweden’s defence, a defence that was capable of defending Sweden, what would it look like? How would it deal with spetsnaz units operating covertly in Sweden? How would it deal with a full scale invasion by a mechanised / armoured enemy with artillery and air support? What type of units would it have? Would it be professional or conscript base? I don’t know and I can’t find anything that would help me to get to know either.
The Swedish defence needs money. I doubt if anyone with a serious understanding of defence would disagree with that. From what I see, the money requested is all about patching up the defence as it is. But the defence as it is, or at least the current defence on paper, is not the defence that Sweden really needs. Throwing money at it isn’t going to solve that problem without knowing where we are heading.
There are some attempts to define Sweden’s defence that would fulfill, at least part of, a vision. Lt. Jacob Fritzson puts forward some ideas for a Norrland Infantry (what I would see as Arctic light infantry) published at the Royal Swedish Academy of War Science’s homepage (“Modernt Norrlandsinfanteri” or even see “Det glömda låset i norr”). Cpt. Stefan Emanuelsson puts forward a suggestion for a mechanised force in the centre of Sweden (“Behovet av ett mekaniserat förband kring Sveriges geografiska mitt”). Col. 1 gr. Ulf Henricsson makes some interesting comments on mechanised vs light infantry (“Stridens grundläggande behov”).
These are all very interesting and very good ideas. Although, I’m not sure if I’d agree with all they say and I’m sure arguments can go both ways. One of the main things I would disagree with, however, is the role of a part-time defence, which I see as key to solving a set of defence related problems. But, at least, they are starting to get a vision for the defence of Sweden. In that sense, they are going in the right direction. However, I don’t think it makes sense to talk about what type of units are needed without seeing how they fit together with the whole. It is like arguing over what carburettor to use in a car engine with no idea what engine you will use.
To define a vision we need some understanding of warfighting theory. At the moment I have been unable to find a good statement of the Swedish military’s understanding of warfighting theory. The Military Strategic Doctrine (MSD16) does give some warfighting theory but it is very embryonic. From warfighting theory, we develop strategy. Strategy is basically a combination of either manoeuvre or attrition warfare. MSD16 seems to place the Swedish military strategy more towards manoeuvre warfare, as it is in the UK. But that is a concept that I think is not fully developed and seems to me poorly understood within the Swedish military at the lower levels (compare MSD16 with the US Marines Warfighting book, for example). The UK also has problems with implementing the theory. As such, the UK and Sweden have something in common and Sweden could perhaps learn from the UK’s experiences when applying the theory.
Warfighting theory and strategy then defines what type of military units you will need and should develop. Once we have warfighting theory and strategy fully developed then we can start envisioning the Swedish defence. From that vision we can define units.
You can always define an army as an organisation that is badly betrayed by the government it serves. Sometimes it seems to me the government is the beginning and end of most, if not all, the problems in the Swedish defence (the worst things that can happen to a general is a politician gets involved). Certainly there appears to me to be something seriously askew with the government and Swedish culture in relation to defence. When you have a Prime Minister saying that THE primary purpose of the state is a “särintresse”, something is wrong. However, I think the Swedish military does the best job it can with too little support and too little funding. There is always the admirable attitude within the Swedish military of getting the job done regardless. Although admirable, it covers a multitude of problems. In the UK this is called “fixing it at the coal face” or in my line of work it would be called “defensive programming”. Defensive programming is the common way of dealing with problems in computer code but reality is a harsh mistress and covering up problems so we can keep going has a nasty way of hurting you at a later date. Painful experience tells engineers to make the problems obvious so we can fix them. I sometimes think the Swedish military needs to do that. Instead of “well done everyone. Good effort. We can always be better”, there should be a more open and honest discussion of the problems with a view of making things better.
The Home Guard
If an army is betrayed by the government it serves, then I think that goes doubly so for the Swedish Home Guard. This is one area where I think the standards among the full-time army officers slip. From what I see, there appears to be well ingrained prejudices against the Home Guard. It seems to me that it is treated as the poor backward country cousin. Perhaps that is justified? I do see some lack of seriousness among some people in the Home Guard. In the UK it is “train hard; fight easy” or “the more we sweat the less we bleed” or even “if it ain’t raining we ain’t training”. But often it appears to me that in Sweden it is “train easy cos we ain’t going to do it for real”. However, I suspect it is more a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy; if the Home Guard isn’t treated as a serious military organisation then it can’t be expected to behave as one. Can it? This, I think, is a serious problem. The Home Guard is the main defence for Sweden. The Swedish main frontline fighting ground forces are composed of 50 battalions, (43 light infantry (including 40 Home Guard) infantry Battalions, two mechanised infantry battalions, and five armoured infantry battalions), one battle group (of two armoured companies), two air defence battalions, two artillery battalions, and one Special Forces company. This means that prejudice against the Home Guard hinders the Swedish defence.
I don’t really see the justification for the prejudice. From my experience, the soldiers in the Home Guard do not deserve such prejudice. They are people who have served as conscripts or freely volunteered (such as myself) and then chosen to continue to serve their country. In other words, they are among the most enthusiastic soldiers and as such should form a valuable resource for Sweden. I suspect that there are probably more combat veterans in the Home Guard than in the full-time military. Certainly many in the Home Guard have served abroad. I keep hearing the mantra that the Home Guard is a “valuable resource” but I don’t see that translating into reality, as yet. However, I do note with interest the new command structure coming in next year or so. That gives me hope that we could see some improvements in the way the Home Guard is perceived. The Home Guard has already seen a lot of improvements that brings it more in line with being a serious fighting force. I look forward, with interest, to see the new Commander of the Home Guard continuing with further improvements.
Of course, my point of reference is the Army Reserve in the UK, which is part-time like the Swedish Home Guard. But unlike the Home Guard, the Army Reserve have units such as artillery, tank, paratroopers, and even two SAS regiments. This, to my mind, shows that the Swedish Home Guard has great potential if we can overcome the prejudice and have a serious vision for the defence of Sweden. As it is at the moment, the Home Guard is a seriously underutilised resource that would be easy to dislocate in a real war.
There is also an opportunity to utilise funding in a more cost effective way via extending the capabilities of the Home Guard. The Army Reserve in the UK makes up about 30% of the army, at about 1.3% of the defence budget. They are of sufficient quality to serve alongside full-time soldiers in combat zones. Cost effective training methods could include initiatives such as using computer simulators such as ARMA (basically like STRIDSIM-PC) or Steel Panthers MBT, internet radio for staff and radio operators, once a week drill nights to build up and maintain basic skills, war gaming and professional military clubs to encourage study of military theory and history. All of which are used in other armies and could be added to the training in the Swedish Home Guard at little cost.
From what I see of the Swedish military, there is another problem that investing in the Home Guard could help with. The Swedish defence is very reactionary. After the First World War, Sweden cut back its defences, reacting to the situation at the time. Sweden then re-forms the military in the 1930s in reaction to the rise of Nazi Germany. Sweden was ready for the Second World War until 1947! Then it reacts to the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Cold War. When the Cold War ends, Sweden reacts with a strategic time-out. Now Sweden is reacting (slowly) to the re-emergence of Russia since 2008. Sweden doesn’t seem to learn from the wise words of Sun Tzu:
“The art of war teaches us to rely not on the likelihood of the enemy’s not coming, but on our own readiness to receive him; not on the chance of his not attacking, but rather on the fact that we have made our position unassailable.” – Sun Tzu
The ideal defence, therefore, is a full-time army capable of defending the whole country (a vision) but that is costly. Hence, investing in a part-time defence like the Home Guard would provide Sweden with national defence. I find it odd that Sweden does not utilise its resources in such an effective solution.
One factor in this is the tradition of conscription, which Sweden appears to have returned to. I find it a bit odd to go backwards as it doesn’t fit in with the idea of manoeuvre warfare. Manoeuvre is difficult to do and, therefore, takes a lot of training. Something that a conscript army doesn’t work well with. I can understand why Sweden introduced it again; “needs must as the devil drives”. But I find it odd that Sweden doesn’t value its soldiers, especially those who freely volunteer. If Sweden did value its soldiers then they would receive better pay. Better pay would have gone a long way to solving the personal problems caused by what I would see as a mismanagement of converting the Swedish conscript based military to a professional military. Compare the Swedish experience of jumping to a professional army with the British gradual phasing from one to another. And Britain has a tradition of volunteering for the military. But this highlights another difference between the Swedish military and the British military; appreciation. When I was in the UK, last summer, they were advertising celebrations for Armed Forces Day, with events all around the country. Something I can’t imagine occurring in Sweden. Sweden doesn’t seem to value those who are willing to stand to protect and defend the country. Even with the introduction of an official flagging day for veterans, it still seems to me that Sweden has some way to go to match the UK.
In conclusion, I do see changes happening but the road is long. I hope that things will continue to improve in the Swedish military as it becomes more war focused. Hopefully without Sweden having to learn things the hard way by having to defend itself from an invasion by a serious fighting force (mentioning no names).
The author is a BEng(hons) PhD EurIng a works for CGI in Umeå.