Flexibility is key to success. Photo: Mats Nyström, Försvarsmakten.

The most popular tourist attraction in Helsinki is Suomenlinna, the Swedish built fortress of Sveaborg [Sveaborg]. The fortress was built over eight islands and had walls 10 m thick. It was built to protect the harbour of Helsinki from a Russian attack from the sea. Helskinki became the main base for the Swedish Navy that countered the growing Russian naval threat in the area.

In the Finnish War, Sweden lost Helsinki when the Russians came from an unexpected direction; over the ice. They laid siege to Sveaborg, which then surrendered a month later. This was a major disaster for the Swedes.

What happened to Sveaborg is in some ways similar to what happened to Singapore during the Second World War [Singapore]. Like Sveaborg, Singapore was a major navy base and like Sweden, Britain had invested in the defence of Singapore, building up fortifications along the coasts to defend against a sea bourne invasion. And like Sveaborg, Singapore fell to enemy forces when they came from an unexpected direction. In the case of Singapore, the Japanese advanced through Malaya and then on to the less well defended northern part of Singapore. The end result was the worst disaster in British military history.

We have recently a more modern example of this type of phenomenon; the drone / missile attack on a Saudi oil refinery [reuters]. Here, a large sum of money was spent on defences for the refinery that were then defeated by low cost drones that came from an unexpected direction. In this case the unexpected direction was a low level attack.

These three examples show a ridgid defence system that failed when the attack came from an unexpected direction. A clear plan was developed and the military units involved had a clear mission. Other factors were also involved in the fall of both Sveaborg and Singapore but it is this “unexpected” element and “clear mission” aspect that often repeats in military history.

Fractals in History

History, they say, repeats but it repeats like a fractal. You can find repetitions like the above with Singapore, Sveaborg, and Suadi Arabia but there are also some differences. One of my favourite examples of this idea of repeating history with a military unit having a clear mission and then ends up doing something other than its mission is the British Royal Navy’s Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) Fleet of the 1970s [asw].

Defence assessments in the 1960s had made it clear that the main threat to the UK was the Soviet Union. And from the Navy’s point of view, the main Soviet threat was submarines in the North Atlantic and North Sea. Therefore, the British government concentrated on constructing an ASW fleet. Plans for a new aircraft carrier (the CVA-01) were cancelled and so were plans for an air defence destroyer (the Type 84, although one was built). The Navy, however, didn’t agree with this and did manage to retain some air defence capabilities on the new ASW destroyer, the Type 42, and a form of aircraft carrier in the “through-deck cruiser” concept. This was fortunate as the Royal Navy’s ASW fleet ended up fighting in a war that was unexpected and the, more or less, opposite to what had been expected as it ended up in the South Atlantic fighting against aircraft.

As another example we can look at the British V-Bombers; Valiant, Victor, and the Vulcan [Vbombers]. These had a clear mission; they were designed to drop nuclear bombs on the Soviet Union. They never got to do that. The unexpected element was the Suez crisis and the Falklands War. The Valiant ended up dropping conventional bombs during the Suez crisis and the Vulcan during the Falklands War. The Victor served as a tanker.

In one way it could be argued that by giving a military unit a clear mission you invite the unexpected. The V-Bombers above, the Swedish invasion defence and other military missions of the Cold War never did as was intended because by doing so they made the objective of their mission unlikely to occur. That is, they acted as a deterrent and therefore, if they ever got used they ended up doing something other than their mission.

In some ways that was what happened to the French during the inter-War years [seeds] . French defence policy from the end of the First World War to the beginning of the Second World War was based on the romantic notion of, in the event of an invasion, French men rising up to defeat the invader and every citizen had a duty to defend the country. This led to a conscript army that had a clear mission. The defence strategy became a ridged implementation where the French would fight a modularised battle that was well planned out down to platoon level.  In also included the construction of two main defence lines along the north eastern and northern borders of France. Unfortunately reality is a cruel mistress and this meant that the Germans had to come up with a different attack plan that left the French fighting the wrong kind of battle and unable to adapt. This lack of flexibility on the part of the French ended in disaster in 1940.

Here we go again …

It appears to me that Sweden has an opportunity to learn from other armies in the past. We can take, for example, the Home Guard which has a clear mission to defend object in the event of an invasion [HVHB18]. However, history tells us that there is a good probability that it will end up doing something else, either instead of or in addition to. It could then be argued that it then lacks the possibility to be flexible and adapt. It has no combat vehicles, no training, nor the right kind of units (and this is something that the Swedish Armed Forces does acknowledge).

It could be argued that there are plenty of examples of units doing exactly what they were intended to do. Commandos, for example, are assault troops. The British Royal Marine Commandos are amphibious assault troops and they did what is says on the label during the Falklands war in 1982 [Falklands].

However, if a unit does what the label says then all is well but there are too many examples from history to say that the possibility of the unexpected cannot be ignored and that all units need to be ready to do missions outside of its main mission. The Royal Marine Commandos may well have conducted an amphibious assault in 1982 but they have done little amphibious assaults in Afghanistan [Afghanistan]. Even in 1982 there were paratroopers taking part in the amphibious assault [paras].


There is nothing wrong, in itself, in giving a unit a clear mission but it has to be done with the realisation that that unit may never do that mission. It will need flexibility to adapt and to conduct other missions as well.

The author is a PhD, BEng(hons) EurIng


[Sveaborg] “The Swedish era”. https://www.suomenlinna.fi/en/fortress/swedishera/ visited 2019-09-25

[Singapore] “The Fall of Singapore”. https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryofBritain/The-Fall-of-Singapore/ visited 2019-09-25

[Falklands] “Falklands War: British troops land at San Carlos”. https://www.bbc.com/news/av/uk-17474295/falklands-war-british-troops-land-at-san-carlos visited 2019-09-25

[paras] “Parachute Regiment- Falklands Conflict”. https://www.eliteukforces.info/parachute-regiment/parachute-regiment-history/falklands.php isited 2019-09-25

[Vbombers] “Meet Britain’s Very Own B-52: The V Bombers”. https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/meet-britains-very-own-b-52-v-bombers-38197 visited 2019-09-25

[HVHB18] “Handbok Hemvärnet”. https://www.hemvarnet.se/UserFiles/Nyheter/Centrala/RiksHv/HvH2018.pdf visited 2019-09-25

[reuters] “Costly Saudi defences prove no match for drones, cruise missiles”. https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-saudi-aramco-security-idUKKBN1W22FL. Visited 2019-09-25

[Afghanistan] “Royal Marines speak of ’horrible’ reality of life on patrol in Afghanistan”. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/nov/17/royal-marines-horrible-reality-afghanistan visited 2019-09-25

[asw] “Cold War and the Royal Navy” https://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/europe/uk-rn-cold-war-intro.htm visited 2019-09-25

[seeds] “The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919-1939”. Robert A. Doughty. ISBN-13 978-0208020963 https://www.adlibris.com/se/bok/the-seeds-of-disaster-9780811714600 visited 2019-09-25