By Johan Wiktorin, editor and fellow in Dept 1
Bruce Acker wrote yesterday a thoughtful piece about Gotland’s strategic significance, where he put forward some hard questions to ponder. Since I am one of the proponents of strengthening Gotland militarily, I feel obliged to address Bruce’s concerns.
It is true that the development of modern weapons and their increasing range and accuracy is changing the value of different postures. And in the specific case of Gotland it is also true that the island is within range for both ballistic missiles and heavy SAM-systems such as S-400’s in the Kaliningrad oblast.
These systems present difficulties for the deployment of forces on and around Gotland, which is increasing the demands on intelligence, protection and mobility in order to cope. Notwithstanding, Gotland is today the home of some of the best sensors for the FRA (Defence Radio Establishment), which is one of the main arms of Swedish Strategic Intelligence.
Mr Acker also reminds us that any forces on Gotland are difficult to resupply or redeploy in conflict, and possible to circumvent. This is also an argument, which holds much merit. But since it is possible to prepare supplies on the island, the hardship to redeploy any such forces during a conflict is the most troubling factor.
In particular if one take into account the small number of troops Sweden has, which means that you probably lose some flexibility. On the other hand, if the need should arise to really reinforce Gotland from the main land, the risk would probably be very high and the loss of flexibility even higher.
As Bruce is arguing, and I agree, it is very hard to calibrate the importance of Gotland without some serious war gaming, which in turn should not be public anyway.
Nevertheless, it was very interesting to have a glimpse of Col Acker’s experiences of different discussions regarding the Baltic area during his term as attaché. I do believe his statements that he never heard anyone questioning Sweden’s commitment to defend Gotland or any plan advocating a prepositioning of forces there. Though the latter can be a conclusion of the former.
However it is important to remember that we have no or little insight into Russian contingency planning. For Russia, feeling threatened by the West’s overwhelming airpower on its western borders until her air force is formed with advanced jets, Gotland could be an interesting area to employ its radars and/or some SAM-systems in order to extend her depth westwards. Such strengthening of its capacity would force US tankers and AWACS on a more defensive footing, until air superiority could be established in the Baltic region. This would in turn increase Russia’s initial freedom of action.
Russia is very experienced, when it comes to work in vulnerable areas in the Baltic area. The entire Kaliningrad exclave is something similar to Gotland. It is exposed to surface-air-missiles (SAM’s), missiles and artillery; it is even exposed to the risk of a ground attack. With the corridors through Polish and Lithuanian territory for its supply it is even more vulnerable to resupplying and redeploying issues than Gotland.
Even so, the Russian Strategic Command has chosen to stack a lot of forces in the small area, which make up the oblast.
Why? Because it is an initial, vital part of their anti-access strategy in case of rising tensions in the region. The risk of having Gotland as an empty space in the middle of the Baltic Sea is that a possible gain could outweigh any probable resistance, especially since Sweden is not part of NATO.
That means that even if the will existed in the Alliance, practical considerations would take its toll in time spent for a deployment of forces from the west onto the island. For Sweden, having a part of its territory temporary controlled by a belligerent, this could be an unbearable political cost.
By controlling Gotland and by deploying advanced air defence systems there any actor could deny the other that possibility, while at the same time increase the capability of their own integrated air defence systems. Under such weave one can move significant forces on sea, land and in the air for strategic purposes.
At the same time, and Bruce is acknowledging this as well, to risk the perception of the people living on Gotland and elsewhere, that your strategic communication really says: ”We don’t care” is a very dangerous road. It can affect the will to defend the country, and it may influence actors surrounding us drawing the same conclusion.
I do concur with Mr Ackers claim that Russia would look for motives of a strategic offensive, if and when Sweden augments Gotland with forces. However, I would like to add, that the more tense the situation would be, the more resistance one could expect. The appetite for Swedish decision makers to reinforce the island could diminish under such conditions. It is not for sure of course, but I do assess the risk being higher for taking a status-quo decision, when the odds for an interpretation of a last-minute strategic offensive are lowering. To start have forces permanent, and rotating other forces through the Gotland area, would establish a normal picture with regard to the posture of Swedish forces.
The debacle surrounding the previous leadership’s decision to scrap Gotland of qualified military forces is no excuse to not change course. One can see a clear indication that it was not lead by a consideration of deployment and employment of forces, since we at the same time chose to concentrate the main part of the country’s naval forces in Karlskrona. The naval base thus came under the same SAM-umbrella and within range for the same potential Iskander ballistic missiles in Kaliningrad.
To be a stabilisation force to reckon in the Baltic region, I would argue that a mix of sensors, long-range SAM’s and land-based anti-ship missile systems protected by ground units on Gotland could potentially influence the movement of forces in the air and on the Baltic Sea. It could be own or partners movements of sea and air assets as well as movements between the St. Petersburg-area and Kaliningrad, thereby strengthening the security of the Baltic States in case of raised tensions in northern Europe. That would be of strategic significance, I suppose. Let’s go and ask them!