Russian assertiveness has influenced Sweden's change of policy. But can conscription tackle the country's shortfall in personnel?

Swedish soldiers. Credit: Getty/Fredrik Sandberg

By Monty d’Inverno, Research Analyst for Defence and Military Analysis.

This article was originally published on CartaCapital.

On 2 March 2017, Sweden announced that it would reactivate conscription, citing as reasons the deteriorating security environment in Europe and the failure of an all-volunteer system to provide the required personnel. The plans call for 4,000 recruits annually to begin basic training in 2018 and 2019. The reintroduction of conscription is a means of addressing an immediate personnel problem, but also underscores the worsening security situation facing Sweden.

The decision comes only seven years after Sweden suspended conscription. Since the end of the Cold War, a reduced threat from Russia and an international focus on other areas, such as the Middle East, had allowed Sweden and other Nordic countries to take a so called ‘strategic time-out’. This resulted in reduced military spending and a move towards smaller armed forces optimised for expeditionary operations (see The Military Balance 2017, p. 75), including the NATO mission in Afghanistan, which Sweden supported though it is not a NATO member. Suspending conscription in 2010 was part of this trend.

Security worries increase

Concern over Russia’s renewed military assertiveness in Sweden’s neighbourhood, and its military activities in Ukraine after 2014, prompted Sweden to reassess this stance. Indeed, a defence ministry spokeswoman was reported as saying that ‘the Russian illegal annexation of Crimea [in 2014], the conflict in Ukraine and the increased military activity in our neighbourhood are some of the reasons’ for the reintroduction of conscription. Russia has certainly been more active in Sweden’s neighbourhood. Its increasing military presence in the Arctic is a concern to Stockholm, but Russia’s activity in the Baltic region in particular has been instrumental in reviving attention on defence in Sweden. A range of incidents have attracted media attention and sharpened scrutiny on the current capabilities of Sweden’s armed forces.

These include reports in 2013 that Russian bombers and fighters had deviated from their normal flightpath and passed close to Swedish airspace, in what was termed by the media, and later by NATO, as a ‘simulated attack’. This caused disquiet in the Swedish media when it emerged that there were no aircraft or pilots ready to respond. In October 2014, there were reports (though these were never confirmed) of a possible Russian submarine operating in the Swedish Archipelago, resulting in a major search operation. Other media reports have highlighted potential risks to the strategically important Swedish island of Gotland.

In response to growing security concerns, Sweden in 2015 announced increases in defence spending over five years and a renewed focus on national defence (see table below). For the first time since 2005, a permanent garrison was reinstated on Gotland in September 2016. Sweden is also acquiring new capabilities like the Saab Gripen JAS-39E/F combat aircraft (in test), Type-A26 submarines (under construction) and the Meteor rocket-ramjet air-to-air missile, which entered service last year (See The Military Balance 2017, p. 181). Nevertheless, gaps remain. For instance, although Gotland will ultimately be assigned a battlegroup of some 300 troops, it has been reported that only about 160 of these will be permanent, while the others would need to travel to Gotland in the event of a crisis.Swedish defence budget data. Credit: IISS

Broader implications

The return of conscription is also seen as a way of addressing personnel shortfalls. The IISS Military Balance+ online database indicates that the Swedish armed forces had a total of 29,750 active military personnel as of 2016. However, Stockholm said in March that ‘at the end of 2016 Swedish armed forces were missing about 1,000 full time serving squad leaders, soldiers and sailors and about 7,000 of the part time serving squad leaders, soldiers and sailors it needs’. Conscription is seen as a way of tackling these gaps, but also as a way of attracting future volunteers to the force. Enrolment of potential conscripts will begin in mid-2017, with basic training starting from January 2018. As in Norway, conscription will be gender neutral, reflecting that defence establishments need to attract the best candidates amid an increasingly competitive employment environment. Conscription will mean more costs for the defence budget, however, at a time when Stockholm is having to fund new equipment and address readiness issues.

This renewed focus on defence has raised broader questions about the future direction of Sweden’s defence policy. Like its neighbour Finland, Sweden is not a NATO member and during the Cold War it traditionally followed a non-aligned policy. Sweden’s reliance on its own forces for defence was one of the reasons it maintained conscription longer than many NATO members. However, the post-Cold War security situation has seen greater cooperation with NATO. Sweden supported NATO-led operations (in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Libya) and has increased training and cooperation with NATO members in 2016, including exercises, ratifying a NATO Host Nation Support agreement, and defence-related agreements with Denmark, the UK and the US. Support for joining the Alliance has increased among opposition parties in Sweden, and an opinion poll from 2016 suggested that almost 33% of Swedes were in favour of this, up from the 17% noted in a 2012 poll.

However, it is not clear that this would translate into any eventual bid for NATO membership. Like its neighbour Finland, Sweden already participates in EU-level security and defence structures. Its forces have deployed on EU missions and Stockholm is participating in elements of the implementation plan for the EU Global Strategy. But the EU is not a military alliance. While it is not inconceivable that Sweden will break with its non-aligned tradition – and Stockholm will keep close watch on any similar debates in Finland – for the moment the likely trajectory will be one of closer cooperation with NATO in discrete areas, amid enhanced bilateral and regional defence and security cooperation.

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