Aurora 2017: shedding light on Swedish defence thinking

On 19 September 2017, Sweden will begin its largest military exercise for two decades, Aurora 2017.  Over its three-week course, 19,000 personnel drawn from all of Sweden’s armed services, including the Home Guard, will be involved. Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and the United States will also contribute around 1,000 troops between them. The exercise’s focus is the southeast of the country, and Gotland island, the closest Swedish territory to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. 

Swedish armed forces modular vehicle. Credit: Getty

By Amanda Lapo, Research Analyst for Defence and Military Analysis, and Yvonni-Stefania Efstathiou, Coordinator, IISS Defence and Military Analysis Programme

The size, timing and nature of the exercise reflect Stockholm’s view of the deteriorating security environment in northern Europe; the consequence of increased Russian assertiveness. Indeed, Aurora 2017 takes place at the same time as Zapad 2017, a major Russian exercise in Belarus.

Peter Hultqvist, the Swedish minister for defence, has stressed that recent changes in defence policy – including those relating to military exercises ­– are only a response to Russia’s more aggressive behaviour in the region and beyond. Sweden is increasing defence spending, and plans to reintroduce conscription from January 2018. In May of this year, in a keynote speech in Washington DC, Hultqvist said: ’We are building a security network of defence cooperation.’ Aurora 2017 is part of this effort. Hultqvist sees military exercises as ’an important tool to send a message to potential adversaries’.

While Sweden views a surprise conventional military attack as ’unlikely‘, according to the defence ministry it is still a possibility. Aurora 2017 is intended to ’exercise Sweden’s defence capability in such scenario’. Elements of the exercise will involve coastal-defence operations, joint maritime warfare and land operations at up to brigade level. The multinational nature of Aurora 2017 will also test Swedish interoperability with other participating nations.

Worthy of note, and reflecting a Europe-wide interest in bolstering air and missile defences, is the planned US Army deployment of a MIM-104 Patriot missile battery to take part in the exercise. Russia’s combat aircraft and short-range ballistic- and cruise-missile capabilities are of increasing concern to Sweden and its allies. The 9K720 Iskander-M (SS-26 Stone) missile system, which could reach Gotland and parts of southern Sweden, has at times been temporarily deployed to Kaliningrad. The 152nd Brigade, stationed in Kaliningrad, is one of the last to still operate the 9K79-1 Tochka-U (SS-21B Scarab), but it will likely re-equip with Iskander-M shortly.

Although not a NATO exercise, the involvement of numerous NATO member states in Aurora 2017 underscores the increased ties between Sweden and the Alliance, although the question of Sweden’s membership remains politically contentious. This closer relationship is being used by Russia as an ’example’ of the continuing expansion of the Alliance and the perceived ’threat’ to Moscow. President Vladimir Putin in June warned of serious damage to bilateral relations were Sweden to become a NATO member.

Since 1994, Sweden has been a member of the NATO Partnership for Peace programme and was a participant in NATO-led missions in Afghanistan, the Balkans and Libya. More recently, in 2016, it joined the Host Country Agreement with NATO, which means that the Alliance could store equipment in Sweden and transit through Swedish territory if a crisis should occur in the region. Sweden is also a partner in the NATO Response Force and participates in the joint Air Transport fleet along with NATO members. Aurora 2017 represents a further example of deepening military integration between Sweden and the Alliance.

This analysis originally featured on the Military Balance+, the new IISS online database that enables users in government, the armed forces and the private sector, as well as academia and the media, to make faster and better-informed decisions. The Military Balance+ allows users to customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

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