In July, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan indicated that he would finally drop his objections to allowing Sweden to join the NATO European security alliance. Hungary, which supported Turkey’s block, had indicated it would not obstruct Sweden’s admission should Turkey give the green light.
That means, following a procedural vote this fall, Sweden is poised to be become the 32nd member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Sweden and NATO have been cooperating more closely since the end of the Cold War, and more intensely since Russia’s initial invasions of Ukraine in 2014-2015. However, for a long time, only a minority of Swedes believed joining the alliance would benefit them.
Russia’s diplomatic strategy sought to prevent Swedish entry into NATO through threats of retaliation, including implied potential targeting by nuclear weapons. Such threats, and provocative fly-bys by Russian nuclear-capable bombers, and intrusions by submarines ended up only pushing Sweden closer and closer to NATO.
Ultimately, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine finally persuaded a majority of Swedes (as well as neighboring Finns) that they needed the additional security against unpredictable aggression provided by the alliance.
But unlike Finland, which formally joined NATO on April 4 of this year, Sweden was subject to a prolonged block by Turkey and Putin-friendly Hungary, with the former particularly complaining that Sweden was too accommodating of both Kurdish separatists of Turkish origin and anti-Islam demonstrators.
Erdogan’s obstruction also may have been motivated by his 2023 reelection prospects, or used as a bargaining chip for securing upgrades for F-16 fighters from the U.S. despite deeply troubled relations. Naturally, both the U.S. and Turkey deny the existence of such a quid-pro-quo.
Whatever the reason, Erdogan abruptly dropped his veto based on what seemed like modest assurances from Sweden and the U.S.
Superficially, the roughly 24,000 active-duty personnel in the Swedish armed forces might not seem a major addition to a defensive alliance already estimated to draw on more than 3.5 million personnel. But that would overlook Sweden’s decades of ‘armed neutrality,’ which has left the country far better equipped than most its size. It would also ignore the fact that Sweden is geographically positioned to shore up NATO’s defenses where they are most vulnerable.
Sweden is nestled between NATO members Norway and Denmark to the West and Finland to the East, and has between one and two thousand miles of Baltic Sea coastline. That’s important because Russia’s Baltic fleet musters substantial forces in the Baltic exclave of Kaliningrad at the “hinge” between Poland and Lithuania, and secondarily at St. Petersburg. Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it counted over twenty corvettes armed for anti-ship and/or anti-submarine missions and numerous anti-air, anti-ship and land-attack missile batteries.
With Sweden in NATO, hostile Russian warships, submarines and aircraft on/over the Baltic would be forced to transit between the jaws of a crocodile: Sweden and Finland’s coastline to the north, and the coastline of Germany, Denmark, Poland and the Baltic states to the south. And for a good measure, Sweden’s Gotland island is right in the center of the Baltic.
With membership in the alliance, NATO intervention to defend Sweden is guaranteed, and Sweden in turn is committing its assistance should Finland or the Baltics ever be attacked.
Of course, aggression by Russia against NATO member states seems even more inconceivable now that Russia has bled away combat power and demonstrated military ineptitude in its invasion of Ukraine. But Putin’s decision to embarked on such a rash and destructive course of action is precisely why Swedes and Finns lost lingering trust in Russia’s intentions and sought membership in the alliance.
Swedish Military Power
Sweden’s armed forces are designed for territorial defense of Sweden and nearby Baltic waters, though they have demonstrated some capacity to deploy jets and mechanized peacekeeping forces abroad.
Stockholm draws on an unusually mature and diversified arms industry for a country of 10.5 million/ It produces its own jet fighters, airborne early-warning planes, advanced non-nuclear submarines, infantry fighting vehicles, anti-tank weapons, and heavy artillery. Swedish jets and armored vehicles are already used in multiple NATO states and, thus, are adapted to NATO standards.
Sweden’s Air Force fields 94 fourth-generation Saab JAS-39 Gripen C/D multi-role fighter jets—comparable to American F-16Cs, but better optimized for dispersed operations from highways and small airports. The force will expand with the addition of 70 4.5-generation Gripen-E fighters with improved stealth, greater range, advanced AESA radar/jammers, and uprated F414 turbofan engines permitting supersonic cruising.
Other Air Force assets include two domestic early-warning planes, a single KC-130 tanker, five C-130 transport planes, and over 50 utility helicopters.
At sea, the Swedish Navy operates five small Visby-class stealth corvettes with anti-submarine armament and RBS-15 Mk.2 anti-ship missiles (range of 43 miles). It also operates four older corvettes, though two have been temporarily downgraded to patrol boats. The navy does, however, lack larger, long-range warships with significant air defenses due to its Baltic-centric role.
But it also operates three Gotland-class submarines (and one predecessor) that introduced air independent propulsion, giving them the capacity to cruise underwater at slow speeds for a few weeks—much longer than traditional diesel-electric submarines.
Notable naval support assets include 11 anti-submarine capable patrol boats, 9 minesweepers, and around 150 agile, waterjet-powered CB90 fast assault boats. These can be used by the Navy’s two active-duty amphibious marine battalions. Though Stockholm retired its fixed coastal defense batteries, Swedish marines now field mobile Hellfire-based RBS-17 short-range missiles in an anti-ship role since 2016.
In terms of heavy armor, Sweden’s ground forces actually almost equal the recently down-sized British Army despite Sweden having one-sixth the population. It disposes of 120 Stridsvagen 122 tanks, 354 CV9040 tracked infantry fighting vehicles (which are unusually heavily armored and armed for their class with 40-millimeter cannons), and over 300 lighter Finnish Patria six- an eight-wheeled armored personnel carriers. For reconnaissance, it has use of eight RQ-7 Shadow medium-range surveillance drones.
However, the Swedish Army remains small in terms of personnel, with an active force of only 16,850 personnel divided between six mechanized battalions (tanks and IFVs), two motorized battalions (wheeled APCs), four rifle battalions, and one each airborne Rangers and Jaeger mountain infantry battalions.
While Sweden used to build its own tanks—including the turretless S-tank and L-60 light tank—the Stridsvagen 122 is a heavily customized German Leopard 2A5 tank with heavier and more advanced composite armor, Barracuda infrared-camoflage system, French GALIX smoke grenades, and indigenous radios and fire control systems.
Notable support units include four Archer-equipped artillery battalions, two engineer battalions, and two air defense battalions with RBS-70 and IRIS-T short-range systems as well as medium-range HAWK missiles (AKA RBS-97) that will be replaced by American Patriot systems.
The Home Guard, Sweden’s reserve force, can muster 40 more light infantry battalions drawn from 22,000 personnel. Limited conscription of about 4,000 young Swedes annually supports the Home Guard.
While Sweden’s armed forces aren’t vast, they have intrinsic value for being adjacent to the places NATO most needs to reinforce in event of a conflict with Russia—ie. the Baltic states and Finland.
Sweden’s air force and navy could contribute to collective defense of those countries on Day 1 of a conflict, while ground forces could be more quickly deployed to aid neighboring Finland or, via air and sea links, the Baltics. The additional lines of communication that Sweden opens up, allowing NATO to reinforce the vulnerable Baltics, are especially valuable as they reduce reliance on the Suwalki Gap—a narrow land corridor between Russia-aligned Belarus and Kaliningrad.
From Neutrality to NATO
Once a conquering military power and rival of the Soviet Union, Sweden entered the 20th century territorially diminished and seeking to uphold a policy of neutral non-alignment. However, right-wing Swedes remained preoccupied by the threat posed by the neighboring Soviet empire, while left-wingers (to varying degrees) saw those concerns as exaggerated and were critical of Western democracies.
When the Soviet Union opportunistically invaded Finland in November of 1939, Sweden dispatched military aid including 26 warplanes, over 340 artillery pieces and 8,000 volunteer fighters. However, Sweden didn’t oppose the subsequent Nazi invasion of Norway, and dealt with both sides for the remainder of World War II.
During the Cold War, idealistic Swedish politicians like United Nations Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld and Olof Palme adopted a position between the stark East-West divide, with Palme strongly denouncing both the Soviet Union’s crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968 and the U.S.’s bombing of Vietnam. He also showed support for Salvadoran death squads in the 1980s.
Nonetheless, the Soviet Union dispatched ships and submarines to test and spy on Swedish defenses in the Baltic, and Sweden’s military prepared a strategy of ‘total defense’ against a potential Soviet invasion that included wide-scale mobilization of the civilian population and dispersion of Swedish combat aircraft to small airports and even highways that would allow them to avoid airbase attacks.
Tensions peaked in October and November of 1981 during the ‘Whiskey on the Rocks’ incident when a Soviet Whiskey-class diesel-electric submarine ran aground while lurking in the shallow Swedish territorial waters near Torumskär island—possibly with a nuclear weapon onboard. A tense standoff with a Soviet rescue fleet ensued, before the Soviet Union agreed to allow the Swedes to interrogate the submarine’s commanding officers and tug the submarine back to sea.
The Swedish Navy became even more preoccupied with tracking down Soviet submarines in their waters, though later research showed that some of the sonar contacts may have been caused by farting herring.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, Sweden joined the EU and began cooperating more closely with western militaries. This has included NATO since 1994, when Sweden began participating in peacekeeping missions in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Libya. They also lead the EU’s separate Nordic Battlegroup formed in 2008. But while Swedes on the right wanted to join NATO, most felt it was unnecessary and potentially disadvantageous.
Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine ended up changing that. Stockholm’s condemnation of Putin’s initial 2014 invasions led to Russia retaliating with aggressive patrols by nuclear-capable bombers near Swedish airspace and submarines infiltrations not attributable to flatulent fish. In response, Sweden and Finland increasingly became like honorary members of NATO, having extended temporary basing rights to NATO forces and hosting major NATO exercises like Trident Juncture.
But it was Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022 that finally persuaded a majority of Swedes to support joining NATO.
Early on, Sweden provided Ukraine with extensive military aid, starting with simpler, portable systems Ukrainian forces could rapidly put to use—including 15,000 AT4 anti-tank rockets, RBS-70 portable surface-to-air missiles, NLAW and BILL anti-tank guided missiles, machine guns, Barret sniper rifles, and over 5,000 sets of body armor.
That has escalated to much heavier equipment, including 10 Stridsvagen 122 tanks, over 50 CV9040C fighting vehicles, air defense hardware, RBS-17 Hellfire anti-ship missiles, and (eventually) eight Archer 155-millimeter howitzer trucks. The powerful Swedish vehicles are grouped together in Ukraine’s newly-founded 21st Mechanized Brigade, which was also trained in and by Sweden.
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