Three Swedish soldiers work as a team during the Call for Fire event as part of the European Best Sniper Squad Competition at the 7th Army Training Command's Grafenwoehr training area Germany, Oct. 24, 2016. The European Best Sniper Squad Competition is an Army Europe competition challenging militaries from across Europe to compete and enhance teamwork with Allies and partner nations. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Sara Stalvey) Unit: Training Support Activity Europe

The Northern Flank: The Restoration of Sweden’s Total Defence Doctrine

In November 2019, Sweden began implementing its first national total defence exercise in over 30 years. Recognising the deterioration of the security environment in the Baltic region and in Europe as a whole, Sweden has set in motion its strategy to prepare the country for war. In this article, John Fee examines the conditions surrounding Sweden’s restoration of a total defence doctrine.


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On December 10th, 2015, the Swedish Government reintroduced its whole-of-society approach towards national security, known as ‘total defence’ (totalförsvar). The strategy unifies the country’s civil defence and armed forces in joint operations with the aim of defending Swedish society against a wide array of hostile external influences; the worst-case scenario being war. To understand the motivations that have led to the restoration of a total defence doctrine that was dismantled in the late 1990s, one must begin with the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea to grasp the impact that this event has had upon Swedish strategic thinking.

It is so clear that they [Russia] don’t follow international law, rules and regulations. They are able to just do things when the opportunity is there—and it is really hard to understand what their aims and goals are. They have shown over the years now that that they put a lot of economy into defence. They have clear ambitions. They have shown that they are able to and are ready to use their military force to reach their political aims and goals.

Micael Bydén, Supreme Commander of the Swedish Armed Forces, 2016

Following the unforeseen annexation of Crimea and the uncertainty concerning Russia’s ambitions, two notable challenges emerged for Sweden. Firstly, Sweden recognised that it was highly vulnerable to the types of hybrid operations that were identified during the Ukrainian crisis—on account of an absent civil defence and a clear susceptibility to cyberattacks, power outages and other social vulnerabilities. Secondly, there was a clear need to broadcast a deterrence signal to the Russian powers that be, that any attempts to encroach into Swedish territory would come at great cost. These challenges have brought about a renewed relevance of the national security agenda within Swedish political discourse.

Total Defence Doctrine

In the wake of the intensified Russian aggression against Ukraine, the Swedish Defence Bill 2016-2020 ushered in a new trend in defence spending that looked to address the aforementioned challenges—which has resulted in the reintroduction of military conscription in 2018 and the reestablishment of a national defence strategy that aims to prepare Swedish society against an armed attack.

Total defence is Sweden’s answer to this challenge. In contrast to the total defence doctrine that Sweden established in the 1940s and maintained throughout the Cold War, which oriented its focus towards resisting an invasion from the Soviet Union—this newly revamped approach recognises a much broader spectrum of threats that may challenge Swedish society in the future—not least, threats that are emerging out of cyberspace (e.g. information influence operations). The concepts of hybrid warfare or non-linear warfare are commonly used to describe these types of threats within Swedish security discourse.

Civil defence constitutes Sweden’s non-military societal capacity to safeguard the civilian population during a crisis or a war—in addition to supporting the armed forces if necessary. In 2018, constituting an act of national preparation, The Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB) issued a 20-page defence brochure to all 4.8 million homes across the country that informed the public on what it ought to do in the event of a crisis or war. Titled ‘Om krisen eller kriget kommer’ (If crisis or war comes), the brochure provides the citizen with vital information and advice concerning their responsibilities during a national crisis and the provisions they ought to stockpile in their home.

As the world around us has changed, the Government has decided to strengthen Sweden’s total defence. That is why planning for Sweden’s civil defence has been resumed. It will take time to develop all parts of it again. At the same time, the level of preparedness for peacetime emergencies is an important basis of our resilience in the event of war.

If crisis or war comes, The Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), 2018

Since late last year, Sweden has been putting this doctrine to practice in its first national total defence exercise in over 30 years, known as ‘Total Defence 2020’ (TFÖ 2020). Participants have been rehearsing their respective roles to ensure that civil society and the armed forces are jointly able to withstand a crisis or a military attack against the country. Municipalities, country administrative boards, voluntary defence organisations, Sweden’s central bank and even private businesses are expecting to be put through their paces alongside the armed forces throughout the year, to learn of their responsibilities within a would-be crisis.

Time, however, waits for no one. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has brought about the real deal—and it should be pointed out, the very kind of crisis that Sweden anticipated and laid out in its 2017 national security strategy:

Security issues now need to be viewed from a much broader perspective than in the past… Wider security measures must also now encompass protection against epidemics and infectious diseases, combating terrorism and organised crime, ensuring safe transport and reliable food supplies, protecting against energy supply interruptions, countering devastating climate change, initiatives for peace and global development, and much more… This strategy sets out for the first time our overall approach to security in a broad sense.

Unsurprisingly, certain elements of the Total Defence Exercise 2020 have already been postponed, including the much anticipated Aurora 20 exercise—as the country manoeuvres in its ongoing efforts to manage the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Non-alignment stance

There is an additional dimension to Sweden’s strategic predicament that is vital to explaining the resurrection of Sweden’s total defence doctrine. Sweden has historically maintained a neutrality policy which has become a subject of debate in recent years—on account of Sweden’s military involvement overseas, most notably in their support of NATO-led operations in Libya and Afghanistan. Given these facts, one can draw the firm conclusion that Sweden no longer maintains a neutrality stance. Despite this seemingly obvious conclusion, Sweden’s most recent national security strategy (2017) explicitly maintains that it holds a “military non-alignment” stance. This stance is upheld by the fact that Sweden has yet to enter into a formal military alliance that would legally bind them into any military commitments with any other states. Even in the case of the European Union’s (EU) ‘mutual assistance clause’ found in Article 42.7 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), the treaty makes an exception for states like Sweden, who still wish to maintain their non-alignment stance:

If a Member State is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, the other Member States shall have towards it an obligation of aid and assistance by all the means in their power, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter. This shall not prejudice the specific character of the security and defence policy of certain Member States.

In turn, Sweden occupies what seems to be a paradoxical security stance. On the one hand, it has shown that it is willing to selectively engage in overseas military operations with its allies—to even repudiating the notion that it would remain passive in the event of an attack against a fellow EU Member State or Nordic country. But in return, Sweden has no binding military guarantees that it can count on from other states. Whether or not Article 42.7 of the TEU would oblige EU member states to come to Sweden’s aid in the event of an armed attack, nobody precisely knows. And it is this uncertainty, followed by several daunting tremors in the global security environment, that has set the backdrop for the reintroduction of Sweden’s total defence doctrine.

The Hultqvist doctrine

In addition to addressing its own defensive capabilities, Sweden recognises that it cannot maintain its own security in isolation. This view gives rise to an additional goal within Sweden’s defence strategy—the need to deepen its defence cooperation with other states.

In the aftermath of the annexation of Crimea in 2014, Sweden got to work. Following the NATO Wales Summit 2014, Sweden was granted ‘Enhanced Opportunity Partner’ status under NATO’s Partnership Interoperability Initiative (PII) that facilitates greater information sharing, political consultations and military training exercises between the alliance and enhanced opportunity partners. Beyond the aforementioned security perks that Sweden gains from this partnership, if we factor in the timing of this decision along with Sweden’s military non-alignment stance, then this agreement can perhaps be better understood as an unequivocal warning signal towards Moscow. If this perspective stands to reason, then several Russian provocations that shortly followed, including airspace violations and a suspected Russian submarine that appeared in the Stockholm archipelago, can perhaps be understood as Moscow’s resolute response.

In addition to enhanced cooperation with NATO, Sweden looked east towards its fellow militarily non-aligned neighbour Finland to lay out an action plan to strengthen their bilateral defence cooperation. In the years that followed, both states have taken tremendous steps to strengthen interoperability, increase mutual use of base infrastructure, enhance cooperation on military exercises and to engage in deeper strategic communication with one another.

This comprehensive defence strategy to enhance Sweden’s defence cooperation with international partners alongside strengthening its national defence has been commonly referred to as the ‘Hultqvist doctrine’. Named after the man who has been at the helm throughout—Peter Hultqvist, Sweden’s Minister for Defence since 2014, is a man who is unequivocal about the security challenges that are guiding Sweden’s strategy:

Russia has been upgrading its military capability for almost a decade. They are renewing 70% of all defence equipment. Our neighbours and partners in the vicinity of Russia feel the pressure. Russia is increasing military exercises and intelligence activities in the Baltic Sea. Russia exercises their nuclear capability. From time to time Russian officials also refer to nuclear weapons in their rhetoric. In the Arctic, we see that Russia is increasing its military presence. With the reopening of former Soviet Arctic bases, come more activities in the Murmansk region, in the Kola region as well as in the Atlantic Ocean.

Perhaps the silver lining for Sweden, given this rather grim assessment of Russia, is that Sweden’s neighbours equally share this perspective. Heightened EU and NATO postures that followed the 2014 annexation of Crimea has inadvertently aligned with Sweden’s interests and provided them with a convenient bulwark against Russia. Be that as it may, Sweden’s capacity to uphold its strategic ambitions in the long term will rest firmly upon its own perseverance—by way of continued political willingness to endorse the necessary defence spending to match operational requirements.

Lastly, greater interdependence within a common European security strategy is the most likely course ahead for Sweden. Whilst recent polls have suggested a firm base of public support for NATO membership (42% are in favour, whilst 34% are opposed), eastward enlargement of NATO would undoubtedly antagonise Russia and lead to further instability within the Baltic region—on account of the fact that Russia’s 2014 military doctrine stresses further NATO expansion as one of the most significant military risks that the country is facing. Building upon existing treaties within the EU arguably offers the path of least resistance in terms of preserving stability whilst Sweden continues to strengthen its national defence capability.

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John Fee is a former signaller of the British Army with expertise in executive protection operations and risk analysis. John is currently pursuing a degree in Peace and Conflict studies at Malmö University, Sweden. His current academic focus concerns information influence operations.

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Photo: Spc. Sara Stalvey – Three Swedish soldiers work as a team during the Call for Fire event as part of the European Best Sniper Squad Competition at the 7th Army Training Command’s Grafenwoehr training area Germany, Oct. 24, 2016.