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Inside the plan to mobilize Swedish society against

Issued: 2018-03-15

WASHINGTON — Roughly 220 miles of ocean separates Sweden from the heavily militarized Russian port of Kaliningrad. The country’s long, narrow shape leaves it vulnerable to air assault from multiple sides. And Sweden, along with neighboring Finland, are in the unique position as the only non-NATO aligned nations on the Baltic Sea.

Hence, the nation spent the Cold War years preparing to fend for itself against a great power invasion, drawing up plans for how to mobilize the entirety of the civilian population and infrastructure to defend its territory. And then the Soviet Union collapsed, a new era of peace dawned and those plans were left to fall fallow.

Now, Sweden is looking to change that.

A landmark commission formed in early 2017 is laying the groundwork to revitalize Sweden’s “total defense” concept, which would see the country ready to use all aspects of Swedish life to push back an invasion from an unspecified foreign adversary — but one that sounds suspiciously like Europe’s biggest bogeyman in Moscow.

In an exclusive interview with Defense News during a recent visit to Washington, Defence Commission head Bjorn von Sydow and commission secretariat chief Tommy Akesson explained their vision for revitalizing Sweden’s defense infrastructure — one they believe must enable the country to hold out against a major invasion for three months.

“When we say civil defense, we mean all civil activities in society, including medical care, including shelters of course, including private companies, everything. Local communities and all their obligations,” Akesson said. “It’s a total mobilization of the country and planning for how to put all forces in society in the direction of solving, in the worst case, a military attack.”

Sweden plans to tap its private cybersecurity industry to help prepare for a potential attack from Russia.

Spending to prepare

The commission was initially tasked only with providing a final report by May 2019, but decided to go ahead and release a six-page interim report late last year in order to provide the public and allies insight into their initial thoughts — and, von Sydow acknowledged, to let any potential, unnamed adversaries know that an invasion of Swedish territory will be costly.

“Sweden was famous for this during the Cold War, with very elaborate and detailed plans, down to how parking garages were designed so you could use them as shelters,” said Magnus Nordenman of the Atlantic Council. “Talking about it [now] sends a signal they realized the challenge and are doing something about it.”

The report estimates that between 2021 and 2025, Sweden will need to invest 4.2 billion krona (U.S. $510.5 million) per year on its total defense proposals. While not a major spend by American defense levels, that is a serious investment for Sweden, especially considering it is additional money on top of what the country intends to invest in its armed forces.

In the meantime, von Sydow has about 400 million krona per year in 2018, 2019 and 2020 to invest in total defense developments. That culminates with a major exercise, tentatively planned for the year 2020, involving all aspects of the total defense concept — in essence, a trial run incorporating the entire nation.

Where do those funds go? A lot will go toward infrastructure, such as building new shelters and depots. Other funds will go toward developing new technologies needed to defend the homeland. And part of it will be spent on training to resist propaganda efforts and fake news spread via social media. That latter point is something von Sydow said was important because part of the commission’s requirement is not just to defend the homeland, but to defend the democratic principles that are vital to the nation.

“Ultimately the protection of democracy and political process is viewed as a core national interest,” said Erik Brattberg with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “That is part of defense and total defense. It’s not just about making sure people have electricity and food. It’s also about making sure societal values, principles and norms” exist.

A potential complication is the upcoming September general elections in Sweden, which could reshape the ruling coalition that has thrown its support behind the concept. However, von Sydow expressed his belief that enough parties back moving forward with the commission’s work, so whichever party ends up on top will not look to undo the commission’s progress.

Three months and one week

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