In response to increasing Russian military activity in the Baltic, Sweden is refocusing its defence forces from overseas missions back to homeland defence. BILL READ FRAeS reports from Malmen and Linkoping.

Recent years have seen an escalation in military activity in the Baltic. (Swedish Air Force)

Until 2014, the main activity of Sweden’s armed forces was focused on participating in overseas expeditionary missions. Spending on defence spending was at a low level compared to the days of the Cold War. “Sweden used to spend 5% of GDP on defence but that fell to 2.5% and then down to 1%,” said Håkan Buskhe, President and CEO of Saab.

In May Russian Su-24s buzzed The Netherlands Navy frigate HNLMS Evertsen which was patrolling with a NATO naval group in the Baltic Sea. (NATO)

Today the situation is very different. The past few years have seen an escalation of Russian military activity over the Baltic Sea. According to figures from the Lithuanian Ministry of Defense, NATO fighters intercepted a total of 140 Russian military aircraft flying near the Baltic Sea in 2014. This figure increased to 160 intercepts in 2015, followed by 110 in 2016. This year has seen further incidents, the most recent of which as this article went to press on 6 June when a US B-52 bomber flying over the Baltic Sea was intercepted by a Russian Su-27 fighter. On the same day Russian media also reported that a Russian fighter had intercepted a Norwegian patrol aircraft over the Barents Sea.

“The situation in the Baltic has changed with a huge increase in Russian military activity over the past two years,” stated ,” Col Magnus Liljegren, Head of Air Force Department, Swedish Armed Forces HQ. “While the level of activity has now flattened out, Russia is flying in offensive sortie formations. The situation is very tense - our pilots need to think very carefully what they do.”

Defence refocus

SAF airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) Saab 340. (Swedish Air Force)

In response to this changing military situation, Sweden is now refocusing its defence priorities on defending its own borders. Produced ‘in the context and in light of the developments in Russia and specifically the Russian aggression towards Ukraine’, the 2016-2020 Swedish Defence Bill increased spending on defence for the first time in 20 years with a rise in the country’s defence budget of 2.2% over the next five years from SwK 43.355bn in 2016 to SwK 45bn in 2017, SwK 46bn in 2018, SwK 48bn in 2019 and SwK 50bn in 2020.

Swedish troops have returned to the island of Gotland. (Swedish Armed Forces)

A key priority of Sweden’s revised defence policy is to ‘enhance the warfighting capability of the armed forces, as well as to develop a new Total Defence concept which includes both military and civilian defence’. This will include a renewed regional focus, with emphasis on national defence and planning for wartime scenarios. Spending has been increased on air force, army and navy units, a coastal missile defence system will be reinstated and regular army units will return to the island of Gotland located between Sweden and the three ex-Soviet Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. “The remilitarisation of Gotland is a strategic mark,” said Col Liljegren.

Military conscription has been reintroduced for the first time since 2010 and will now include women as well as men. However, conscription conditions will be somewhat different, calling up 4,000 out of 13,000 men and women born after 1999 for training in 2018 and 2019.

Still from Swedish Armed Forces video showing the countries surrounding the Baltic Sea. (Swedish Armed Forces)

The Swedish government is also to allocate SwK 60m to strengthen municipalities' and county councils' work in the area of civilian defence, SwK 15m for the county administrative boards for total defence planning and SwK 20m for the National Defence Radio Establishment and the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency to strengthen resilience to and counter cyberattacks. “Sweden has never had so many programmes at the same time - not even in the Cold War,” said Håkan Buskhe.

Although Sweden is not a member of NATO, it plans to deepen its co-operation with that organisation, as well as with the EU, the UN, as well as with the Baltic States. Sweden is also a member of NORDEFCO (Nordic Defence Cooperation) and has working with other Nordic countries, in particular with Finland. “We are increasing co-operation with Finland,” explained Col Liljegren. “We share each other’s airspace and communications, as well as air surveillance co-operation. We are developing our operation planning to include the option for joint action. We can offer alternative landing bases for Finnish forces which can use Swedish airbases if they need to withdraw.”

Swedish Air Force

Swedish Air Force UH-60M Black Hawk helicopters. (Swedish Air Force)

The Swedish Air Force (SAF) operates a variety of aircraft for different applications and is organised into a number of units. It currently has a fleet of 96 JAS 39 Gripen C/D multirole fighters which can be used to attack targets on the ground, air or water, as well as for intelligence gathering. A total of 50 NH90, Agusta A109 and Sikorsky UH-60M helicopter units are used for national and international ground-based and naval operations and rescue services, while Boeing C-17s and Lockheed C-130H Hercules transport aircraft units perform airlift operations and are used in humanitarian missions. The SAF also operates Saab 105 jet trainers, Saab 340s for transport, AEW&C and Open Skies missions and converted Gulfstream business jets for SIGINT and VIP transport missions.

In addition, the SAF also has signals reconnaissance units which conduct electronic combat reconnaissance and intelligence gathering and radar surveillance units to improve data obtained from ground-based and naval sensors. Base units support fighter aircraft units, and run and maintain airbases while command and control units command airborne units and report on current airspace status.

 Enter the Gripen E


The Gripen can be armed with a wide variety of weapons. (Saab)

Saab is busy putting the finishing touches to the new Gripen E, the next generation of the Gripen. The Gripen E is longer than the C/D with a wider fuselage and improved undercarriage. It has a more powerful F414G engine with 20% more thrust, improved range (40% more fuel capacity), larger payload (10 hard points for weapons), improved hardware agnostic updateable avionics, infrared search and track system, new radar, Selex ES BriteCloud active decoy system, advanced electronic warfare and communications and improved situational awareness.

The new fighter is fitted with an AESA (electronically scanned array) radars, RWR (radar warning receiver), the IRST electro-optical system, as well as an advanced electronic warfare system and countermeasures. It has ten hardpoints which can be armed with a wide range of weapons (including up to seven Meteor beyond visual range air-to-air missiles), pods or external fuel tanks and is fitted with the TIDLS and Link 16 NATO-standard secure data link system that can be shared with other platforms.

The first version of the Gripen E will be fitted with Baseline MS20-standard software, which will be followed later by Edition 21 and 22 upgrades. Pilots will use a Targo embedded virtual avionics helmet from Brazilian company AEL Sistemas.

First rolled out in May 2016 ( the prototype Gripen E is currently undergoing rig and simulator tests, high speed taxi tests, software qualification and load calibration. The first flight was originally scheduled for the end of 2016 but was put back to the second quarter of this year while software was evaluated. First delivery is currently on schedule for 2019 and the SAF will have its first Gripen E squadron by 2023. It is expected that all Swedish air squadrons will have converted to the Gripen E by 2026.

 SAF reloaded

The SAF will now operate six fighter squadrons. (Swedish Air Force)

The increase in defence spending will enhance the SAF and Sweden’s air defence capabilities. “The 2014 Parliamentary Commission Report was very good for the air force and we are hoping for even more resources in the 2020 Report,” commented Col Liljegren. The SAF will now have four Air Wings comprising Fighter Squadrons, an Air Transport Squadron, an Air Combat Control and Air Surveillance Battalion and a Helicopter Wing. The Air Wings will maintain ground-based services and will ensure a more flexible use of existing air bases with the ability to disperse to increase the survivability of the air forces in case of war.

The number of fighter squadrons will be increased to six, including the fighter training division which will serve alongside the other squadrons in case of war. The six squadrons will begin by operating 96 Gripen C/Ds but these will be replaced by new Gripen Es between 2023 and 2026. A total of 60 JAS 39 Gripen Es have been ordered but the Defence Commission is considering increasing this total to 70. Both the existing and the future Gripen fleet will also be fitted with Meteor missiles. The eventual number of squadrons may be adjusted depending on the number of Gripen Es in service. “No decision has yet been made on what we will do with the C/Ds after 2026,” said Col Liljegren.

The SAF will return to disperse tactics to avoid having all its aircraft in one place. (Swedish Air Force)

The capability to disperse the fighter squadrons within their regular bases as well as between alternate bases will also be improved. “We will be spending SWK 1.7bn on protecting air bases,” explained Col Liljegren. “We will have five air bases plus three war bases. We’re returning to disperse tactics, although we’re not relying on roads as much as before.”

Existing tactical air transport aircraft will be maintained with plans to upgrade the C-130 fleet between 2020-2024. In the longer term, the Swedish Armed Forces will be looking to replace the C-130 with new tactical air transport aircraft. Helicopter units will give special attention to supporting naval forces with the acquisition of new anti-submarine weapons.

Sensor radar systems are to be upgraded and renewed and operational units are to have increased flight hours and availability. There will be a next generation version of the RBS15 missile and new short and medium range surface-to-air missiles are to be acquired. There is also ‘an opening’ to acquire long distance cruise missiles but a final decision on this will not be made until 2020.

There are also plans to replace the Saab 105/SK60 trainer. “The original plan was to replace the SK60 in 2020 but political decision making has moved this to 2025,” said Col Liljegren. One possible candidate to replace the SK60 is the Pilatus PC-21 with glass cockpit with another being the new T-X trainer currently being developed by Saab and Boeing - if it wins a USAF contract. However, the Swedish Material Administration (FMV) was quick to say that no decision on the replacement aircraft has been reached. “The FMV will not define which manufacturers that may be potential suppliers of a new trainer aircraft for the Swedish Air Forces,” it said in a statement to the press. “The FMV and the Swedish Armed Forces are developing various trainer system concepts to find a suitable solution that fulfils the Swedish Air Force demands on future trainer aircraft and that can replace the SK60.”

Developing tactics

In addition to gaining more defence materiel, the Swedish Air Force is also giving careful consideration to the way it uses it. “The key to success in air warfare is superior numbers, superior technology and superior tactics,” said Col Liljegren. “Sweden will probably not be superior in numbers so, to regain our national defence capabilities, we need aircraft equipment with the right things. However, technology is an accelerator, not a problem solver. We don’t have a lot of resources and our capabilities are thin, so this is forcing us to work a very clever way. Sweden has a long successful tradition of continuing and developing tactics but we need to use different tactics for home defence than we used on international missions. We need to be increasingly proactive with both the army and the navy.”


One of the SAF’s key specialities is connectivity with its Gripens and other aircraft transmitting and receiving data from each other to provide an overall network centric picture. But how robust would this system be in the event of disruption from electronic warfare jamming systems? “We use Link 16 for international missions which has been upgraded,” said Col Liljegren. “We use Link 16 at home but we’ve also got our own national datalink which I think is better. We have also been practicing with degraded systems as to what happens if there is no GPS.”

International co-operation

Swedish and Finnish NH90 helicopters. (Swedish Air Force)

While Sweden has been realigning its forces to concentrate on national defence, it is still participating in international operations, including Mexico, Brazil, Greece, Pakistan, UAE and Thailand. Sweden also plans to send a C-130 and 50 personnel to Operation Mimosa in Mali from November 2017 to May 2018. “Strong partnerships with other countries is a strategic strength,” said Col Liljegren. “Co-operation is very important if you are a small nation.”

The Swedish Air Force is also being used as the ‘mother’ air force for the Gripen to share experience with other air forces that use the Gripen, sharing operational experience through the Gripen User Group shares operational experience. Saab has also been working with Boeing on the T-X trainer for past three years.

The SAF is also participating in international military exercises, including ACE 2017 held between 22 May-2 June, as well as Red Flag in 2019.


The AURORA 17 exercise will involve 50% of Sweden's total armed forces(Swedish Armed Forces)

In September, Sweden’s armed forces will be staging ‘Aurora 17’ – a national exercise simulating a military attack on Sweden. It will involve over 19,000 personnel from the Swedish air, land and sea armed forces, together with additional military units from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Lithuania, Norway and the USA. 20% of Swedish personnel will be from the home guard while there will also be participation from around 40 other civil agencies. “Aurora will be our biggest joint exercise for 25 years, involving 50% of our total armed forces,” declared Exercise Director of Aurora 17, Major General Bengt Andersson.

Aurora 17 will involve army, navy and air force units from all over Sweden with the main exercise areas concentrating on the Mälardalen and Stockholm areas, on and around the recently remilitarised island of Gotland, and the Gothenburg area. Finland is also participating with naval and air transport units, together with Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Lithuania, France and USA. These countries will role play both opponents and friendly forces.

Phases 1 and 2 of AURORA 17. (Swedish Armed Forces)

The exercise will take place between 11-29 September and will be in four phases.

  1. CET/FIT 11-17 September. “This stage will simulate a pre-war situation and will concentrate on integration, routines and methods,” explained Maj Gen Andersson. “Units will train together. Troops will move to Gotland. Chartered trains will transport a mix of equipment and personnel. The forces will mostly move about overnight.”
  2. SHAPING 18-23 September. Troops will reinforce Gotland. There will be joint training both on Gotland and the mainland. “On 22 September we will run the imaginary scenario that ‘A land’ to the east attacks of ‘B land’,” said Maj Gen Andersson. “The assumption will be that Sweden is not the main target but enemy forces will attack Gotland and south of Stockholm to prevent reinforcements going to ‘B land’.”
  3. JOINT OPS 24-27 September. This phase will simulate a coastal and air attack on the Swedish mainland between Oxelosund and Nykoping. The 24th of September will also be a public information day to explain about the exercise.
  4. RE-ORG 28-29 September - the last two days will ‘restore used terrain’, regroup units to barracks and evaluate the exercise objectives.

Phase 3 of AURORA 17 will simulate the repulse of an invasion of Swedish. (Swedish Armed Forces)

While Maj Gen Andersson did not specify which real countries ‘A land’ and ‘B land’ might represent, a glance at a map of the Baltic shows that the littoral countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are very close to a much larger eastern nation.

The headquarters of the Swedish Armed Forces has issued the following public statement on the forthcoming exercise: ‘The overarching mission of the Swedish Armed Forces is to defend the country´s interests, our freedom and the right to live the way of our choice. Deterrence lies at the core of a strong defence, one that rises to all threats and overcomes all challenges. It is designed to deter potential attackers and force them to carefully consider the risks of attacking our country. For a deterrent to be effective, it needs to be credible and visible. Through frequent and extensive training and exercise, especially with other defence forces, Sweden is strengthening its deterrence effect and makes it more credible.’

“The security situation in past years has worsened and we need to increase the ability of our armed forces,” commented Maj Gen Andersson. “This exercise will also send an important message to the world - we are prepared to defend ourselves.”



Bill Read
9 June 2017

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