There is just a month left before Sweden’s biggest ever force is to be ready for international deployment.
The NBG is to be able to undertake everything, from protecting aid organisations, evacuating refugees, disarming aggressive parties to separating warring troops and factions with maximum military force.
It is headed by Swedish Brigadier, Karl Engelbrektson. Remember the name. It is expected that the name Engelbrektson will become very familiar during the next six months – not only in the Swedish media, but also throughout much of the world, i.e., the possible working area of the NBG. Preparations are now in their final stages.
Engelbrektson relates that it is a matter of renewing skills and adapting one’s way of thinking. Very radical as well:
- When we train soldiers in the national service system here at home, we teach the soldiers to use as much force of weaponry as possible in order to achieve the maximum conceivable defence effect; concentration of force on the objective, as it is called. This constitutes the basis of our ability.
Shooting as little as possible
- In international operations, which are intended to calm conflicts, it is just the opposite; shooting as little as possible. It is a matter of changing your basic approach, which in turn affects our conditioned tactical conduct, our intelligence gathering and our ability to gradually escalate when it is a matter of demonstrating military muscle.
For the first time in an EU- or UN-led operation, Sweden is the Framework Nation. As “framework nation”, Sweden has a special responsibility for planning and for construction of a multinational force, together with the core of the military command structure – staff officers, command system and logistics (equipment, supplies, transport, maintenance in both the short-term and the long-term).
”It is a matter of informing, and informing again, in order to avoid misunderstandings”
2,350 Swedes are to do the job out there, together with 220 Finns, 150 Norwegians, 80 Irish and 50 Estonians.
- It is a matter of giving the commanders of the multinational units considerable authority, and the possibility of working in an assignment-tactical way, quite simply to give them the conditions for making use of the best of everybody. For my part, it is a matter of informing and again informing, in order to avoid misunderstandings, to keep dialogue going.
It began with the Kosovo Battalion
The Commander of the Nordic Battlegroup is this same Brigadier.
Like a Swedish champion of liberty of the 15th century, his name is Engelbrekt Engelbrektson. His first name is Karl, and his full name is Karl Lorentz Engelbrekt Engelbrektson.
His international career actually started on Gotland. Engelbrektson was given the assignment of organising one of the Swedish Kosovo battalions (Serial No. 9) with P 18 as base.
- Yes, but without my years at the Swedish Ministry of Defence I could have made many blunders. All international military affairs are in essence political. Despite the fact that this is quite complicated, you have to know where the line is drawn, and what your actual role is in the context: That of the soldier.
KS 09 encountered very tough tests. The disturbances in the capital city of Pristina in March 2004 degenerated into what threatened to be a massacre of hard-pressed Kosovo Serbs. The Swedes prevented a riot and received considerable praise for their conduct.
Was this praise perhaps undeserved?
- Our soldiers stood fast for up to 20 hours with their lives at stake, without leaving the line. They really were heroes and should have been appreciated even more. The soldiers did what was needed in uniform at the place, while they defended people who were completely unknown to them. This would not have worked if each soldier had not felt that he could rely on his comrades, and the fact that their officers were good examples. Such solidarity and trust is decisive in a crisis situation. They were first class.
Not least in the media, the equipment issue has almost overshadowed other preparations for the NBG:
- We have tried, and I think we have succeeded, in getting our colleagues to deliver effect with the equipment we have, and not to focus on what we do not have. As long as the absence of what we do not have doesn’t set limits for the area of deployment of the Combat Group.
- The equipment is world-class average. Then you can always want more, but the Combat Group can neither get bigger nor heavier because then we would never get to where we wanted to go. The extra challenges we have had are that some equipment has not arrived in time, and consequently we have had to adapt our training to this.
“We have considerable experience of conflict-prevention measures after many, many deployments.”
Questions regarding equipment and vehicles – everything from desert uniforms to transport helicopters – are sensitive after the discussions of the autumn, and Brigadier Engelbrektson makes considerable effort to be clear about this:
- Preparing this over a period of two years, organising an expeditionary unit which can be deployed rapidly over considerable distances, this obviously makes demands on logistical, personnel and equipment provision. In principle, it is impossible in such a short time, but thanks to clear prioritisation from the Commander of the Swedish Armed Forces, it has functioned nevertheless.
The government’s official letter to the Swedish Parliament (2007/08:5), states: “Access to helicopter transport is decisive for the functioning of the Combat Group”. The shortage of helicopters has been discussed a great deal during the autumn; seven helicopters for 2,850 persons does not seem to be very impressive...
- Unfortunately, we were caught between an old and new helicopter system in the Swedish Defence Administration. Despite this, we, and I mean all the Military Authorities, did a very good job and created a Combat Group of very high international standard. But we do not need to do everything ourselves. Support with helicopter transport can be provided by other countries. If there is the political will to carry out an operation, then there will be solutions.
The official letter from the government to the Swedish Parliament also describes four “paramount illustrative scenarios” for the NBG, quite simply what the Combat Group could be used for:
- Support for humanitarian operations.
- Evacuation operations in a hostile environment.
- Conflict-prevention operations, including disarming and embargoes.
- Separation of parties by force, crisis management, peace-keeping operations and protection of supply lines.
Force Commander Engelbrektson, which of the four main points have the Swedish soldiers the greatest ability of bringing to a successful conclusion?
- Conflict-prevention measures, we have considerable experience of these after many, many contributions. The same applies as regards support for humanitarian operations. To an extent also, evacuation operations and separation of parties by force, although these have been on a smaller scale than the volume we are now talking about. Through not least FS units in Afghanistan and operations in the Balkans, we have learnt quite a lot.
May the Swedes fight?
Item number four above, Separation of parties by force, seems to require a good ability to fight. May the Swedish soldiers actually fight? This issue has also been discussed in the Swedish Parliament...
- Each time Swedish soldiers have gone into action, they have done well. We know this from Bosnia, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Liberia, and the Congo in times past. Although the actions were of limited extent, the Swedish soldiers succeeded well.
- We are good at defending good values, that is when we know that what we are doing is right, humane and ethical. If action is the only remaining means, we do not back out. Everything is based on an ethical approach to the use of force.
- Each individual has, as a soldier, a considerable position of power, and he or she must consciously think about this. Using weapons is an extreme solution. On the human plane, no one can divest themselves of the responsibility. It can be right to open fire, even without authorisation, and it can be just as right not to do that – despite authorisation.
Not least as regards Swedish contributions in Isaf in Afghanistan, discussions have involved how the armed presence shall manifest itself in a normal situation – armed vehicles or open jeeps. What basic view of this is there in the NBG?
- If you come into a situation in considerable strength, the possibility of not needing to use weapons is increased. Your presence carries a clear message. But on the other hand, if you go in with excess strength too often, you do not get any contact with the population, no information, no knowledge and no understanding of the area in which you are working. We work to a great extent with what is called an assignment profile, wherever we are in a given situation, we are on an escalation ladder.
Engelbrektson describes a number of levels where, on the bottom rung of the ladder, the soldiers have “berets on their heads and weapons shouldered”. If the situation is considered to be somewhat more disquieting, the soldiers signal this with helmets on, bullet-proof vests and weapons at the ready.
- To give yet clearer signals, we patrol close to our vehicles. The next step is to have yet more vehicles and mounted guns. If we wish to make a yet stronger statement, we arrive as an entire unit. Go in without further ado and take over a town or an area.
- All the time you must have the ability to change the level on the escalation ladder and give different signals, everything from being inviting to being really threatening.
But has the Nordic Battlegroup, a rapid response force with Combat Vehicle 90 at the top, really enough muscle so that its appearance can be “really threatening”, as you say?
- Locally, we can appear in considerable force. Actually it is a matter of the fact that we have enormous resources, the situation can involve two to three companies on the ground; two companies for individual fire with splinter-protection vehicles, helicopters in the air, and over all of this, JAS Gripen aircraft sweeping in now and again.
The troops are backed with information from a unique intelligence force, Istar TF, and with them they have a very competent medical care unit.
- If necessary, everything can be reinforced with an engineering unit which can remove obstacles and IEDs, so-called improvised bombs. Additionally, we have indirect fire and military police.
Support from the entire EU
- At a higher level, we are backed up by a command chain which gives support from the entire EU. If this connection does not give us the ability to appear in force, I don’t know what would.
In combination with this show of force, Karl Engelbrektson talks about Psyops, psychological operations, a separate unit which is part of the NBG and can produce everything from leaflets to radio transmissions, directed both to warring forces and the general public.
- Force in today’s international operations consists in equal parts of information and ammunition. The combination is guaranteed to be unbeatable. My conviction is that this also applies to NBG.
Text: Sven-Åke Haglund