Well-trained Soldiers

Even though money is tight and most of the fleet of armoured vehicles are locked up and out of use, Jan Mörtberg still does not quake in his uniform boots: "The soldiers training today will certainly be as good as any from the past fifteen years! But we’re talking about individual soldiers, perhaps working in smaller groups. Our ambition is for the soldiers to get the most possible, the best possible training, out of their ten months here, despite the current financial strain."

Our ambition is for our soldiers to get the most out of their ten months with us, despite the current financial strain, says Jan Mörtberg, commander of the Boden garrison. Photo: Niklas Ehlén/FBB

"We need to restore the programme of training with larger units soon; otherwise our accumulated skills and knowledge will start to diminish.

"The finances of the Armed Forces are not too good, to put it mildly. The Swedish units in Afghanistan, Kosovo and Chad accumulate heavy costs. Likewise the large contingent kept in a state of readiness at home, Nordic Battlegroup (NBG).
The Supreme Commander has been forced to slam the brakes on all the Armed Forces’ activities, with the exception of just these international commitments. Boden’s garrison, Sweden’s largest, has responsibility for 52 percent of Sweden’s land area, from Treriksröset, the cairn marking the spot where the territory’s of the three countries of Norway, Sweden and Finland meet, down to Härnösand. Here, as well, the financial situation has led to major changes – not least in the training of National Service men and women.
"We are going to be able to make use of only four out of 28 'Leopard 122' tanks and barely ten out of a fleet of 80 odd CV90 combat vehicles. A very different sort of year."

Best training possible
Not since 1994, when the former infantry regiment I 19 concluded its metamorphosis into the tank equivalent P 5, have so many cross country skis been worn - and been worn out during National Service training. The troops have got about on skis to save on fuel for trucks, busses and all-terrain carriers, which is otherwise a major expense.
"Adapting training programmes to financial reality is one thing, but our ambition is for our soldiers to get the most out of their ten months here. Our unequivocal objective is for our soldiers to be in a position to apply for service overseas, for a placement in a rapid response unit or for officer training."
"The fact is that I am convinced that we are succeeding. Going out and observing our soldiers and officers in action really re-charges your batteries; excellent training exercises, committed soldiers. The soldiers training today will certainly be as good as any from the past fifteen years! But we’re talking about individual soldiers, perhaps working in smaller groups. Training in larger units, from platoon and upwards, suffers from the constraints imposed by the current financial situation. To say otherwise would be to be rather economical with the actualité."

Critical levels
How can it be made to add up: fewer resources, parked armoured vehicles and tanks, but … well-trained soldiers?
"We, quite simply, train those doing National Service more as individual soldiers, and in this way can spend more time than before on each element. All officers know that, at the end of the day, there’s a balance to be struck between focussing on a soldier’s individual skills and collective training at the level of a group, platoon, company or battalion."

"Larger units on longer exercises accumulate greater costs. Some of things which we aren’t doing now will have to be done at a later stage, during the preparatory stage of an international mission, for example. We can get by with this sort of training this year, but clearly it won’t do in the long run. Developing a commander’s skills set requires longer field exercises: our capacities are worn away at the edges and can rapidly deteriorate to critical levels."
Shouted orders echo outside the windows of the office building, the clatter of running soldiers and their equipment reaches up to the third floor – as it has done for, probably, the last hundred years in the garrison town of Boden. Currently, the garrison, including operations at Arvidsjaur and the A 9 regiment, is the place of work for 950 employees, 1 400 National Service men and women and over 300 soldiers contracted to Nordic Battlegroup (NBG).

Here to stay?
What will the Boden garrison look like in five years, Jan Mörtberg?
"That question can’t really be answered since we don’t know what will happen to the report that the Armed Forces will make to the government in September."
"My belief, all the same, is that we will still have a strong military presence up here for four main reasons. According to my picture of the way things are going, we will retain our three units – F 21 in Luleå, I 19 in Boden/Arvidsjaur and A 9 in Boden. Resources are consolidated. We can fight on the ground: in mechanised units, dismounted as infantry and as rangers. We are supported by field engineers, artillery and airborne forces."
"Our second distinguishing feature is that we have exceptionally good conditions for practising combat in an operational context. We have access to both harbour and air strip in Luleå, military grounds, including shooting ranges, in Boden, as well as at Arvidsjaur, Lomben, Kalix, Kiruna and Tåme. In addition there’s the base at Jokkmokk and the Defence Materiel Administration’s test range at Vidsel. We are in possession, quite simply, of a unique capacity to co-ordinate training in an array of systems during an entire series of exercises."
"Moreover, the Rangers based in Arvidsjaur boast a particular specialism that attracts attention at a European level, one which Sweden should take care to cultivate."
Jan Mörtberg indicates that the so-called national security agenda gives him his third reason for his confidence in Boden’s future:
"The Supreme Commander emphasises the re-emergence of northern Europe in the strategic arena, as, indeed, do our neighbours. Nordkalotten (the artic region to the north of the Scandinavian Peninsula) is a concern, but interest is primarily directed at the Barents region - its energy resources and lines of communication."
"There is an obvious risk of strategic competition, a struggle for control of the region. In those circumstances maintaining a military presence, flying the flag, becomes, once again, an important consideration – and we correctly located for that role."

Injuries from cold, an embarrassment
The fourth element in the garrison commander’s vision of the future concerns sub-arctic climactic conditions.
"We make the claim, perhaps a little cockily, that units trained in sub-artic conditions are better than those trained elsewhere. If you can fight in snow and freezing cold, you can fight anywhere and in any conditions."
"Up here, in the north, we are compelled to pay constant attention to a soldier’s combat worthiness, what he or she can perform in the prevailing conditions, and that’s a difficult thing to do. We, especially, find injuries to our soldiers related to cold extremely embarrassing."
"Such incidents should not be allowed to occur, but it does show how difficult our task is. We work hard to make use of all of our winter skills. All available knowledge. And that’s not least the reason for the Armed Forces Unit for Cold Weather Operations, located in Boden and Arvidsjaur."
"We are also prepared to take on additional tasks. It’s already the case today that all of the Armed Forces’ officers are educated in sub-arctic skills; training which they receive from us. Plus, we offer winter skills courses in Arvidssjaur to officers of other nations."
"We can envisage larger EU units making use of our facilities, but that probably requires re-framing the legislation governing the allocation of responsibility for activities that, in one way or another, can be detrimental for the environment."

Last place
Finally, I 19 was not a favourite last year of the organisation that represents National Service soldiers, Värnplikstrådet (the National Service Council). I 19 came last in the annual regimental popularity rankings.
"We have a significant handicap in the long journey up here. Boden is a long way away from most of Sweden. We try to cut costs by taking the cheapest available means of travel, by air or by train, but the problem is that the cheapest isn’t necessarily the most convenient. Flight delays, of sometimes an hour or more, are not much fun when your night’s sleep is disturbed."
"The range of leisure activities on offer in a small town is limited, which doesn’t help either. We would prefer to schedule longer periods of training, and so longer periods of leave for our soldiers – but a shortage of officers, coupled with financial constraints, frustrates all our plans."
"On a more positive note, I have just recently read through the results of last year’s survey of demobilised National Service soldiers and they are much more encouraging. Our soldiers have above average confidence in their own abilities and in the institution of National Service, to give two examples which I find particularly satisfying. Moreover, Arvidsjaur and Boden had by far the best recruitment to officer’s training last year."
But you also receive criticism that National Service soldiers feel that they lack influence over day-to-day decision-making?
"We clearly have lessons to learn. It’s not just about representation at company and garrison level, because, of course, we have all of that. It’s more about communication – listening and learning. That applies for both employees and National Service soldiers. We have to involve everyone to ensure success. It’s as simple, or as difficult, as that."

Sven-Åke Haglund