Swedish defence of world class - but not for much longer

Conversation with Supreme Commander Håkan Syrén roams over many subjects, from the unavoidable - that Sweden, with a defence that will no longer occupy a position in the world's top ranks, is becoming a small country also in military terms - to Nordic defence collaboration and Syrén's expected move to a high-ranking appointment in the EU. But first, let's talk about jobs, and the worry that exists here at home.

Several regiments and units, including those in Eksjö and Arvidsjaur, were, before the summer, considered to be almost certain to be closed down. How secure can those employed by the Armed Forces in these places feel?
"You have to be really quite tone deaf not to get the message given by the four party  as regards our core structure. The message is clear, even if it was announced in a newspaper article. The formal statement will come from the government at the end of February."

Should these threatened closures be seen as postponed or cancelled for good?
"One can never regard anything as permanent. All organisations have to consider constantly whether their structures are effective and rational. I can see that the politicians have heightened ambitions for the Armed Forces: we are to maintain our infrastructure, regiments, units, schools, but, despite this, we are still going to be  allocated fewer resources."

In front of the assembled high command of the Armed Forces, you talked for a long time about the challenges involved in having up to 2 000 soldiers on mission overseas,  300 on stand-by and in Sweden's role as lead nation for a new EU battle group during 2011…
"I don't want to give an evaluation of the tasks that have been assigned to the Armed Forces; rather, I see it in purely mathematical terms. In 2009 the reduction in the budget allocation for the Armed Forces is 720 million SEK in real terms. Including the much talked about  "hollowing out effect", increased costs for materiel procurement of 3.5 percent a year.
It's like an hour-glass, the sand slowly seeps out. Just sitting still and watching it happen, isn't good enough. Irrespective of the ambition of the goals that have been set for us, in the end we have to accept that financial reality dictates a lowering of levels of capability and of ambition."

The government has promised to transfer 2.3 thousand million kronor, an incredible sum of money, from the procurements budget to the allocation for military unit activities, i.e. training and exercises. This is what the Supreme Commander wanted. Are you happy with that decision?
"Yes, absolutely, but at the same time we had counted on certain savings, which we would have been able to make following those changes to our infrastructure, closures and location transfers, which will not now be made.
Moreover, great uncertainty remains as regards how our personnel needs are to be met. There are a number of proposals that differ greatly - from maintaining a force of 15 000 national service soldiers, to training a significantly smaller number of professional soldiers. That, of course, has an effect on our education and training infrastructure: sleeping quarters, exercise grounds, equipment. Everything is interconnected."

The government's programme of cuts for materiel looks tough: no refitting or upgrading of tanks and other combat vehicles, no to the mortar turret or delivery system AMOS (Advanced Mortar System), no air defence for the Visby class corvettes, no more armoured personnel carriers - despite the fact that all of these are projects that have been under development. Destruction of capital, according to one of your colonels.
"I want, as far as possible, to take a step back and not look at particular projects. There are losses, but I want to think creatively: what can we do to manage without AMOS, without the new air defence? Can we do anything differently? Use other systems to achieve the same effect?
If it's about armoured personnel carriers, I can't say to our international force that we'll just stay at home. We have to be constructive, change our methods, but also accept that, in certain situations, the price is a higher level of risk.
It's not just about, as it's expressed, "effective procurement", but instead it's about a clear and obvious lowering of our ambitions. On the other hand we can't in the Armed Forces sit with our arms crossed and simple say "... it can't be done", we have to be innovative and think of new ways of doing things."

Can you give us concrete examples of the "lowering of ambition" that you argue is a result of the government's financial cut backs?
"Today, we can boast world-leading fourth generation aircraft, world-leading diesel-fuelled submarines, probably the world's best corvettes, as well as combat vehicles, tanks and military training of world class.  It is as if we are, basically, being told "we know that you are good, enthusiastic, at the cutting edge, but you should just ease off and only work at 80 percent of your capacity."

And the consequence of that is…?
"We in the Armed Forces have to learn that lesson, and the general public has to understand. The result of all this belt tightening is that we are forced to accept that our defence will be on a par with that of other small European countries as regards skill  level, knowledge and capability. We can't have the best of everything. Equipment systems age, and will be replaced less often.
Sweden is the only country, other than the great powers, to accept the responsibility of being a Framework Nation, that is taking a leading role in a larger context. It's a heavy responsibility that has its costs in time and money. We have recently concluded our slot as framework nation for the EU's rapid reaction force with the end of Nordic Battlegroup 2008. Now we need to meet the challenges of NBG 2011. We will have to seriously reconsider such commitments in future."

NBG is a widely appreciated example of Nordic defence cooperation, with support from Estonia and Ireland. Does the solution to the problems we have described lie in increased Nordic cooperation?
"We can go much, much further. Right now, we cooperate within 18 different spheres ... ground, air, sea, logistics, procurement, service and maintenance, joint exercises, joint training; all the things that we do on a daily basis can be done smarter, even better. We do a lot of this in the Arctic North Callotte, primarily with Norway but also in cooperation with Finland."

The fact that Norway is a member of NATO, does that set any limitations to the extent of cooperation?
"I don't concern myself with that. I am a soldier, a professional soldier. NATO membership, or non-membership, is politics. I make suggestions to the politicians regarding what the Armed Forces can do, and then they can lay out what is, and what is not, allowed.
There are certain things that I understand won't be permissible. I can admit to testing the boundaries of the possible, at least occasionally. So I'm going to understand if certain things are beyond those boundaries. But, still, there is so much to be gained from Swedish-Norwegian-Finnish collaboration."

What sort of things do you expect will get a negative response? Materiel, exercises or more advanced ideas - maybe joint bases ... ?
"I won't indulge in that sort of speculation. I should say that I am willing to propose closer cooperation until we reach the point where the next step will mean that I lose the power to press the start button myself. We must not risk getting into a situation in which we are forced to wait for someone else. But we are a long way from that, as yet."

There are many pointers towards you being appointed to the position of Chairman of the EU's military committee (EUMC). Does that mean that a Swedish General will be the EU's own Supreme Commander from the autumn of next year?
"Supreme Commander? No, absolutely not! Each country is a sovereign state. What it's about is coordinating the defence efforts of the 27 countries at an international level, so that they, the countries, can together meet those threats that it is possible to combat with military means."

That sounds simple ... is it?
"A lot of it is about the long term, making proposals, coordinating. A major part of the assignment is something called Force Generation, working to make it possible for different units from many countries to come together as a strong military force - including advanced logistics. To be sure, there are difficulties but also great opportunities.
The mission in Chad is an example of how a very complicated operation, despite many problems, could ultimately be carried out. Sweden can feel proud of her contribution to that success."

By Sven-Åke Haglund
Photo by Niklas Ehlén, FBB