Sweden says it’s set to hit NATO’s defence spending target — unlike Canada


Within two years, Sweden — the formerly neutral Nordic country that’s soon to join NATO — will meet the Western military alliance’s often-debated defence spending target of two per cent of gross domestic product. 

The country’s top military commander, Gen. Micael Bydén, told CBC News that Sweden is also restructuring its armed forces to make it more of a “wartime organization” to be ready in case the conflict with Russia escalates.

Sweden’s approach to the crisis triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb 24 stands in sharp contrast with that of Canada — which has no plan to hit the NATO spending target, is struggling to recruit new military members and lacks a clear consensus on what the primary role of the Canadian Armed Forces should be.

Sweden and historically non-aligned Finland chose last spring to apply for membership in the Western military alliance at the same time.

“It has been obvious for quite a few years. We are heading towards a new world order with developments which [are] going … in the negative direction,” Bydén told CBC News in a recent interview.

Sweden’s application set in motion a series of sober decisions in Stockholm — on top of the sober decisions the country had already taken following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

The first was an explicit order from the Swedish cabinet to Bydén to meet the defence spending benchmark. 

Bydén was careful to avoid comparisons in his interview and focused his remarks on what Sweden has accomplished and wants to accomplish.

‘We bring in quality’

The more he spoke, however, the more clear the contrasts with Canada became.

When asked what Sweden brings to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, he replied, “We bring modern military thinking. We bring expertise fighting in harsh conditions up north. We bring capabilities with high technology. So we’re not the ones bringing in volume here, but we bring in quality, and NATO knows this.”

The country also maintains a relatively broad set of advanced capabilities — from modern, high-end warplanes (Saab’s Gripen competed to be the replacement for Canada’s CF-18s) to advanced missile and air defence — supported by a large, sophisticated home-grown defence industry.

Gripen, a Swedish fighter aircraft, performs on the second day of Aero India 2017, at Yelahanka air base in Bangalore, India, on Feb. 15, 2017. (The Associated Press)

On paper, the Swedish military (with 24,000 active duty and 31,000 reserves, with firm plans to grow to 100,000 total) is slightly smaller than the Canadian Armed Forces (68,000 active duty and 27,000 reserves, with a goal to grow to 101,500). Sweden, however, reintroduced conscription in 2018, and the restructuring allows the country to scale up quickly, if necessary.

“When I refer to the ‘wartime organization,’ that is [what] we could [have] after a political decision for mobilization,” Bydén said. “We could fill the wartime organization with the conscripts.”

The introduction of conscription in Canada during the last two world wars set off political crises in this country, the effects of which were felt for years. 

Conscription and mandatory military service have been part of a more hardened political and social mindset in Europe. Some military experts have even speculated that Russia’s abolition of conscription following the end of the Cold War has contributed to the country’s military setbacks in Ukraine.

The military exercise SWENEX takes place at the Marine regiment in Berga, Sweden, on Oct. 27, 2021. (Fredrik Sandberg/The Associated Press)

Bydén highlighted another part of that hardened mindset: civil defence, resilience and preparedness. He pointed to NATO’s Article 3, which calls on members of the alliance to “maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”

Earlier this fall, Canadian MPs on the House of Commons defence committee were asking themselves fundamental questions about the role the Canadian military should be playing in responding to domestic disasters. There is no such debate in Sweden.

‘National resistance’

Sweden’s civil defence agency, which works in concert with the military, has been dropping leaflets into people’s mailboxes since 2018 giving practical advice on what to do in emergencies, such as power failures, but also calling for “national resistance” should the country be attacked.

“The Swedish population has a duty to contribute to Sweden’s total defence,” reads one of those pamphlets, entitled If Crisis or War Comes.

“This means that everyone who lives here and is between the ages of 16 and 70 can be called up to assist in various ways in the event of the threat of war and war. Everyone is obliged to contribute and everyone is needed.”

Soldiers from the Swedish Armed Forces stand in formation near the Royal Palace in Stockholm on May 17, 2022. (Karl Ritter/The Associated Press)

Bydén described it as “awareness” and a reminder to the country’s 10 million people that they have civic responsibilities.

Stephen Saideman, who holds the Paterson Chair in International Affairs at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University in Ottawa, said the difference between Canada and Sweden in defence posture can be partly explained by geography. The Swedes are literally right next door to Russia.

‘The Swedes are taking this very, very seriously’

And Moscow, he said, has made it clear that in any war in the Baltics, the seizure of the Swedish island Gotland would be of strategic importance to Moscow.

“We’re too far away. We just don’t have the same level of immediacy,” Saideman said, adding that Sweden has, throughout its history, faced confrontations with Russia of which Canada couldn’t conceive.

“So the Swedes are taking this very, very seriously, because the Russians have made it very, very serious to them.”

Saideman also referred to the two per cent defence spending benchmark as a “crappy metric” that does not take into account a nation’s participation.

Still, listening to Bydén, it seems clear that ending Sweden’s two centuries of studied neutrality was an easy policy for him to get behind — almost a no-brainer — because the world, not just his neighbourhood, has changed dramatically.

When the government of now-former prime minister Magdalena Andersson turned to him for advice last spring on whether the Nordic nation — which had practised a relaxed form of neutrality since the time of Napoleon — should join NATO, he didn’t hesitate before saying “yes.”

The world has changed. Can Canada keep up?

The world has changed, Bydén said, because the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown its willingness to undertake enormous strategic risks and to back up its “harsh rhetoric” with military action.

So, does Canada get the message? The short answer is: Wait for the Liberal government’s defence review.

There’s been a lot of talk from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet about defending the “rules-based international order,” and Canada notably committed up to $1 billion to arm Ukraine.

A spokesperson for Defence Minister Anita Anand said Canada will continue to make the necessary investments to keep the country safe “as our world grows darker.”

“We are currently working to update Canada’s defence policy, and this update includes consideration of the size and capabilities of the Canadian Armed Forces and its roles and responsibilities,” Daniel Minden said in a media statement. 

“The objective of this update is to ensure that our Canadian Armed Forces continue to have the resources required to both keep Canadians safe and meaningfully contribute to operations around the world. We will always do whatever it takes to protect Canada and our allies.”

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