Sweden’s security dilemma has worsened in recent years due to Moscow’s increasingly aggressive behavior as demonstrated by Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2018, its invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, and its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The consequences of potential Russian expansion into the Baltic Sea region are particularly dire for Stockholm, given Sweden’s control over the strategically important island of Gotland situated in the heart of the Baltic Sea. Given this situation, Sweden’s National Defense Strategy has renewed its focus on territorial defense and strengthening security in the Baltic Sea region (Foi.se, November 2017).
However, if Sweden is to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), it needs credible defense-by-denial mechanisms to support NATO air and missile defense structures. Therefore, it is imperative that Sweden possesses credible capabilities in these areas given the country’s location within the northern flank of NATO’s air defense architecture, which extends from the northern shores of Norway to Iceland and Greenland.
To that end, even before the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Swedish Armed Forces introduced the acquisition of a new Patriot surface-to-air missile system in 2021, formally known as Air Defense System 103, or LvS 103 (Forsvarsmakten.se, November 19, 2021). The LvS 103 will allow the Swedish military to extend its threat interception range largely due to the two types of missiles the system utilizes: the Guided Enhanced Missile, GEM-T, and the PAC-3 MSE; the latter is optimized for defense against ballistic missiles (Fmv.se, August 18, 2022). The system reached its initial operational capability by December 2021, meaning that it could now be put into active service (Aviation Week, December 20, 2021). According to then-Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist, the introduction of the new Patriot system enables the Swedish Armed Forces to strengthen their air defense capability, pointing out that the LvS 103 allows Sweden to “counter long-range missiles and air attacks and … also be able to fight ballistic missiles” (Forsvarsmakten.se, November 19, 2021). Hultqvist further explained, “This is a powerful modernization and upgrade of Swedish air defense and Swedish defense capabilities as a whole” (Army Technology, November 22, 2021).
The new Patriot system replaces one of Sweden’s aging air defense systems, the US-made MIM-23 Hawk surface-to-air missile system. The Patriot also serves as a deterrent against Russian short-range, nuclear-capable Iskander ballistic missiles deployed in Kaliningrad, which present a threat to key Swedish areas, including Gotland and Stockholm.
The acquisition of Patriot systems not only benefits Sweden from a security perspective, but it also benefits Stockholm’s foreign policy objectives by enabling the Swedish Armed Forces to better integrate with the air defense network of other NATO members. In the words of Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson, the acquisition of advanced systems, such as the Patriot, provide Stockholm with the capabilities and assets to integrate easily into NATO’s defense planning (Sputnik, January 30).
While for Sweden this interoperability will be necessary for using NATO’s air and missile defense assets in the most conducive manner, for NATO, this interoperability would ensure that member states can fully exploit Sweden’s strategic location within the Baltic Sea region. Increased Swedish air defense capabilities would also provide better protection for those counties that are already NATO members in the Baltic Sea region—namely, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Further, it would ease any command-and-control difficulties within NATO’s air and missile defense architecture.
In addition to the acquisition of the Patriot, in November 2021, some reports announced that the Swedish Armed Forces had reactivated Launch Unit 23, a medium-range air defense system that had been in materiel reserve for several years. This system, which includes surface-to-air missiles, a mounted gun system, as well as command radar and infrared cameras, can operate independently if need be but can also be connected to a central radar system. The system is planned to be deployed to Gotland to strengthen the air defense network there (Airforce Technology, March 18, 2021). According to Air Defense Regiment head, Colonel Mikael Beck, with the reinforcement of air defense systems such as Launch Unit 23, Sweden “will now have even more units available. By using already existing resources more effectively, this is part of the armed forces’ growth” (Airforce Technology, March 18, 2021).
Not only upgrading its capabilities in long- and medium-range air defense, Stockholm has also sought to upgrade its short-range capabilities. To that end, Sweden has introduced the RBS-90 system to replace the RBS-70 Man-Portable Air-Defense System. Compared to the RBS-70, the RBS-90 has a higher top speed and greater maneuverability, which is achieved through a sustained rocket motor installed in the new system (Armyrecognition.com, October 27, 2022). The IRIS-T SLM short-range ground-based surface-to-air missile system supplied by German firm Diehl Defense is another important short-range capability of the Swedish Army. The addition of this system to Sweden’s arsenal will enable Swedish forces to offer protection for counterforce assets and ground troops from aerial threats (Airforce Technology, October 4, 2019).
At sea, meanwhile, in 2016, the Swedish Navy reintroduced the anti-ship air defense RBS-15 Mk3 missile system by using parts from a previously scrapped battery and discontinued vessels (Forsvarsmakten.se, March 17, 2021). Such steps enable the Swedish Armed Forces to stay in sync with Stockholm’s policy of “total defense,” in which Sweden’s top brass plan to optimally use defense and security resources without disturbing the state’s economic growth and prosperity (Defence24.com, August 25, 2022).
Looking toward the future, Stockholm continues to seek out further options for bolstering its defense-by-denial capabilities. At sea, the proposed RBS-15 Mk4 Gungnir anti-ship missile will strengthen Sweden’s ability to destroy a missile before it is launched. This anti-ship missile can be launched from Visby-class corvettes of the Swedish Navy and from the Gripen-E multirole fighter aircraft. The system can also be land-based and integrated within any command (Naval Technology, January 4, 2021). In the air, the ramjet-powered air-to-air Meteor BVRAAM missile system was recently tested in August 2022 by the Swedish Air Force. Launched from a Gripen-E, the Meteor is capable of intercepting aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and cruise missiles (The Eurasian Times, August 30, 2022).
Furthermore, in 2022, reports indicated that Saab had developed a mobile short-range air defense system. The system, which includes advanced multi-mission 3D radar and short-range RBS-70 missiles, is coordinated with Saab’s ground-based air defense command-and-control system. Overall, it is capable of identifying and engaging a diverse array of aerial threats, including fighter jets, helicopters, missiles, rockets, artillery, mortars, UAVs and loitering munitions (Army Technology, May 8, 2022).
In terms of future partnerships, it is possible that, in the near future, Sweden will acquire components of Israeli air and missile defense systems, such as radars, as Stockholm has openly expressed its interest in Israeli capabilities. Israel’s defense systems are equipped with Link 16 tactical data protocols that make them compatible with NATO and US defense systems (The Insider, November 17, 2022).
The further development of holistic air and missile defense capabilities that include ground-based, air-launched and sea-launched platforms would enable Sweden to play a crucial role in Baltic Sea region defense, complimenting NATO’s security infrastructure there. Stockholm will also aim to play a more active role in air and missile defense through improved radars and sensors as it brings to an end its era of neutrality and moves toward a more challenging role within NATO.