Occasionally, suggestions are aired about the potential participation of partner nations in NATO activities that are directly related to the Alliance’s core task of collective defence.
On 6 October 2020, the Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet published an opinion piece written by two members of the Swedish Young Conservatives, the youth wing of the Moderate Party. The authors put forward a number of proposals aimed at countering recent negative developments connected to the erosion of economic stability in Europe and the deteriorating security environment.
While the proposals to establish a defence union with Finland and to develop a more holistic Swedish strategy towards China could make sense, the suggestion that Sweden should establish a military presence in the Baltic states certainly needs to be looked at in depth.
NATO’s decision at the 2016 Warsaw Summit to establish an enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) in the Baltic states and Poland was carefully crafted and added four multinational battlegroups to the already existing impressive deterrence-and-defence toolbox consisting of nuclear, missile defence and conventional capabilities. NATO is without doubt the world’s most powerful military alliance and any aggression in one of the nations that hosts an eFP battlegroup would trigger a military response. In addition to maintaining the battlegroups, Allies also contribute to the Baltic Air Policing mission in the Baltic states to ensure integrity, safety and security of NATO airspace.
The NATO label is of utmost importance to the Baltic states and any move that could be interpreted as the Alliance outsourcing its core task to partners would not be welcomed in the three capitals. NATO has the resources to take care of its own security and there must be no doubt about it. Credible deterrence requires strategic predictability and capable military forces.
Sweden, like far too many European nations, cut its defence budget significantly in the two decades that followed the end of the Cold War. Consequently, valuable defence capabilities were lost and the non-aligned country is only today taking the first hesitant steps to restore a force structure tailored for national defence. While there seems to be broad political agreement about the worsening security environment, there is limited willingness to pay for the consequences. The Swedish Armed Forces have described what is required to upgrade the existing force structure, optimised to deliver peacetime efficiency rather than wartime effectiveness, into a more balanced version by 2025. This interim force structure would still suffer from quantitative and qualitative shortfalls but, with proper funding, these could be addressed by 2035, resulting in a force that would be more fit for purpose.
The current coalition government should be acknowledged for its readiness to increase defence spending from 1% of GDP to 1.5% in the period 2021–25. However, it appears unwilling to go beyond that level to enable the delivery of a number of defence capabilities deemed necessary by the Armed Forces and by the cross-party Defence Commission that delivered its final report in May 2019.
This is in stark contrast to the NATO members that in 2014 agreed to set a spending target of 2% of GDP for 2024. It is true that some Allies take this commitment more seriously than others and that there are also capability shortcomings in NATO that will take many years to address. Participation in eFP or in any potential similar construct would require solid and credible military capabilities to support the forward presence, if and when necessary. Being part of an alliance, whether it has two members or 30, requires clear strategic thinking, demonstrated political will and real military capabilities. While building up such capabilities, participation in joint exercises is useful since this helps develop interoperability and offers possibilities for closer cooperation in the future, potentially comprising operational elements.