About Face! Sweden Reactivates Conscription

Main Image Credit Swedish troops during an exercise. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Earlier this month, the Swedish government reinstated conscription, one of several recent moves to strengthen the operational capability of its armed forces.

The worsening security situation, in particular Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine, has led to the conclusion that the Nordic region is again confronting a resurgent and aggressive Russia.

As a result, Swedish military expenditure is increasing, anti-ship missiles have been reintroduced, exercises have intensified, military readiness is significantly higher and a permanent garrison is back on Sweden’s Gotland Island.

In addition, several bilateral defence cooperative efforts have been introduced – most notably with the US, the UK and Finland. Although Sweden is not a member of NATO, Stockholm is looking to further deepen its partnership with the Alliance.

The Cold War option of non-alignment in peacetime with the aim of neutrality in wartime is long gone. The reactivation of conscription is the latest but by no means last effort to strengthen the capability of the Swedish armed forces.

Conscription, first introduced in 1901, was the primary system for recruitment of military personnel until 2009. The call-up rate was high, and linked to citizenship: one man, one vote, one rifle.

Sweden’s size and sparsely populated territory coupled with a clear existential threat called for making use of all available personnel. Defence became an issue for the whole of the population, a least for the male half expected to serve as citizen-soldiers. The signal to the outside world was clear: Sweden would do its utmost to defend its freedom and integrity.

CreditA Swedish Strv 121 (Leopard 2) tank of the Skaraborgs regiment, which trains the troops destined for the permanent garrison on Gotland Island. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

The generally optimistic mood after the end of the Cold War drove changed defence developments. Territorial defence was out; high-end peace-support and crisis-management operations out-of-area were in. Conscription gradually came to be seen as a costly, antiquated and unnecessary part of an obsolete territorial Cold War defence system. It had to go; instead, a volunteer force composed of full- and part-time soldiers was to replace it.

In 2009, the conscription law was rendered ‘dormant’ by parliament, although the government retained the powers to reactivate it. Yet six years into the all-volunteer system, it has become clear that this was not working as envisaged.

Recruitment and re-enlistment have not been sufficiently high and too many broke off their contracts early. The Army in particular suffered, with its relatively high percentage of part-time reservist soldiers.

The government’s decision to reinstate conscription means that the whole class of 18-year-olds (born in 1999–2000 and after and estimated to number 90,000 each year) will have to go through a muster, beginning in autumn 2017.

They will then be legally obliged to go through military training after a selection process, emphasising interest, motivation and will of the individual, starting from January 2018.

The armed forces are instructed to plan for up to 4,000 conscripts a year in 2018 and 2019, with an increase to 8,000 from 2020. The training period is about 11 months; recurring refresher exercises are also likely to be part of the system.

The new version of conscription is also gender-neutral. All types of military training are open to both men and women if the individual can meet the standards required. The system now introduced is in this respect similar to the one Norway has operated for some years.

The possible scale-up of conscription in a few years’ time is an indication that the government may want to prepare for changes in the current size and structure of the armed forces as the security situation develops.

One concern the armed forces have is that diverting resources to training will harm operational readiness and proficiency. However, since the call-up rate is low and designed to cover shortfalls in the current organisation, this seems to be more of a short-time problem of adjustment.

Another set of problems concern the anticipated refresher exercises for reservists as extra funding will be needed for this.

And some redefinition of the shape of reserve service will also be required. Since the national military service law has been reactivated but not changed, military conscripts remain part of the system until they are 47.

Yet today’s conscription model seems to call for a faster turn-over rate: ten years as a reservist, followed by transfer to the personnel reserve seems to be a suitable time span. However, a decision on this has yet to be made.

Still, the advantages of a broader base for recruitment should not be forgotten. With a proper selection of those interested, willing and able, the armed forces could become an attractive option for more young people.

Much will depend on whether the Swedish armed forces will be able to make the coming system with combination of conscripts and volunteers sufficiently attractive. Here, the package of incentives – pay, service bonus, college grants etc. – for conscripts and volunteers will be crucial.

The new system will need to reflect today’s society in order to gain general acceptance. The Swedish armed forces are urgently in need of a sufficient number of recruits with the combination of physical and mental abilities that fits with the systems and current organisational setup.

Ultimately, the credibility of the new conscript/volunteer system depends on continued public support.

Explore our related content