Northern Composure: Initial Observations from Sweden’s Total Defence 2020 Exercise

The Swedish Home Guard. Courtesy of Jonn Leffmann/CC-BY-3.0

Sweden’s approach to national resilience is being tested again. The lessons such exercises yield have a wider applicability to all democracies

Sweden has a reputation for exceptionalism. Its unique response to coronavirus is the most recent example of its willingness to do things differently. Less well reported is that the country was already in the middle of a national resilience exercise when the pandemic struck its shores. The initial findings from Total Defence 2020 suggests that, for many democracies now looking to become more resilient against a variety of threats, Sweden’s exception should prove to be their rule. 

The Concept

The Swedish Total Defence concept originates from the 1940s. As Colonel Mikael Johnsson, military co-chair of the exercise planning group, explained at a RUSI event dedicated to Total Defence 2020, it is rooted in the idea that all elements of society have a duty to prepare to support the armed forces at times of crisis.

During the Cold War, the doctrine underpinned Sweden’s defence policy but it gradually fell dormant following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was jolted back into life by Russia’s annexation of Crimea. This act of aggression, followed by Russia’s hostile activities in Ukraine, led Sweden to reappraise its defensive posture in the Baltic region that it shares with its revanchist near-neighbour.

As a result, in a piece of landmark legislation in 2015, Sweden boosted its defence spending; reinstated conscription, albeit a more selective version than in the past; and revitalised its Total Defence concept, remodelled to meet today’s spectrum of threats. Key to rebuilding this policy was the need to reinstate its Cold War practice of running regular national resilience exercises.

The Total Defence 2020 exercise began in 2019. It was planned to run for a year. As Nils Svartz, co-chair of the evaluation branch from the Swedish Civil Contingency Agency told RUSI, Sweden needed to return to exercising Total Defence because ‘a more resilient society is a deterrence in itself’. The exercise has been ambitious in its scope. A joint endeavour between Sweden’s armed forces and its Civil Contingencies Agency, it has involved all elements of society: reaching down from parliament through regional administrations to local municipalities; across government institutions, including the Riksbank, its central bank; and throughout Sweden’s corporate sector. Initially consisting of desktop exercises, it was also to include a major live-play exercise, Aurora 2020, which has been postponed because of the pandemic. The exercise scenario has been escalating from cyber attacks through terrorist incidents to war.

Lessons Learned

Initial lessons identified have been captured by retired major-general, Mats Engman, who is co-chairing the evaluation branch of the exercise. He explained that because this was the first exercise of its type in three decades, the evaluation team had a broader scope than normal, including involvement in the entire planning phase, so that the learning process could be accelerated. Key to the success of the evaluation, he noted, was the need to reassure exercise participants that the lessons would focus on issues and processes rather than personalities. 

The first major lesson of the exercise was that it is extremely difficult to communicate clear messages to the population of a free society against the background noise of sustained disinformation campaigns. This was not a surprise to the Swedish authorities but proved far more significant than they expected. As a result, Svartz reported that his government has decided to establish a psychological defence agency to combat this problem. The second major lesson was that, with the advent of hybrid and grey-zone warfare, the transition period when the armed forces move from supporting civil society to being supported by civil society has become more complex but nonetheless must be seamless and flexible. It may also call for the central government to take tighter control than normal over lower levels of government during a crisis.

This is likely to be a controversial observation outside Sweden given the tussles over state and regional authority we are witnessing in countries like the UK and the US during the current pandemic – a reminder that domestic politics can also get in the way of effective crisis management. The third lesson was that the exercise proved highly effective in connecting together networks of organisations that would not normally work together, like retail logistic companies and the armed forces, but who would have to partner in a crisis.

Anna Karphammar, co-chair of the exercise planning group, described how useful what she described as the ‘Total Defence Exercise Family’ became when the participants found themselves switching from tackling the exercise scenario to responding to the real-world crisis caused by the pandemic. The final but probably most important lesson identified was the need for senior leaders across society to participate in the exercise. The decision to engage the very senior leadership of some 15 national agencies in the first phase of the exercise had a significant positive ripple effect, which was reinforced by the laudable example of the involvement of Sweden’s parliament in the exercise; a refreshing change for those used to seeing senior leaders fob off their participation in resilience exercises to junior deputies at the 11th hour for a ‘last-minute’ meeting.

The Swedish approach to resilience was born out of its need to develop a defence doctrine to counter a powerful aggressive neighbour without the need to depend on military allies. In the past, it seemed less relevant to democracies beyond Scandinavia that could afford significant military forces, were willing to operate in alliances and were not overly concerned by the likelihood of non-military national crises. However, in an era where threats like cyber attacks and disinformation campaigns can cross borders with ease, natural disasters are more commonplace, military forces find it hard to compete for resources, and alliances appear less dependable, this Nordic defence model is likely to start to turn heads in capitals of other democratic nations.

Total Defence is a concept that deserves to move from the northern flank of Europe to the mainstream of defence doctrine. The lessons from Total Defence 2020 should be studied carefully by all democracies, including, of course, its most basic lesson: the need to run national civil–military resilience exercises in the first place. The most important takeaway, though, is that the concept can only work if it enjoys visible political support at the highest levels.

Gerhard Wheeler CBE is a former multinational force commander and now works for Universal Defence and Security Solutions. 

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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