Sweden’s air-defense system is due for a major upgrade

Sweden’s air-defense system is due for a major upgrade

Sweden’s outdated air-defense system spurs fierce competition over a billion-dollar contract, signaling growing security concerns.

The new system’s main purpose will be to secure strategic bases and critical infrastructure, and act as a complement to Sweden’s fleet of the JAS Gripen aircraft. Estimates of the contract’s value vary greatly, but most reports have put the figure somewhere over a billion dollars, making it one of the Swedish military’s largest investments.

Two producers, American Raytheon and French-Italian Eurosam, are in the midst of a bidding contest over the contract. Whichever one the Swedish government picks to engage will boil down to politics – and the decision will signal the country’s preferred future in security. Strong factors indicate that Sweden will opt for strengthening ties to the United States and pick Raytheon.

Inferior standards

The post Cold War period saw substantial cuts in Sweden’s defense budget. While military expenditure was 2.6 percent of GDP in 1990, that number has been hovering around 1% over the last several years, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. The effects on air-defense are emblematic of this trend: Sweden currently operates only two air defense battalions, a decrease from twenty-two in 1996.

The current system in use, Robotsystem 97, is an updated version of the U.S. HAWK system developed in the 1960s. While it has been continuously updated, the system is widely regarded as ill suited to meet contemporary challenges. In particular, it was designed at a time when aircraft still flew in and dropped missiles over a target.

Whereas modern aircraft fire missiles from great distances, requiring greater flexibility in air-defense. As the Supreme Commander of the Swedish Armed Forces, General Micael Bydén, stated that the current system “does not meet the required standards.”

Sweden’s new defense focus

These shortcomings have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. This is largely a result of rising tensions in the Baltic Sea region and greater Swedish awareness of Russian assertiveness in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.

Increased security concerns were quoted when Sweden decided to reintroduce military conscription in 2017, and the government budget proposal, unveiled last week, unveiled increases in defense spending on the same basis.

The ongoing Aurora 17 – the largest military exercise Sweden has undertaken in over two decades with eight participating states and some 20,000 troops – is a testament to this newfound focus on defense.

Swedish policymakers have made clear that they wish to update the air-defense system by 2020, and this tight deadline has narrowed down the options to two systems, which are already developed and widely in use.

The first is the Patriot, developed by U.S. defense giant Raytheon, and the second is French-Italian Eurosam’s SAMP/T. Both systems were employed in Aurora 17, and reports suggest that the Swedish government is very close to making a final decision on which one to choose – a process reportedly surrounded by intense lobbying from both the U.S. and European sides.

A political move

Although some reports suggest that the Swedish Armed Forces would prefer the SAMP/T, as it is more likely to be cheaper and better suited for Swedish terrain, the final decision will boil down to political considerations rather than the performance of the respective systems. Above all, the decision will send a strong sign regarding Sweden’s preferred future security orientation.

Opting for the Patriot system will signal a willingness to strengthen the security cooperation with the United States. When the Swedish Minister of Defense Peter Hultqvist and then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter signed a Statement of Intent to tighten defense cooperation last summer, “deepening our armament cooperation,” was one of the stated objectives. Securing a billion-dollar purchase from an American contractor will add credibility to those promises.

Swedish policymakers will, however, measure the benefits of closer security cooperation with Washington against the impacts of the contracts on the Swedish defense company Saab Group. Eurosam has made a point out of integrating SAAB’s radar system into SAMP/T, which will bring more revenues to the national champion.

Nonetheless, significant political factors seem to point towards a decision that will favor the American system and soothe U.S. policymakers. Sweden’s recent decision, together with 121 other nations, to approve a treaty to ban nuclear weapons has led to fierce criticism from NATO members.

Notably, current U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis reportedly sent a letter to his Swedish counterpart in August, warning that a Swedish decision to sign the treaty will jeopardize the security cooperation between the two nations, as well as Sweden’s participation in the NATO “Enhanced Opportunity” program.

As Sweden is seeking to reposition its security posture in an increasingly fragile geopolitical environment, policy decisions aimed at strengthening ties with Washington seem likely.

Categories: Europe, Security

About Author

Axel Hellman

Axel Hellman is a foreign policy analyst with a focus on the United States and the former Soviet Union. He holds a B.A. in International Relations from King's College London and received his MSc in Global Governance and Diplomacy from St Antony's College, Oxford.