Renewing Swedish Defense

Brig. Gen. Ilis-Alm shares the nation’s plans to build up defense and surveillance


Sweden avoided both World Wars, seeks peace through the United Nations, and bases its posture on history.

Nevertheless, with threats from within fostered by a liberal immigration policy and from nearby Russia, the Swedes are open for defense business, said Brig. Gen. Hans Ilis-Alm, national representative from Sweden and the chairman of Coalition Forces for USCENTCOM.

Rather than speak from a technical posture in a Wednesday keynote at GEOINT 2018, Ilis-Alm presented a viewpoint of the world order from the perspective of a small country. With a population of 10 million and a 50,000-person defense force, Sweden qualifies.

“We’ve had 200 years of peace,” Ilis-Alm said. “In many aspects we withdrew from military interaction and formed a belief in non-alignment as the universal recipe to stay out of conflicts. … We have certainly invested in the idea of eternal peace and the rule of law since the end of the Cold War.”

Sweden, for instance, is not a member of NATO. However, history also shows how nations must adjust in a changing world.

“During the 1930s, we had an incident in which the government used military troops to put down strikes, where several of the trying workers were killed,” Ilis-Alm said. “This is still influencing the public debate in Sweden on how to use military to support civil society.”

However, Sweden accepted 300,000 immigrants and asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa in the past four years. On April 7, 2017, an asylum-seeking truck driver mowed down shoppers on a Stockholm street, killing five and injuring 15.

“It was a true wakeup call in which, in many ways, it made Swedes realize that no country is exempted from the effects of violent extremism,” Ilis-Alm said.

They also realized that about 30 percent of those immigrants were unemployed, compared to three percent of Swedes. In addition, security forces determined 3,000 were considered extremists.

The Swedes are rethinking military involvement with civil law enforcement and are seeking tools, including information sharing with other nations, to help prevent further such attacks.

“We need to develop assets to conduct cost-effective surveillance of these individuals,” Ilis-Alm said. “We know it’s very resource-demanding [to monitor] people we suspect of being dangerous to our society. … Since terrorism in a transnational issue, the increased intelligence cooperation between countries is vital.”

The country’s concerns with Russia have deeper roots in Swedish history. Sweden and Russia fought wars for the better part of 1600s and 1700s, and the Swedes lost Finland to Russia in 1809.

“This is something that has really shaped our perception of Russia and still does,” Ilis-Alm said.

Russia’s flexing its military muscles in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine and Crimea in 2014, and in Syria today has Sweden looking closer at its northern border and at the Baltic Sea.

“In strategic terms, we don’t see Swedish territory as being an isolated and primary goal for any Russian aggression,” he said. “However, Swedish territory would play an important role for both parties, NATO and Russia, in case of a conflict in the Baltic Sea area.”

Were that to happen Sweden could be at risk as a Russian target, he added.

“We are therefore rebuilding our capacity for homeland defense,” Ilis-Alm said. “And we’ll most likely develop and acquire weapons systems and anything else to fight with greater strategic and operational depth than has been the traditional Swedish concept.”

Beyond kinetic weaponry, “Adequate intelligence and awareness of what is ongoing here and abroad is of crucial and vital interest to us.”


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