In an atmosphere in which public distrust of politics and politicians has reached new heights, it is heartening to find a senior politician – no matter his or her political leanings – who articulates down to earth, common sense views that cut straight to the heart of critical issues. In the two years since he became Sweden’s Minister for Defence, Peter Hulqvist, has established a reputation for plain speaking – even when the subject matter might be complex, delicate or concerning. At Euronaval 2016 in Paris, Tim Mahon of Mönch had the opportunity to determine how well-deserved that reputation is in a whirlwind interview between meetings.
Mönch: Peter Flory, former Assistant Secretary General for Defence Investment at NATO, once said that “Sweden is the best partner NATO doesn’t have,” meaning you are supportive of the alliance without being a member. Are views changing in Sweden?
Minister: We have multiple relationships in the security arena and are working at deepening those all the time. We are always looking to upgrade our defensive capabilities and to contribute to common defence, especially but not exclusively around the Baltic. We have bilateral agreements with many countries, including Poland, Denmark, the US and the UK – very active in the NATO partnership and many of its initiatives, such as the cyber Centre of Excellence in Tallinn.
We try to build on this foundation in two ways: by increasing our own military capability and by deepening and strengthening our level of cooperation. It is important to ensure we do both in a manner that enhances not only interoperability between our forces but also collaboration between our nations.
What has not changed is that we are a non-aligned nation, largely due to our geography. What has changed, however, is the external situation. We have to become smarter at dealing with that, especially in the light of
Russia becoming more aggressive and provocative. Our neighbour Finland has a very long border with Russia and their concern over protecting that has an effect on the way we view our overall defence posture.
Mönch: The threat envelope continues to evolve, with new and existing actors and innovative technologies providing challenges to the creators of defence strategies. How do you perceive the threat?
Minister: I do not talk about threats. The word causes too much emotion. I prefer to talk instead about realities – about what has actually happened.
Russia has annexed Crimea. It has clearly demonstrated it is prepared to employ military force to achieve its political goals. It has broken international law. Those are the realities right now in our security environment – and we have to react to them.
We are focused on the immediate situation. Between now and 2020 we are devoting SEK10.2 billion to defence. We are buying new submarines, new combat aircraft, new platforms of many descriptions, ammunition, consumables …. We are supporting a new battlegroup on the island of Gotland and generating better capability in all areas. We absolutely must do this in a way that reinforces and strengthens our international connections: we have to be transparent. I am outspoken on this because I believe in that need and I believe in managing the impact current events are having on the balance of power in our part of Europe. We need to take responsibility – to shoulder the burden.
Mönch: Are you able to address all the requirements the current situation demands?
Minister: We do the best we can but no situation is perfect. We have invested in short range and plan to invest in medium range missile systems, but at the moment we still have unsatisfied requirements for longer range systems. We are investing heavily in sensors and submarine hunting capabilities. We always need more munitions and more systems that support our defensive posture. There is quite a list of issues we need to consider – for example, we really need to be able to spread our aircraft around alternative bases when necessary – and that requires investment and a lot of effort.
Mönch: What is the one thing you would wish readers to know about Sweden and its defence policy?
Minister: That we are a country with realistic views. That we are ready to partner to defend peace in an atmosphere of civility and realistic appraisal of what has happened. That we believe respect for international law is very important. That breaking international law contributes, in our view, to a climate of unpredictability. And that unpredictability is fatal for any peace process.
Mönch: Thank you for your time and clear message, Minister.