Chief of the Swedish Navy Rear Admiral Ewa Skoog Haslum discusses the sea change in strategic focus her force in context of an increasing state-based threat and pending NATO membership.
Times are changing for the Royal Swedish Navy (RSwN). Like many Western navies, it is wrestling with the new strategic reality of Euro-Atlantic theatre insecurity, finally and unequivocally crystallised by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting conventional war. However, the RSwN’s capacity to address the implications of such reality is being bolstered by increases in defence spending, an impending new defence bill, prospective upgrades in platform capability and numbers, and NATO membership.
Returning state-based competition across the Euro-Atlantic theatre became a particular issue for Sweden in October 2014, when a defence-wide effort was launched to locate the source of what the RSwN called ‘foreign underwater activity’ in waters off Stockholm. That event came only months after Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. The 2015 Defence Bill that followed represented a turning point in Swedish security, bringing an increase in defence spending for the first time since the 1970s. What also followed was an increase in discussion about joining NATO.
Since then, Euro-Atlantic insecurity and Sweden’s response have continued in parallel. In the last two years, change has come even faster for the RSwN and its Chief of Navy Rear Admiral Ewa Skoog Haslum, who took command in January 2020. “That was a totally different time, when I took over as Chief of Navy,” RAdm Skoog Haslum told a media briefing in Stockholm on 1 June.
In December 2020, the Swedish government released its latest Defence Bill, with Sweden’s Parliament approving a 40 percent defence budget increase across the 2020-2055 period. Subsequently, a further increase up to two percent of GDP per year was approved, meaning an annual spend of about $14 billion (nearly the same in Euros).
Then – fast forwarded by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – came Sweden’s (and Finland’s) application to join NATO, with the membership request formally made on 18 May and with accession confirmed on 5 July. Ratification is underway, prior to prospective final approval by Sweden’s parliament.
In some senses, Sweden’s decision to apply for NATO membership reflects the country’s broad approach to its security. As regards the Swedish armed forces’ mission in this context, RAdm Haslum explained, “We defend Sweden, our interests, our freedom, and the right to live the way we choose. They are strong words, and since the 2015 Defence Bill … the Swedish armed forces have adapted to changes in the security situation affecting the northern region of the European Union, including the Baltic Sea.” She added: “We have focused our efforts to improve our national ability to conduct military operations – but in a contested environment in the air, on land, and at sea”.
From a national – and, now, NATO – perspective, the increased insecurity in the Baltic region will see Sweden’s national military geographic footprint enlarged, said the admiral.
NATO: Change but No Change
Until its membership is ratified by NATO members and approved by the Swedish parliament, Sweden holds an ‘Invitee’ status.
However, Sweden has been invited to participate in NATO matters for some time, as far back as the 1990s when the country joined the alliance’s ‘Partnership for Peace’ programme.
When, as commanding officer, Rear Adm Skoog Haslum took a ship – the RSwN’s Gävle-class corvette HSwMS Sundsvall – to waters off Lebanon to support the UNIFIL maritime task force, Sundsvall was the only non-NATO ship present.
Swedish and Finnish ships have continued to participate actively in NATO exercises in the Baltic, like ‘BALTOPS’. The RSwN has been involved in planning for exercises like ‘BALTOPS’, underlining the navy’s routine use of NATO procedures, interaction in exercises and operations. This has been enabled by the fact that many, but not yet all, RSwN platforms are fitted with Link 16 and Link 22 command and control (C2) networks, alongside their national C2 system. “When a NATO member comes into the Baltic Sea, we connect with them straight away,” explained RAdm Haslum.
In 2022, NATO Maritime Command (MARCOM) invited the Swedish and Finnish navy chiefs to join the annual NATO MARCOM Commanders’ conference. From the NATO perspective, the RSwN brings unique capabilities to tackle the Baltic’s unique maritime operational circumstances. “We have a very unique area, geographically … but this is the reason why we are performing the way we are but also why we are equipped the way we are,” said RAdm Haslum.
Such unique capabilities include the navy’s five Visby-class corvettes, three A19 Gotland-class diesel-electric submarines (SSKs), and marine forces that employ a range of littoral capabilities including CB90 combat boats.
The Baltic’s unique maritime operational circumstances include a 2,700km coastline, an extensive archipelago, relatively shallow waters of 196 feet (60 metres) average depth, uneven seabed topography, high water salinity and temperature (especially in southern waters), high maritime traffic levels (much of it transiting through the Swedish port of Gothenburg), critical national infrastructure like seabed cables, critical resources like fisheries, and the key strategic choke point of the Kattegat/Skagerrak Straits off Sweden’s west coast.
The challenging operational environment makes procuring the right anti-submarine warfare (ASW) weapons and sensors very challenging, but similarly means that a navy possessing such equipment and using it effectively in the Baltic can have significant impact. “So, sub-surface equipment as a whole, that is the answer to the question of how you are going to perform in the Baltic,” stated RAdm Haslum. “The adversary believes the same.”
The RSwN’s focus on underwater outputs drives particular capability development. “Information gathering and very good signature awareness are key [points] for our posture. We have a surveillance operation always ongoing, with fixed or mobile sensors, 24 hours per day,” said RAdm Haslum, “We also have very high readiness. So, when something is happening in our area, we have high readiness in all our different assets, and can add more people and systems.”
Given this operational context, the RSwN may offer NATO vital capabilities in a critical region. “The Baltic has re-gained strategic importance, due to what is happening in our area right now,” observed RAdm Haslum. In the Baltic, the RSwN brings high-end underwater capability, through its SSK flotilla and unmanned underwater vehicles (UUVs); it brings ‘know-how’, including from experienced sailors, on what is the RSwN’s ‘back yard’; it provides a recognised maritime picture of that ‘back yard’; and it provides platforms and personnel available at high readiness.
NATO membership will bring a shift for the RSwN, too. “Our posture will change as we are added into NATO’s standing forces,” said RAdm Haslum. This may mean preparing platforms and personnel for longer deployments (routinely, RSwN ships and submarines deploy for periods of a few weeks). She added that the RSwN has been “preparing in our minds” for some time, should Sweden finalise the decision to join NATO. As that process nears conclusion, the Chief continued, “I think the first step [is] to be some kind of contributor. I mean force affiliation: how can I affiliate into NATO forces and provide certain capabilities.” She further noted: “We will of course have staff members in the different NATO headquarters.”
The NATO membership decision, alongside Sweden’s national focus on bolstering its own security, means Sweden is having to think about improving decision-making within its national defence structures, and growing those defence structures too. Part of the challenge here, said RAdm Haslum, “is about how we organise our organisations for growth”.
As regards growing numbers, her ‘wish list’ includes “at least one more submarine, at least one more logistics battalion, at least one more marine battalion. We need more weapons and ammunition, and of course more people.” The opportunity to add platform and personnel numbers is presented by discussions regarding future capability requirements, with the armed forces scheduled to submit bids by the end of 2022 into the next Defence Bill process.
The RSwN is currently constructing two A26 Blekinge-class SSKs – in build in Karlskronaby by Kockums, and scheduled to enter service in 2027-28 – to complement the three in-service A19s (all of which are being enhanced via a mid-life upgrade [MLU] programme). The Chief is aiming to increase the force level to six boats. “I believe – I am very positive now – that we will have an increase in numbers of submarines …. Maybe one more.” The future fleet is likely to be made up fully of A26s, as all three A19s will need replacing from the 2030s.
While NATO membership raises the question of whether the RSwN may not need to increase submarine numbers if the operational and capability burden is pooled and shared, RAdm Haslum said there would still be a requirement for the RSwN to provide bespoke capability. “Not that many can operate in that environment. For sub-surface activity, I think we and some more countries are the only ones that actually can operate in our waters.”
The RSwN also plans to increase surface ship numbers. The current, seven-ship surface flotilla consists of five Visby-class corvettes and two Gävle-class corvettes. The nine-ship future flotilla will consist of the five Visbys, all upgraded under an mid-life upgrade (MLU) programme; and four new corvettes, delivered under the Ny YSF programme and with two due before 2030.
“We are in the pre-definition phase in both projects,” said the Chief. Focus within both includes improved surface-to-air, surface-to-surface, and ASW capability.
A primary capability fit for the Visbys in MLU will be a surface-to-air missile (SAM), a system the RSwN has not operated since the 1970s. “We will start with a medium-range [system],” said RAdm Haslum. This limitation, imposed by the Visbys’ relatively smaller size, will be addressed in the Ny YSF corvette. “I think it will be bigger than a Visby corvette, but it’s not a frigate,” she said. The new corvettes will be designed with improved endurance, including more berthing spaces to accommodate a larger crew. However, the Admiral continued, “This is still a matter of money … because I do not want Sweden’s defence materiel administration [FMV] to say ‘okay, you can only have three of them because you want all those different capabilities’. I still need four ships.”
The next prospective growth area is the Swedish marines, which come under the Chief of Navy’s command. The force currently consists of two battalions, with the second one established in Gothenburg, on Sweden’s west coast, in 2021 following a decision taken in the 2015 Defence Bill. As well as aiming for a third battalion, the RSwN wants to overhaul what its marine forces do, in a transition to be completed by 2030.
“We will have a total review of the marines,” said RAdm Haslum. “The development focuses on high mobility and longer-range weapons systems, to increase the operational speed.”
“These are not light infantry battalions any longer,” she added. Swedish marines have deployed to Afghanistan and to Mali: however, the Chief said such missions will no longer be part of marines’ plans, with the focus instead on amphibious missions in littoral regions, supported by a new fleet of combat craft. “The combination of firepower, sensors, high mobility, and speed will increase the ability to control the littorals in all dimensions,” said RAdm Haslum. “This is a system that is really, really usable in our area,” the admiral continued. “We also now see there are different countries that are quite interested in how we are using our marines. It’s not comparable with amphibious forces.”
There has been independent discussion of whether there might be strategic logic for the RSwN to base the new marine battalion on Gotland Island in the Baltic, to deter and defend against any adversary ambitions to reach out and seize it. However, the strategic concept for the marine battalions is to be deployed wherever the navy needs them.
This requirement for mobility is reflected in the need to improve logistics capability and capacity, too. “We are very big country, and if we are going to perform along our whole coastline, we need to [support] our systems,” said the Chief.
With RSwN ships, submarines, and marine battalions set to be increasingly mobile around Sweden’s coastline, deploying for longer periods and at greater distance, the navy will need a land- and sea-based logistics infrastructure with similar mobility, flexibility, and increased area coverage. “This is a totally new system of the service of the logistics battalions,” said RAdm Haslum. “It covers maintenance, to medical health, to transportation systems, and of course fuel, food, and everything.”
Manned and unmanned
The increasing force levels raise the question of how the RSwN can support the increased output requirements that will follow. The question may generate both manned and unmanned solutions.
From a manning – or crewing – perspective, as part of its new defence plans the RSwN is looking to grow both its contracted and conscripted personnel levels. Alongside the need to crew a larger number of platforms, the RSwN is looking to build dual-crewing and ‘third watch’ structures, to get more deployment time out of its platforms. “We have one ship, one crew and we are not using that ship, that vessel, to the same amount that maybe we should,” said RAdm Haslum. “I need robustness and redundancy.”
As regards uncrewed capability, the RSwN is looking to expand its use of uncrewed systems in the air, surface, and sub-surface domains, including ’dull, dirty, and dangerous’ tasks. These include generating sustained surveillance, providing passive ASW barriers, or tackling explosive ordnance devices, tasks for which it is either not cost-effective or too risky to use a crewed platform. However, RAdm Haslum pointed to the potential role of, for example, uncrewed underwater vehicles (UUVs) like autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) in more active ASW operations, such as providing added layers of ASW security for the A26s. “I would like to have hundreds of AUVs that sounded and performed like the A26s,” the admiral concluded.
by Dr. Lee Willett