14 December, 2020

Sweden’s 2021-2025 Defence Bill: Additional Interview with Allan Widman, MP for the Liberals

Sweden’s 2021-2025 Defence Bill: Additional Interview with Allan Widman, MP for the Liberals

Translation of an interview on 3 December 2020 with Allan Widman, Liberal Party member and former Chairperson of the parliamentary Defence Committee, member of the Defence Commission

Marika Griehsel: This is an addition to the interview with Pål Jonson and Kalle Olsson. Allan Widman is a long-standing member of the Defence Committee in the Swedish Parliament and we are going to talk about the new Defence Bill that will be tabled in Parliament in mid-December 2020. Why is this happening now?

Allan Widman: The unstable situation globally. I think that this situation has been developing over several years and we are now facing a great increase in defence spending in Sweden. We will go from today’s 1% to 1.5% GDP in 2025. Sweden will continue to build jet fighters and submarine. However, I think the main focus in this coming defence period is ground forces. During the 2020s we will double the number of Army brigades, that is the most important ambition.

Marika Griehsel: You talk about the needs – you want to increase the defence budget to 1.5% of GDP. Can you explain what will happen over the next few years?

Allan Widman: We will double the number of brigades that Sweden has so far decided on but has not yet been able to fully implement. Sweden is the fourth largest country when it comes to surface area in the EU, but our army is far too small. For example, we are the only country with more fighter jets than heavy artillery in our arsenal; this imbalance must be corrected.

I am one of those who believe that the EU’s military forces are at their most effective as a deterrent when looking at the various components of military defence. We have seen in recent decades how the great powers hesitate to make efforts on the ground and instead gladly participate with fighter jets and ships at a distance. If you are forced into ground operations, there will be completely different time conditions and completely different price tags on military operations. So, by having a substantial and well-trained army, it provides the best effort for continued peace.

Marika Griehsel: Can you give us an example? How many brigades will we have? Where will they be? Where will the number of soldiers on the ground be increased?

Allan Widman: Yes, actually in all our basic organizational units, i.e. flotillas, regiments and naval bases, the volumes when it comes to producing military units will increase. If we look at the army side, we are talking about completing the two brigades we decided on in 2015.

During the 2020s, we will ensure that the Skåne Brigade in southern Sweden is in place and the Mälardalen Brigade for the Stockholm area. In addition, there will also be new establishments – we will set up military basic training in Kristinehamn/Villingsberg for the artillery, reintroduce an infantry regiment in lower Norrland – Sollefteå – with a training detachment in Östersund. In addition, the old historic Dala Regiment in Falun is coming back. So, there is a broad investment in the armed forces, and that is important.

Marika Griehsel: Will Sweden’s defence organisation, as it looks today, be able to handle the large new bag of money that you’ll receive? Do you have the capacity for this?

Allan Widman: I feel a certain anxiety when you add large resources to a policy area in a fairly short time. This usually leads to shortcomings in rationality and cost-effectiveness. For that reason, there are several [control mechanisms] in this decision that are intended to monitor rationality.

We will reintroduce object frameworks for combat and underwater capability. This means that the ultimate price tag that we are prepared to pay for these projects must be determined by the Parliament. If you then still suffer from price increases, then permission from the Parliament is required. This will be introduced from next year. On 1 January 2023, a new authority in the field of defence will be added, an authority whose task will be to follow up and analyse defence development, both from an economic point of view and general efficiency control. It will be a small authority that will be completely independent of the defence organisation to follow both military and civilian defence over time.

We are also introducing the principle of “design to cost”. This means that when you have allocated finances for a project or a business and things get more expensive, it is primarily within that project that financing may be obtained, either through a reduced volume of what is to be procured or that you redesign the products in a way that makes them fit within the economic framework.

In addition, after the 2022 election, the Defence Committee will be reappointed. In a control station 2023, it will monitor things to ensure that the decisions made by the Parliament on 15 December are being followed correctly, both the focus and financially. So, this time we have a belt and braces approach to ensure that what the Parliament has ordered gets delivered.

Marika Griehsel: If you go back a bit. The defence numbers were reduced and now you must get people in again who need to be trained. Will staffing costs not be a major expenditure in the future to train those who will then make up these different units?

Allan Widman: We are rebalancing things and moving away from the voluntary recruitment of soldiers and group officers applied since 2010, when conscription was put aside. In principle, we have not taken in any conscripts. Now we keep the employees [and add conscripts]. The number of conscripts to be trained per year will go up from 4,000 to 8,000. There is a great need for teaching resources. My answer to your question is that in the short term the soldiers and group officers who have been employed for a number of years, usually full-time, must be used in parallel with the officers to provide the increased basic training.

Maria Griehsel: So, there are many purchases to be made; we talked to Pål and Kalle about this. I would like to move on to the topic of the threats we see. One of the dangers is a real cyber threat. It is a fact that we are so connected today and are so dependent on being connected. How do you see this in relation to the new defence budget? Are there sufficient resources to deal with those cyber threats?

Allan Widman: The short answer is yes; very large resources are being added to these areas to develop both passive and offensive capabilities in the cyber field. The former means to protect systems and the latter is about being able to fight back when you have been attacked in these areas. A lot of money is going into this, an activity that many authorities – even civilians – compete for being part of.

A problem with the whole development is that it is very difficult for us elected representatives to evaluate. I usually say that I can hear if a cannon is firing, but whether what we are now investing in cyber security provides value is significantly more difficult to control. A lot of money is being spent, and I am one of those who usually reminds everyone that no matter how much we invest in protecting our systems and infrastructure in this area, we must nevertheless assume that the systems are unlikely to work in the event of an armed conflict. They are sensitive and easy to knock out. It is about such basic things as electricity supply. We must also be ready to defend our country without digital aids.

Marika Griehsel: Two other important pieces in the new budget are about the role of the Home Guard and civil defence. Can you say something about these two and how they fit in?

Allan Widman: Yes, for the first time in a very long time, it is a “total defence” decision that the Parliament will make. This means that both military and civil defence are being handled in one and the same bill.

Our military defence after the Cold War was reduced to a few percent of what it was numerically during the Cold War. Civil defence was abolished altogether, and conscript civil service was abolished without being replaced by anything else. As far as civil defence is concerned, we are starting from square one.

It is not just about protecting the civilian population and civil society, but an important role for the future civil defence will also be to support our military defence. Many people do not know that kitchen groups and field hospitals are phenomena that have completely disappeared from military defence, which means that our soldiers and officers need support when it comes to medical care, fuel and much more.

When it comes to protecting the civilian population, the main priority now is to ensure that our healthcare can handle a large number of injuries. We have, in many ways, been reminded of the shortcomings and weaknesses that exist in our peacetime healthcare system this year. We have been tested very hard [during the pandemic]. In the event of heightened preparedness or war, being able to double the number of care places in Swedish hospitals is, I would say, the single most important goal for civil defence.

The Home Guard is of enormous importance. Today we have an army which, if you count optimistically, is around 15,000-16,000 people. The Home Guard has 20,000 people and makes up about half of the total military forces in Sweden.

The Home Guard also has the advantages that they practice very frequently, have very good local knowledge, and have very short deployment times from the time they are needed to when they can get to work. It is not possible to exaggerate the importance of the Home Guard. I suspect that many defence politicians would like to see the Home Guard grow even more in the future.

Marika Griehsel: I am curious to hear if you know that there is an interest among citizens in general to participate in these different roles. When I was young, you could be a Blue Star – which I was. Today, hardly anyone knows what it is. What signals do you get about e.g. The Home Guard. Do younger citizens actually want to participate?

Allan Widman: Yes, one can safely say in general that as the security policy situation deteriorated in the 2010s, the interest in participating in both civilian and military increased quite significantly. Not least the Home Guard has felt this. Quite a few new people have applied for the Home Guard.

A problem for the Home Guard has been the number of conscripts. First, the number dropped for many years and in 2010 recruitment completely stopped. The Home Guard has always lived on old conscripts, who are no longer deployed in wartime. When there have been no such soldiers for quite some time, it has become more difficult for the Home Guard to recruit. I hope this can now be remedied when volumes begin to increase again.

Then we will also soon appoint a broad personnel supply inquiry committee regarding civil defence. That inquiry should involve voluntary defence organizations, look at the general supply of personnel in civil defence and consider reintroducing national service. We work extensively with the supply of personnel in the total defence and perhaps now it is needed to do even more when it comes to civil defence.

Marika Griehsel: How would you say that the new defence decision and the plans that Sweden has in the next few years will affect relations with our neighbouring countries (two of which are NATO members), but also Finland and, of course, NATO in general? How does the new budget affect our relationships?

Allan Widman: From the neighbours you mentioned, I think we are getting a very positive response. Almost 19 years ago, when I came onto the Defence Committee in the Riksdagen, we were the country in the Nordic region that invested the largest share of our economy in military defence. Today, we are the country in the Nordic region, if we exclude Iceland, which has no military defence, which invests the least in defence. The increase that is now taking place is welcomed in Copenhagen, Oslo and Helsinki. On the other hand, there have been one or two comments from countries further east that are not as positive.

Marika Griehsel: The Baltic states? What comments do you get from there?

Allan Widman: Yes, the Baltic states have, for a long time, raised [the Baltic island] Gotland in various contexts. Now we are on Gotland with different types of units and with this defence decision will expand further on the island. I think that is welcomed by the Baltic states. Then, of course, they also want Sweden to become a member of NATO.

We are very eager partners to NATO and have done everything we can do without being a member, but it is membership itself which is a guarantee for our security, and which would also enable closer cooperation between Norway and Denmark and the Baltic states. Alone is not strong, alone is just alone.

Marika Griehsel: This is an issue that, of course, many people have different views on. Swedish non-alignment has been important, not least for several parties in the Paliament. Now your party, the Liberals, are part of a collaboration agreement [with the Red-Green government]. Some Liberal members want to leave this government cooperation and the January agreement. Would that affect the Liberals’ strong negotiating position on this issue?

Allan Widman: Okay, the reason why we have five-year (in this case four-year) defence decisions is that defence decisions should be able to survive the various parliamentary elections without affecting the economic conditions and direction of military defence. My assessment is that once the gavel falls in the Parliament on 15 December, then the direction is completely clear for 2025. From that aspect, the Liberals’ influence would not be affected by whether we are in cooperation with the government or not.

I belong to those in my party who believe that many centre-right voters were very disappointed in us in connection with the advent of the January agreement. I also do not think that we should belong with the Social Democrats who, in many respects, have a completely different ideological starting point than we Liberals.

Marika Griehsel: In these conversations we have heard Moderates, Social Democrats and now you Liberals. What could you say in conclusion? What is it that you are most happy about now that you are getting this huge budget? This is at a time when we have many other expenses. We have a pandemic, environmental change and infrastructure that is partially neglected in Sweden. What would you say – is there enough money to accomplish all these things?

Allan Widman: In total, military defence in Sweden during the 2020s will be able to spend just over 800 billion. This corresponds to approximately twenty fixed connections across Öresund. These are very large resources, and my hope is, as I began by saying, a defence strategy that is better balanced. Which is not only about combat aircraft but also about a decent size of Swedish army. I think that is the best investment for peace and stability in our region.

Marika Griehsel: If you look further ahead. You are making this investment now. It must be maintained, but what do you see as opportunities after 2025?

Allan Widman: I see good opportunities. Today, there is already a reassuring majority in Sweden’s Parliament to continue increasing defence funding up to at least 2% [of GDP]. We are now landing at around 1.5% in 2025. To reach 2%, further increases in funding will be required. The agreement that we must continue to keep up is so broad, I think it can handle both one and two parliamentary elections.

Marika Griehsel: I want to try to get you to put this in relation to other expenses that Sweden has ahead of it concerning environmental change, the pandemic and neglected infrastructure. Is there enough money in the treasury or do we need to mortgage ourselves to meet these challenges?

Allan Widman: To a certain extent, Sweden will certainly need to get into a little more debt. At the same time, it should be clear that Swedish public finances are very strong and stable. They were before the pandemic and this week a report came out that we are the country where the debt ratio increased the least in the European Union during the pandemic. It is my assessment that our public finances are strong and will be able to cope with both greater defence spending and the cost of the pandemic and its various consequences.

Then you have to remember that if jobs disappear in many industries and areas of activity, then military and civilian defence is fairly personnel intensive. There will be new jobs.

Marika Griehsel: When it comes to the principle of procurement, what do you have to add there? What will it look like?

Allan Widman: A very long-term investigation into the supply of materiel in general to the Swedish defence will also be appointed shortly. There will be a very experienced investigator, Gunnar Holmgren, who will be accompanied by a parliamentary reference group with all parliamentary parties represented.

The Defence Committee pointed out some ambiguities regarding what are called essential security interests. These are priority areas within the supply of equipment, where we are not dealing with competition within the EU but are ourselves choosing which companies are to develop the various capabilities. The problem with the essential security interests is that they have been around for quite some time, but they are not clearly defined. Above all, the government has not previously tried to define what it means in terms of commitment for the Swedish state in pointing out certain areas as essential security interests.

The two dominant areas are air combat capability and underwater capability. At the same time, they are the most expensive parts when it comes to the supply of equipment in Sweden. It is a very important issue for the inquiry to define the security interests and what responsibility Swedish taxpayers should take on those areas in the long term.

Marika Griehsel: Another question that came up in the previous discussion was about where will these purchases be made? Many companies are looking to being able to sell to Sweden. Or do you see that we have the capacity we need at home, e.g. when it comes to aircraft?

Allan Widman: If you look at the Gripen aircraft, both C / D and the E version being on the way, very many of the components are imported from elsewhere. What is perhaps the Swedish specialty in this context is the system composition itself. That we, as a small country, can be an end supplier of this complex equipment that a fighter aircraft constitutes.

When it comes to aircraft and submarines, then the Swedish state will choose who should be the final supplier. I think it is a pretty bad system. I would have preferred a larger number of competitive tenders in the European Union and individual Member States should not protect large parts of their industry by pointing to national security interests. Why? What characterizes Sweden is that we are a small buyer of defence equipment, but still a relatively large producer of the same. That is why I believe that our industry would have benefited greatly from freer competition, including in the field of defence equipment, within the Union.

Marika Griehsel: Allan Widman, the Liberal’s representative on the Parliament’s Defence Committee. Thanks for this interview!