The Swedish debate on territorial defense is intensifying. According to some commentators, large-scale Russian military exercises in the Baltic Sea and a strained Swedish defense budget underline the strategic importance of Gotland. But this debate lacks depth, and revolves around short-term tactical considerations, argues Bruce Acker. Strategy, and the dynamics of actual conflicts, need to be taken into consideration.
In the months leading up to the next election, defense debates in general and the Swedish Armed Force ability to defend Sweden’s territory will be increasingly in focus. The defense of Gotland inevitably appears in such a debate, though the substance of the debate available to the public equally inevitably lacks currency, depth and perspective.
Starting with currency, the notion that Gotland’s geography alone justifies its strategic significance, and that geography is permanent, overlooks the obvious shrines to previous concepts of critical terrain. Within 30 minutes’ drive of Stockholm, one can visit Vaxholm, Oxdjupet, and Baggenstäket, all historic chokepoints of once great significance, and defended accordingly in their time, but today defenseless. Why? The range, accuracy, and effect of modern weapons coupled with alternatives to waterborne mobility rendered them irrelevant. What of Gotland, then? When one labels Gotland an unsinkable aircraft carrier, or states that commanding the island affords command of the entire Baltic, one overlooks the fact that Gotland can also be described as an aircraft carrier that has run aground, underneath Russian air defenses, and within range of missiles placed in Kaliningrad. Any forces placed there are vulnerable, difficult to resupply or redeploy in conflict, and possible to circumvent.
Regarding the depth of the debate, most of what is offered in the public arena describes only initial placement, a starting point. Conflict is dynamic, moves have counter moves, and so a thorough analysis of the effect of placing forces in one location or another requires simulations, analysis of attrition, numbers of assets and ammunition, and analysis of enemy tactics and strategy. So for example, tanks or airplanes placed on Gotland are initially vulnerable to missiles in Kaliningrad, but missiles can be depleted or overwhelmed, changing the calculus entirely. An initial placement marks intent to defend, and an initial capability, but without the study of thorough wargaming (almost always non-public) the analysis is largely meaningless. Wargaming without consideration of strategic objectives, is not appropriate for resourcing decisions, its applicability limited to the tactical and operational art.
Perhaps the most significant shortfall in the public debate on the defense of Gotland is perspective. It stands to reason that if the island were indisputably strategic in its location, this fact would be central to planning outside of Sweden. I had the privilege of representing to Sweden the US Defense department, including the US Forces assigned to Europe who would be the American forces assigned to defending NATO’s interests. In this capacity I accompanied Defense Ministers, politicians, and senior officers to top level meetings with NATO and American counterparts for four years, years in which the defense of the new NATO members on the Baltic’s eastern and southern shores were top priority questions. Never once was I or any of the representatives I accompanied asked about Sweden’s commitment to defending Gotland. Never did I see a plan that included advocating the prepositioning of forces there. My conclusion is that the location is viewed as a tactical or possibly operational significant objective, entirely dependent on widely varying potential strategic objectives. In a tactical or operational context, it is not hard to identify reasons why one might want forces on Gotland. But when one includes desired enemy strategic outcomes, alternative methods of achieving these outcomes, and risks to achieving these outcomes, the advantage of defending Gotland is far less clear. As a complicating consequence of this effect, the Russians will also almost surely notice a shortfall in any logical defensive argument for militarizing Gotland and therefore look for Strategic offensive motives for such a Swedish policy, including threatening their vital economic lines of communications.
There are of course other considerations to the debate. Weapon system development has not gone so far yet that the forward nature of Gotland as an observation platform is irrelevant. Any sensors placed there would have a variety of advantages and need to be protected accordingly. As Sweden weighs its options for dimensioning its forces, those forces need to be placed somewhere, and access to good sea and airports like those in Visby are significant factors. Broader political commitment to the inhabitants’ physical security and economic wellbeing are certainly factors as well, though these things apply equally to all of Sweden, not just Gotland. In the end, the Swedish public deserves a more authentic debate on the issues at stake than those presented so far by critics of the current policies, and that public would be well served by demanding thorough answers from those proposing significant re-investment in capabilities that were divested only recently with broad consensus and under previous leadership.