Armed Forces Sweden – Cold War Period

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The racy Viggen (Thunderbolt) was history’s first canard fighter and a formidable interceptor. Until recently it formed the bulk of Swedish air strength, operating from hidden roadways deep in the woods.

In the 1960s Sweden began considering a replacement for its aging Saab J 32 Lansens. It was determined to develop a totally integrated approach to aerial defense called System 37, whereby a single airframe could be slightly modified to perform fighter, bomber, reconnaissance, and training functions economically. At length Saab took one of its usual departures from conventional wisdom by designing the J 37 Viggen in 1967. It was a sophisticated design for the time by incorporating small delta canards, equipped with flaps, just behind the cockpit. This complemented the larger, conventional delta wing perfectly, affording greater lift and maneuverability at lower speeds than plain deltas enjoyed. More important, canards allowed the Viggen to take off in relatively short distances. This was essential given the wartime strategy of dispersing air assets into the woods and taxiing off roadways. To shorten landing distances even further, J 37s are equipped with builtin thrust reversers that automatically engage upon touchdown. This is an added safety feature for, given Sweden’s nominally icy conditions, applying airplane brakes in winter can be a chancy proposition at best. These machines became operational in 1971.

The first Viggens were optimized for ground attack, but subsequent variants successfully fulfilled interceptor, reconnaissance, and training missions. All look very similar at first glance, but the SK 37 trainer has a staggered second canopy behind the student cockpit. The final version, the JA 37, arrived in 1977 as a dedicated fighter intent on replacing the redoubtable J 35 Drakens. These are fitted with advanced multimode look down/shoot down radar and an uprated RM8B engine. The total production of all Viggens is 330; they will remain in service until replaced by superlative JAS 39 Gripens within a few years.

In 1945, the Swedish Army lacked the capability of fighting a mechanized opponent in open terrain. The Swedish Navy and the Swedish Air Force had been expanded and were relatively modern in 1945, but the army was widely dispersed in a large number of units defending different parts of Swedish territory rather than maintaining fewer, more modernized, and well-equipped units. This problem worsened during the 1970s and 1980s.

Sweden’s war planning prepared for a combined Soviet coastal and airborne attack directed toward eastern Sweden around Stockholm, eventually followed by landings in southern Skåne as well as on the island of Gotland and in Gothenburg in western Sweden. In some scenarios, a land invasion across the Finnish border was also regarded as a potential threat. From the early 1960s, relatively more emphasis was placed on preparations to defend the most northern parts of Sweden. Here the fortress of Boden was supported by lines of fortifications along the rivers in northern Sweden. Other large systems of modern fortifications were built, especially in the Stockholm archipelago, while along the shores of Skåne in southern Sweden no fewer than 600 fortifications built during 1939-1945 were utilized during most of the Cold War.

Sweden’s policy of neutrality prevented any formal ties with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), but Sweden secretly established multilateral military cooperation with Denmark, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Swedish air bases were prepared to receive U. S. strategic bombers, plans were made for receiving oil and other strategic goods via Trondheim in Norway, and the communication system of the Swedish Air Force was connected with the U. S. air base in Wiesbaden in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, West Germany). It is believed that Sweden also maintained intelligence cooperation with other Western nations and, beginning in 1960, was tacitly protected by the U. S. nuclear umbrella.

In the late 1940s, Swedish armed forces consisted of 850,000 conscripts, approximately 60,000 professionals, and more than 100,000 volunteers. The total military structure comprised 36 army brigades, 33 large surface warships, 24 submarines, and 50 air force divisions with 1,000 airplanes. A large armaments industry included artillery systems from Bofors, aircraft from Saab, and surface ships from the Karlskrona shipyard. From 1960 on, the navy developed the concept of a lighter navy, in which the 2 cruisers and 15 destroyers were sequentially replaced by smaller but more powerful units. With the parliamentary defense budget decisions of 1968 and 1972, the military establishment was expected to do more with less. This resulted in severe organizational cutbacks and canceled training exercises, especially for the air force and navy, and the postponement of equipment replacement for the army. Instead, the need to defend a large area of territory took priority over further modernization and training. During 1956-1994, 70,000 Swedish soldiers participated in peacekeeping missions for the United Nations (UN) in the Middle East (1956-1994), the Congo (1960-1964), and Cyprus (1964-1987).

As late as 1982, Sweden could mobilize 850,000 men in twenty-eight army brigades, forty-eight naval ships (including twelve submarines), and twenty-three to twenty-four air force divisions. But of the twenty infantry brigades, only eight were regarded as modern, meaning that they could be employed for offensive operations. The remainder could only be used for defensive tasks. In 1992, the infantry brigades were reduced to seventeen, and the total personnel in the armed forces amounted to 750,000.

As early as 1954, instructions had been issued as to how Swedish troops should deploy in case of a nuclear attack by the Soviets. During the 1950s, the Swedish military establishment began demanding the development of a Swedish nuclear deterrent. After serious and protracted debate, however, all such plans were scrapped in 1968.

For most of the Cold War period, the Swedish Air Force was among the world’s most modern and powerful. In the 1950s, it numbered some 1,000 aircraft, produced by domestic manufacture. Many of these planes were in hardened sites, and the Swedes developed a widespread system of airstrips that would make use of the Swedish highway system in order to make it difficult for an attacker to wipe out the majority of aircraft in a first strike. The chief task of the air force and navy was to meet and defeat in the Baltic Sea any invasion force before it could reach Sweden itself. Training in close air support for ground forces was thus not a priority.

References Agrell, Wilhelm. Fred och fruktan: Sveriges säkerhetspolitiska historia, 1918-2000 [Peace and Fear: The History of Sweden’s Security Policy, 1918-2000]. Lund: Historiska media, 2000. Dörfer, Ingemar. System 37 Viggen: Arms Technology and the Domestication of Glory. Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1973. Ericson, Lars. Svensk militärmakt: Strategi och operationer i svensk militärhistoria under 1,500 år [Swedish Military Power: Strategy and Operations in Swedish Military History during 1,500 years]. Stockholm: National Defence College, 2003. Wallerfelt, Bengt. Si vis pacem . . . para bellum: Svensk säkerhetspolitik och krigsplanläggning 1945-1975 [Swedish Defense Policy and War Planning, 1945-1979]. Stockholm: Probus, 1999.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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