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Why Sweden is bringing back the draft

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Why Sweden is bringing back the draft
Swedish Armed Forces recruits in Enköping. Fredrik Sandberg/TT
16:27 CET+01:00
For readers from countries that haven't had the draft since the mid 20th century like the UK or US, the idea that young Swedes can now be called up for obligatory military training may sound archaic. So what's the background to Sweden bringing back conscription? Here are four things to help you understand.

1. Not enough people are joining the military

In a nation that hasn't formally been involved in a war since 1814, joining the military may sound like a cushy deal, but it seems Swedes just aren't keen. According to a Swedish government inquiry, the country's Armed Forces were short of 1,000 active squad leaders, soldiers and sailors, as well as 7,000 reservists in 2016.

That's despite the Armed Forces running large recruitment drives including ads on TV and billboards in recent years. If people won't volunteer, then the alternative suggested by the inquiry and now officially backed by the Swedish government is to bring in some obligatory recruits to top up the numbers.

2. The situation in the Baltic region has changed

Another factor behind bringing back conscription is a less stable situation in the Baltic region compared to the relative calm of the initial post-Cold War years.

Incidents including Russian jets flying too close to Swedish borders for comfort have raised alarm bells about Moscow, as have reports by Swedish security services that Russian spies have been operating in Sweden.

A significant sign of how seriously Sweden is taking the change in atmosphere came when 150 Swedish soldiers sent to train on Gotland in the Baltic sea were unexpectedly told to stay put last summer, moving forward a previous decision to station soldiers on the strategically positioned island by more than a year. The Swedish Armed Forces cited a worsening of the global security situation as the reason behind the move.

In the short time since then, the US has elected a president who has been less than convincing when it comes to his commitment to smaller allies who may need American help – that's not exactly reassuring for Sweden.

"If Trump implies that Nato countries which don't spend two percent of their GDP on defence will not be able to automatically count on American help despite the Nato guarantee, then the risk is much greater that the US will not come to the aid of countries like Sweden which aren’t even in Nato and pay even less," Mike Winnerstig, a security policy expert at the Swedish Defence Research Agency, told The Local in January.


Soldiers have been stationed on Gotland as of summer 2016. Photo: Sören Andersson/TT

3. Public support is strong

2018 is an election year in Sweden, so it's safe to say that the Swedish government wouldn't bring back conscription at this moment in time if it they thought it would be unpopular. In fact, the opposite appears to be true.

A survey carried out by pollsters Ipsos in 2016 showed that as many as 72 percent of Swedes back a return of conscription, while only 16 percent said they thought it was a bad idea. Strengthening the military at a tense time could be seen as a vote-winner rather than a risk, therefore.

Further evidence of the broad consensus on the matter can be found by looking at opposition parties like the Moderates and Liberals, who also back the move.


Anna Kinberg Batra's Moderates agree with bringing back the draft. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT

4. It hasn't even been away that long

It may sound trivial, but time is important in shaping attitudes, and it's worth remembering that unlike in the UK or US where bringing back conscription would be seen as a return to the ideas of the previous century, the concept isn't one consigned to the past in Sweden (it was only formally suspended in 2010).

The disappearance of the draft has coincided with the aforementioned worsening security situation in Sweden's vicinity, as well as a lack of people joining the Armed Forces, so that makes it relatively easy to construct an argument suggesting it should never have been done away with in the first place.

The new version is to be gender neutral, which is the first time that approach to the draft in Sweden will be adopted in practice, so it can even be portrayed as an improvement upon the old system.


Recruits doing military service in Stockholm in 2009. Photo: Mikael Andersson/TT

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