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Total Defence: What’s your role defending Sweden in the event of a military attack?

In Sweden, it's not just the armed forces who are responsible for defending the country, but, as is the case in Ukraine, the entire adult population. This is what you need to know about Sweden's strategy of Total Defence.

It is every Swedish resident's duty to stock up on food and other useful items to increase the country's resilience in the event of an invasion.
It is every Swedish resident's duty to stock up on food and other useful items to increase the country's resilience in the event of an invasion. Photo: MSB

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What is Sweden’s strategy of ‘Total Defence’? 

Sweden, like Ukraine, Switzerland, and several other countries, has a ‘total defence’ strategy. This means that it is not only members of the Swedish Armed Forces who are responsible for defending the country in the event of an invasion, but every individual adult and every institution in society. 

Sweden’s defence strategy is divided into two separate, but supposedly well-coordinated arms: Military Defence and Civil Defence.  

All government agencies, municipalities, voluntary organisations, regional councils, businesses, unions, trade bodies, and religious organisations are required to prepare for and, in the event of an invasion, take part in Sweden’s defence. 

The idea is that a strong pre-prepared resistance movement will act as a deterrent. An invader might be able to conquer large parts of the country, but maintaining an occupation will be difficult and costly. 

How long has Sweden had this doctrine? 

Sweden decided to begin rebuilding its system of Total Defence in 2015, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Since then,  every public authority once again became responsible for taking part in defence and preparing and planning for a possible attack. Sweden reintroduced military conscription in January 2018.

The system of Civil Defence has its origins back in the 1930s, when the country began building up a network of air raid shelters and a system of civilian air raid wardens. This system was then firmed up with new laws in 1937 and 1938, which set up the Air Protection Inspectorate (Luftskyddsinspektionen) and the Evacuation Commission (Utrymmningskommissionen), which was tasked with coordinating the evacuation of citizens from areas under attack. 

During the Second World War, the system was formalised, developed, and extended across society, with the two agencies  combined into the Swedish Civil Defence Board set up in 1944. The board continued to manage Civil Defence in Sweden until 1986, when its functions became part of the Swedish Rescue Services and the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency.

It was only from 1995 that Sweden’s system of Total Defence began to be dismantled. At its peak in late 1960s, Sweden could theoretically call up reserves of some 850,000 men in the event of an attack. 

Who has a duty to defend Sweden in the event of an attack? 


According to If Crisis or War Comes, a brochure sent to 4,8m households in Sweden by the Civil Contingencies Agency in 2018, “Everyone is obliged to contribute and everyone is needed.” 

Under Sweden’s 1994 law on Total Defence, “every Swedish citizen has a duty to take part in total defence from the start of the calendar year in which he or she turns 16 until the end of the calendar year where they turn 70”.

The duty applies to everyone of that age who is in Sweden, even if they are not a Swedish citizen. 

READ ALSO: Sweden releases updated booklet of war precautions in English

What might I be asked to do if Sweden is invaded? 

Even if you have had no formal training and have not volunteered to be part of the Home Guard or Hemvärnet, you might still be conscripted to fight in the event of an attack.

You might also be conscripted into other government organisations, or posted by the Swedish Public Employment Service to do any job at all, from digging defensive trenches, to working as a driver, cook, or cleaner. 

You might also be asked to give up your property, such as your house, your car, or your business to aid Sweden’s defence. 

If Sweden is put on a “heightened state of alert”, the government gains power to “requisition private property that is of particular importance to Sweden’s total defence”. 

What else should I do? 

Even if you are not called up, it is still your duty to resist the invader in any way that you can. 

“If Sweden is attacked, resistance is required,” the brochure states and this continues to be the case even if all state agencies are overrun and Sweden’s leaders announce a surrender. 

“If Sweden is attacked by another country, we will never give up,” the brochure asserts. “All information to the effect that resistance is to cease is false.” 

For Swedes brought up during the Cold War, these words have the same sort of resonance as “Keep Calm and Carry On”, do for the British. 

You should also prepare yourself for a potential invasion. If Crisis or War Comes contains a list of foods and other useful and necessary items that everyone should stock away. 

This is not only supposed to help individuals, but also to strengthen the ability of the country as a whole to resist.

When the brochure was reissued in 2018, this still seemed like a far fetched scenario.

With the Ukrainian City of Mariupol under siege, it is easier to grasp how much better Sweden’s towns and cities would be able to resist an invasion if every household had weeks of food supplies stashed in their cellar. 

You should also know where your nearest bomb shelter is. See our guide here

What’s the current state of Sweden’s Total Defence system? 

By Cold War standards, it is still weak.

Even after the rapidly growing investment of the past seven years, Sweden’s military remains much smaller than it was in Cold War times. 

At the same time, a survey from the end of last year from the Swedish Defence Research Agency showed that less than half of Swedish adults described themselves as “quite” or “very” willing to put their lives in danger or fight in combative role for Sweden’s defence. 

Some 77 percent said they would be willing to put their lives in danger in a non-combative role, and 84 percent said they would be willing to play a role, so long as it was non-combative and their lives were not in danger. 

When it comes to home preparations, only 22 percent said they had made any preparations for war, or other crises, with 18 percent saying they stored drinking water for more than a week, and 36 percent saying they have food for more than a week. 

Member comments

  1. I do hope that when the tanks roll in that the 84% not willing will be reduced or Sweden can kiss its arse goodbye.

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EXPLAINED: What kind of state are Sweden’s bomb shelters in?

Sweden's Civil Contingencies Agency is this month sending information out to the owners of properties housing bomb shelters on what they need to do to get their shelters up to the required standard.

EXPLAINED: What kind of state are Sweden's bomb shelters in?
What condition are Sweden’s 64,000 bomb shelters in? 
No one really knows.
Ahead of the invasion of Ukraine, the Civil Contingencies Agency only had sufficient funding to inspect 2,000 a year. In 2020, only about 20 percent of Sweden’s 64,000 shelters had been inspected in the preceding ten years, and of those, only 9,000 had passed. This suggests that at least 30 percent are not up to scratch. 
Many of the bomb shelters are currently used as cycle sheds or storage for the people who live in the buildings where they are situated. 
The agency insists, however, that “most of the shelters are fully useable” even though they may have failed an inspection and it says it expects bomb shelters to be used for other purposes during peacetime.
What are Sweden’s bomb shelters designed to protect against? 
They are designed to protect citizens against the shock wave from a bomb, shrapnel, fires, ionising radiation, and debris from collapsing buildings. They also have ventilation systems to keep out poison gasses and radioactive dust. 
How quickly should the owners of properties with bomb shelters be able to ready them for use? 
Property owners are responsible for maintaining and equipping any bomb shelters on their properties. They are supposed to be able to convert the spaces into functional bomb shelters within 48 hours.
Kaj Lindblom, one of the two leaders of Skyddsrumsspecialisten, which has built, maintained, and renovated bomb shelters since 1973, told The Local that his company estimated that only five percent of bomb shelters could be ready within this time. 

Listen to a discussion about Sweden’s bomb shelters on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

About half, he said, lack functional ventilation, with many still having the same filters in place as when they were built in the 1940s. Many also still have paper toilets dating back to the 1960s and earlier (which are used in conjunction with plastic bags), rather than the more modern plastic bucket toilets. The paper toilets, he said, need to be replaced. 
Another common problem, he said, was that non-specialist builders often drill through the walls of bomb shelters to bring in water or electricity, and have often not done this in the right way, losing the rooms their protective functions. 
“There have been too few checks, and property owners have had too low a level of knowledge on what their responsibilities are,” he told The Local. “They’ve also expected that the Civil Contingencies Agency will not check shelters”. 
Are there enough bomb shelters for everyone? 
Sweden stopped building bomb shelters in 2002, and the number of places has not kept pace with the increased size of the population. The 64,000 bomb shelters only offer sufficient places for about seven million of Sweden’s 10 million people, and many city districts built since 2002 entirely lack shelters. 
Each bomb shelter is designed to provide only 0.75 square metres per person — about 85cm by 85cm — so while you will be protected, you won’t be comfortable. 
They are designed to be stayed in for at least 72 hours. 
So what’s being done? 
The Civil Contingencies Agency is sending out a brochure to the owners of all properties which house a bomb shelter with a checklist specifying what condition the shelter needs to be in, and what equipment needs to be available.
“It’s most often just a case of quite simple maintenance,” Charlotte Petri Gornitzka, the Civil Contingencies Agency’s Director-General, told Sweden’s TT newswire. “Putting some oil on the hinges, doing some rust treatment, and making sure the bomb shelter equipment is available.” 
The agency has also called for some of the 800 million kronor in extra civil defence spending announced last month to go towards renovating the largest bomb shelters in major cities. 
On top of this, the government has launched an inquiry into whether the country needs to build new bomb shelters, with the conclusions due on November 7th. 
Skyddsrumsspecialisten has designed a free-standing bomb shelter that can be erected in newly built areas of Swedish cities, where they will double as an additional cycle shelter or recycling room. 
What equipment needs to be present in all bomb shelters? 
According to the Civil Contingencies Agency, all bomb shelters need to feature the following equipment: 
  • an air lock 
  • shelter doors,
  • a threshold – fixed or mountable
  • an alternative exit, made from concrete or with a steel hatch
  • a ventilation unit
  • protective filters
  • pressure relief valves 
  • a shock wave valve – one per ventilation unit
  • supply air ducts
  • a heating device
  • lighting
  • capture devices for lighting fixtures and heating elements
  • sealing strips for doors. These strips must be stored in a package in peacetime
  • taps, drains on the floor, a vent, and for shelters built after 1961, a key to open and close the drain. 
  • toilet walls, a toilet, and water barrels
  • tools for dismantling any equipment or furniture in place for peacetime use and getting the shelter ready. 
  • instructions for assembling, operating, and maintaining the shelter