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INTERVIEW: What is Sweden’s Cold War ‘hedgehog’ strategy and is it coming back?

In the Cold War, weapons were stashed in forests all over Sweden, in factories, and in citizens' homes, as part of the so-called 'hedgehog' strategy, meaning Sweden, although small, should be painful to attack. The Local spoke to Frej Welander, an analyst at the Swedish Defence Research Agency, about whether we might see this approach return.

A volunteer for Sweden's Home Guard handles a weapon on their introductory training course in 2014. At the peak of the Cold War weapons were stored in Swedish factories, houses and forest depots
A volunteer for Sweden's Home Guard handles a weapon on their introductory training course in 2014. At the peak of the Cold War, weapons were stored in Swedish factories, houses and forest depots. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

Sweden, like Ukraine, Switzerland, and several other countries, has a ‘total defence’ strategy, meaning individuals and civil institutions, as well as the Armed Forces, are responsible for defending the country. 

Military Defence and Civil Defence are supposed to work together, with every individual having a role. In recent years, the government has increased spending on the military dramatically, but the other arm — civil defence — has been slower to bounce back.  

According to Welander, a lot still needs to be done before Sweden’s defence preparations reach Cold War levels. 

Frej Welander is an analyst for the Swedish Defence Research Agency.

Frej Welander is an analyst for the Swedish Defence Research Agency. Photo: Private

The Local: When was Sweden’s system of Total Defence established? 

Frej Welander: It was a gradual development. I’d say the realisation of the need came shortly after the advent of flights and airpower. And then following this, in both of the World Wars, there was this realisation that war involved all of society. Anything was a target. The city was a target. So then there was a realisation that civil society also needed to have preparedness, that it was a component of warfare.  

TL: To what extent was Sweden’s Cold War defence doctrine based around repelling an invasion, and to what extent was it aimed at simply making an invasion more costly? 

FW: That was the whole point. if you look at our defence force back then, it was completely geared to just being a very tough nut to crack. Sweden was supposed to be a “hedgehog”, that was the metaphor we used: “Hedgehog Sweden”. So we were supposed to be a small but pointy force to be reckoned with. 

Obviously, we would never have been a match for the Soviet Army. But the point was not winning, it was making it so costly for anyone to mess with us that they wouldn’t want to. 

You can see a reference to Sweden being “a hedgehog” in this government video from 1956 (40 secs in). 

The Stridsvagn 103, also known as the Alternative S, was a purely defensive tank unconventional in that it had a fixed turret designed solely for repulsing an advancing enemy. Photo: Jorchr/Wikimedia Commons

TL: What exactly is Sweden’s Total Defence doctrine, and when was Sweden’s defence at its peak? 

FW: ‘Total defence’ is just, essentially, that the whole of society needs to work together to overcome an enemy. 

In terms of manpower, we were the biggest, I think, at the height of the [Second World] War. We had 300,000 men under arms, just waiting at the borders. And at no point during the war, were there fewer than 60,000 people. But the 50s or 60s was really the heyday of the total defence doctrine. 

We had a much bigger army. At the beginning of the 1950s, according to some estimates, we had the fourth or fifth biggest airforce in the world — in actual numbers, not per capita.  

That’s [also] when we had all these protective shelters, all these big massive underground shelters, as well. All of society was more or less on a war footing. When you went to school, there was a plan for kids, about what they were supposed to.

There were companies that have been identified as being important to the war effort, producing sugar, foodstuffs, electricity, telephones or whatever.  At all of these companies, you’d have people who were regular employees, but who also had weapons in their offices. Their job in case of war was to defend the office. You literally had people with guns in the factory whose job was to defend the factory. 

Also infrastructure: if you bought a car, your car became a conscript. So you had to register it with the government, and if there was a war your car would be seized by the government. Even horses were conscripts. So everything had a secondary role in times of war. 

Compared to today, the military was much more prevalent in society. You’d see uniformed personnel every day and everywhere, and every man would have some sort of role in total defence, not just in the military, but clearing roads and building bridges and stuff like that.

The Stridsvagn 103, also known as the Alternative S, was a purely defensive tank unconventional in that it had a fixed turret designed solely for repulsing an advancing enemy. Photo: Jorchr/Wikimedia Commons

Soldiers from Sweden's Home Guard do an exercise in front of the olympic stadium in Stockholm's Östermalm district in 1944.

Soldiers from Sweden’s Home Guard do an exercise in front of the olympic stadium in Stockholm’s Östermalm district in 1944. Photo: SvD/TT

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

TL: Did civilians or the home guard also have access to weapons? 

FW: Even today, we have depots in the forest that are meant to be used [in the case of an invasion]. The National Guard still use them, but most of them are in the regiments today, or at people’s homes. 

The plan was that every man would be able to arm themselves, and wouldn’t have to go to the big army bases, and this was because we had a secondary or fallback tactic called fria kriget, “free war”. This means that if you’ve lost communication with the rest of the troops, or headquarters, the war is not over. You’re supposed to fight independently and be a nuisance to the enemy. That’s why they wanted weapons to be easily accessible, so we could mobilise quickly.

TL: And are they still there? Do municipalities still have weapons depots in the forests even today? 

FW: Some of them, I’m sure, are still used, but most of them are empty, because they were literally everywhere in the forest. You couldn’t walk anywhere without finding one. Today, I know they are quite tempting targets for organised crime, but the infrastructure is still there in the forest. 

TL: So when was Sweden’s Total Defence doctrine ended, and when was it resurrected? 

FW: It never really was [ended]. It wasn’t used in practice, but the judicial framework for it never went away. It’s always been there in the background. In the early 2000s, our army was geared towards international operations, but then you can see after [Russia’s invasion of] Georgia in 2011, and then 2014 you had Ukraine, and then in 2015, you had the official decision [to build back Total Defence]. 

Now we’re talking about it again, we realise that though, businesses do have a role, we can’t just care about the military if you want to have a functioning army. You can see this in Ukraine today, the Russians are having logistical issues. You need civil society to wage war.  And also defence, if you want robustness, if you want resilience, you can’t just leave everything to the armed forces. 

TL. Going back to the fria kriget, free war idea. What was the idea behind that and did it work as a deterrent? 

FW: It’s important to remember that for a defence force, the primary purpose is always as a deterrent. The more it will cost the enemy, the less likely they are to attack. So if you look at it that way, if you’re invaded, you have already failed your number one mission. You don’t want to be invaded. 

But the fria kriget was more or less [based around the idea that] we’re a big country. We’re bigger than France in terms of size, but we’re only 10 million people. So it’s going to be hard to keep lines of communications, and other practicalities running during a war. So it was a backup plan. 

TL: Sweden is a perfect country for that kind of warfare, it would be almost impossible to get rid of all the resistance fighters. 

FW: They can beat our army, they can beat our military and win the war, but they won’t be able to occupy us, or if they occupy us, it will be very costly. You’ve seen in Afghanistan, and in Ukraine as well, it’s one thing to control the main roads, but it’s completely different to actually occupy a country and control it.

TL: And that line in the brochure If Crisis or War Comes, that “any information to the effect that resistance is to cease is false”,  that’s a very emotional line for Swedes. 

FW: Yes, absolutely. It’s important to keep morale boosted. If we draw the parallels to Ukraine you see a lot of that: “let’s fight this together. We will never surrender.”. 

At the same time, the enemy will probably try to make it look like you have lost already, that it’s a fait accompli. It’s essentially just a call to arms. 

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

TL: When the brochure was sent out again in 2018, it seemed a little bit ridiculous. But perhaps now, it seems less ridiculous. Do you think that you’ll see some of those same doctrines being once again revived? Because citizens aren’t yet being told that they have a duty to engage in fria kriget. 

FW: Not for fria kriget, but they have a duty, so to an extent, I think it’s definitely going to come back because, legally, every Swede, from the age of 16, is obliged to serve in a crisis or a war. That’s something we don’t talk about often. But that’s still the judicial framework. It’s supposed to be all hands on deck. 

I don’t think we’re going to go back to the 60s or the Cold War with the same kind of rhetoric. But I think that the whole realisation that we need to have civil society and the military working together, it’s going to get much bigger, and it’s going to continue to evolve from what we see here. 

A lot of stuff is happening right now. There’s a lot more money coming into the system, both for the military, and also for the civil defence. There’s a realisation that we don’t only need more money for the military, we also need it for civil society and the municipalities to prepare for crisis, and we need the companies, we need everybody. 

None of this happens overnight. There are very long processes. You can see following the 70s, that it’s a slow decline until the 90s when everything goes away, and now it’s gonna be a slow build as well to get everything back. Not just back, but modernised. 

But there’s a lot more money, there’s a lot more new regiments popping up and old regiments being reintroduced, more civil defence, new agencies. There’s a proposition now for an Agency of Total Defence Analysis, which sounds very interesting for us. There’s also more joint planning for total defence. 

Do you think if the situation hardens, and Russia becomes a hostile power permanently installed on our flank, that we’ll get back to something similar to what we had in the Cold War? 

Well, in the Armed Forces, even today, the targets you use for firing on the firing range look like Russian World War Two soldiers, and they’re called “Russians”. So it tells you something that even today, we’ve never stopped firing at Russian targets. So, I think, at least in military terms, it’s always been clear, if we were to have an enemy, who that enemy would be.

READ ALSO: Swedish word of the day: Rysskräck

It’s important to remember with Total Defence, that everything did not go away judicially. We didn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater completely. And that’s what we’re building up now. There is an old base to build upon. But I wouldn’t say that we’re going back to it fully. 

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IN PICS: The assault ship USS Kearsarge arrives in Stockholm

The USS Kearsarge, a 257-metre amphibious assault ship, arrived in Stockholm on June 2nd. It is in the region to take part in the Baltic Operations (Baltops) military exercise.

IN PICS: The assault ship USS Kearsarge arrives in Stockholm

The USS Kearsarge isn’t the only military vessel expected to arrive in Stockholm for this exercise – around 40 vessels from 13 nations will be arriving and mooring in the capital in the coming days.

Here’s a video showing the ship working its way through Oxdjupet, a strait between two islands in the Stockholm archipelago.

The Kearsarge will be in Stockholm until June 5th.


This is the 51st time the Baltops exercise has been held, with this year’s exercise including air defence, submarine detection, mine disposal, amphibious operations and medical exercises.

As well as Sweden, 16 other nations are taking part, with Sweden and Finland coordinating with members of the Nato alliance.

The military exercise is being held in parallel with celebration of the Swedish Navy’s 500th anniversary, and will end on June 17th.

The USS Kearsarge and a Djurgården ferry in Stockholm harbour. Photo: Henrik Montgomery/TT