Opinion: Under-water incursions in Swedish waters and changing landscape of Baltic Sea security
In October, the Swedish Navy, after several years of calm, once again mounted an operation to identify and avert under-water intruders operating in Swedish territorial waters. Media speculated wildly about the reasons why anyone (read Russia) should have a reason to conduct an operation in the Stockholm archipelago; war preparations, infiltrating agents, discourage Sweden joining NATO and several other possible motives were put forward.
The usual array of apologists and sceptics also offered their opinions; there was nothing, if there was something it was a NATO submarine, it was some kind of animal or a shoal of fish, the Navy just staged the operation to get a larger budget etc.
But the debate very seldom went beyond this isolated incident.
That there was an intrusion in October is now confirmed. The Swedish government and military authorities stated that very clearly a press conference today (Friday 14 Nov), when a report of the incident was presented. But also here the discussion of why, and possible implications for the future, was quite shallow, at least in those parts of the report that were made public. If you put this latest incident in a larger, and also historical, context the picture becomes a bit clearer. One might also be able to draw some conclusions about the future.
During the Cold War the Soviet Union systematically conducted under-water operations in Swedish waters. The most dramatic proof came when U 137 ran aground in southern Sweden in 1981, the “Whiskey on the Rocks” incident. But there were also a large number of other occasions when the Navy was engaged in different activities to uphold Swedish territorial integrity under the surface.
In those times it was quite easy to find different reasons for the Soviet Union to operate in Swedish coastal areas. If you are planning military operations against Sweden then of course you have to make preparations. Contingency planning is a task for all military organisations.
At that time, just to mention one geographic area, the Stockholm archipelago was defended by three coastal artillery brigades with some 20 fixed artillery batteries, pre-laid (in peacetime) mines in all shipping lanes leading into harbours, sensor-systems above and under water. The brigades also had many different mobile assets; sensors, light and heavy missiles, mines and seaborne ranger units. If you plan to get through such a sophisticated defence system you have to localize its different components and make preparations to eliminate them.
Secondly, the archipelago was (and is) the basing area for the Swedish Navy. If you could disturb its operations, by for example laying mines in narrow passages, which would of course be advantageous if you plan operations in the Baltic Sea where the Swedish Navy could be a threat. This would also strangle the Swedish economy. Swedish imports and exports being 90 % carried on keel.
Thirdly, the bases of the NATO navies in the Baltic Sea, situated on open coasts, were (and are also today) very vulnerable compared with basing in the Swedish archipelago. Preparations to prevent NATO using this option had to be made.
Fourthly, in all military planning it is essential to have good knowledge about your possible opponent’s readiness and capabilities. These can assessed by closely following exercises and by staging provocations.
Only a fool would disregard the broad array of options that submersibles offer when it comes to solving many of these tasks in a clandestine and, when needed, a provocative way. The Baltic Sea is eminently well suited for such operations considering the very challenging hydrographical environment it offers.
It is therefore quite surprising, considering today´s security environment, that anyone is surprised when Sweden again is subject to hostile under-water activities. NATO has once again become the bogey man in Russian war planning. Sweden with its close cooperation with NATO and its “Solidarity declaration” (pledge to help its neighbours) is considered, as it was also earlier, a de facto member of the alliance. The geography is the same. From a Russian point of view therefore not much has changed. The motives to prepare for different contingencies are the same as earlier.
This leads to the disturbing conclusion that there have been many more incursions during the last years, not only this one. One could then ask, why have they not been detected and acted upon. The answer is simple. The coastal artillery brigades with their different assets to monitor and defend Swedish coastal waters have been disbanded. The Navy has shrunk from some 30 surface combatants and 20 mine-countermeasure ships to 7 and 5, respectively. The number of antisubmarine helicopters have gone from 14 to nil.
The naval presence along the Swedish coast (2400 km) is not what it once was, very far from it.
In today´s security situation, with the very limited Swedish possibilities to detect and act, one could perhaps add another aim with under-water operations, psychological warfare. If it is obvious that you can´t do anything about what´s going on that probably creates a sense of inferiority. It perhaps also makes the threat look greater than it really is, making you overly cautious and afraid of doing anything that could be seen as provocative, “self-deterrence”. Such a state of mind could influence the ongoing discussion in Sweden about joining NATO. By making it obvious that Sweden is not able to protect its own territory it could also influence the image of Sweden abroad. “Can we trust that they will do their bit if there is a crisis in the region”?
To sum it up: we have had under-water incursions earlier, we have them today and there are very few reasons to think that we will not have them tomorrow.
Karlis Neretnieks is Fellow of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences