Swedish soldiers at a rehearsal for the  marriage of Sweden's Crown Princess Victoria and her fiance Daniel Westlingd in Stockholm, June 2010.
Fabrizio Bensch / REUTERS

On Easter eve, customers heading to the supermarket in the town of Visby, on the Swedish Baltic Sea island of Gotland, found an unusual vehicle parked outside. A CV90—a combat vehicle, which resembles a tank—had appeared. It mystified more than a few residents of the island, which has not based an armored brigade since the mid-1990s.

The CV90’s crew had driven to the supermarket with a mission: to recruit soldiers to a new Gotland-based combat group that will begin training in June. The military unit, part of the Swedish government’s response to Russia’s growing provocations in the Baltic Sea region, will eventually consist of 168 soldiers and officers as well as a tank company of 70 part-time soldiers.

The trouble is that, despite Gotlanders’ and Swedes’ growing concerns about Russia, finding soldiers to defend the island has been tricky. So far, only around 50 recruits have signed up. And it’s not just in Gotland that new soldiers are hard to find. The Swedish military, which toward the end of the Cold War boasted nearly half a million reservists and full-time officers, is having trouble recruiting and retaining the 17,100 troops its budget currently allows for. As of April, the armed forces were missing 1,000 of the 6,600 full-time soldiers and 6,500 of the 10,500 part-time reservists it needs.

To fill Sweden’s military manpower needs, Brigadier General Klas Eksell told me, “We’ll need to recruit 4,000 new soldiers each year”—over 1,000 more soldiers than the armed forces have been recruiting each year since Sweden abolished conscription six years ago. “Right now we’re plugging the holes with former conscripts who were trained when we still had conscription,” Eksell said. (Sweden has managed to fill 21,000 of 22,000 positions in the Home Guard, a reservist force, but this number is likely to drop as Swedes who have done military service age out and are not replaced by new recruits.)

Soldiers in central Stockholm, September 2013. Security was beefed up and parts of city were cordoned off on the eve of a two-day visit by U.S. President Barack Obama to Sweden.
Soldiers in central Stockholm, September 2013. 
Henrik Montgomery / Scanpix Sweden / REUTERS

This is Sweden’s dilemma: when the government abolished conscription in 2010, it didn’t realize that so few young Swedes would want to become professional soldiers. But in 2009, when parliament voted to abolish conscription, Sweden’s neighborhood was quiet and politicians deemed a conscription-based territorial army unnecessary. Instead, the thinking went, Sweden’s armed forces should specialize in international missions far away from the homeland.

“Sweden has around 90,000 to 100,000 18-year-olds each year,” Eksell said. “About half meet our requirements, and half of those that do are interested in the armed forces, so it shouldn’t be impossible to find 4,000 soldiers.”

Yet it seems to be. Last year, the armed forces recruited only 2,706 new soldiers and officers for its 3,000 open slots. Although Swedes tend to be favorably disposed toward the armed forces, with six years now having passed without conscription, six years’ worth of young Swedes have no experience with the military. Part-time soldiers have been particularly hard to recruit, as the current shortage attests to. “It’s a hard sell,” Eksell said. “People applying to the military want to do it properly, not part-time. We haven’t managed to explain why it’s an attractive proposition.” It’s not that the armed forces’ personnel officers haven’t tried: they point out that the military provides good leadership and educational opportunities and highlight its collaboration with employers such as IBM, which offer former soldiers fast-track positions.

But unlike conscripts, potential recruits have a say in where they’d like to serve. “They’ve got an enormous smorgasbord to choose from,” Eksell said, “and we have to try to find assignments that fit their interests. This sort of selling is new to us and extremely complicated.” Positions in the navy and amphibious units, which fight on both sea and land, are most popular. But even though Swedes want to defend Gotland, the armed forces’ recruitment numbers to date suggest that taking up arms in defense of the island is less popular. What is more, unlike other countries with professional militaries, such as the United Kingdom and the United States, Sweden doesn’t lock recruits into multiyear contracts. Just like workers in the civilian sector, Swedish soldiers can quit after giving notice—and some 17 percent of Sweden's soldiers did so in 2015, up from 14 percent two years earlier.

Just like workers in the civilian sector, Swedish soldiers can quit after giving notice.

Further, compared to the United Kingdom and the United States, Sweden has strict requirements for recruits. They need to have graduated from a university-track high school program with passing grades in Swedish, English, and math; they must not have been convicted of any crimes within the past five years; and they must prove themselves to be physically and psychologically fit. Sweden doesn’t just need to recruit more soldiers; it needs to recruit more good ones, and it needs to retain them.

Last October, the government commissioned a report, headed by the former Green Party parliamentarian Annika Nordgren Christensen, to suggest remedies for the troop shortage. Christensen is widely expected to suggest a mixed system of professional soldiers and conscripts of the kind that exists in Denmark. It will then be up to the government to decide whether to pursue such a reform. Choosing to do so would effectively acknowledge that the professionalization of Sweden’s armed forces has been a partial failure.

Swedish soldiers on the deck of the corvette HMS Malmo near the Karlskrona naval base in southern Sweden, March 2009. Some Swedish politicians support the reintroduction of conscription.
Swedish soldiers on the corvette HMS Malmo near the Karlskrona naval base in southern Sweden, March 2009. 
Paul Madej / Scanpix / REUTERS

Still, that course seems likely. Even some politicians who voted to scrap the draft now support a partial return to it. “Voluntary recruitment has to be complemented by reintroduced conscription,” said Allan Widman, a leading member of parliament on defense policy who voted in favor of abolishing the draft. It’s not just a matter of filling gaps, Widman told me. “We need to raise the quality among recruits so key posts can be filled,” he said. “The most suitable men and women should be selected for military training through mandatory service.” Karlis Neretnieks, a former commander of Gotland’s armored brigade, told me that Sweden was well served by its conscripts in the past, a view common among Swedish military commanders. “With conscription, you can freely choose individuals best suited to particular tasks,” he said. “In professional armed forces, you don’t have that opportunity. Sure, you can train your soldiers well, but that’s based on them staying for a long time. That’s our challenge in Sweden.”

Even some politicians who voted to scrap the draft now support a partial return to it.

For their part, Eksell and his staff are increasing their recruitment efforts, appearing not just in supermarkets but at trade fairs as well. And in May, the Swedish military will launch a new recruitment tool: a customer relationship management software akin to those used by large retailers that will allow the armed forces to keep detailed profiles of potential recruits. That will allow units to contact promising candidates when a post matching their background or interests opens up. “Instead of making it snow on everyone,” Eksell told me, “we want to throw snowballs at the people we’re interested in.”

But even if these efforts produce strong results, Sweden’s military is hardly large enough to scare off a determined enemy. Fifty-six hundred full-time soldiers, 10,500 reservists, and 22,000 Home Guardsmen—intelligent, fit, and educated though they may be—make up only a fraction of the close to 500,000 soldiers and reservists in Sweden’s armed forces in the late 1980s. “In order to credibly be able to defend Sweden, we need another 100,000 soldiers, but the armed forces can’t hire that many people even if it had the budget for it,” Neretnieks told me. “We really need some form of conscription.” Indeed, it looks as though Sweden’s 18-year-olds may soon be registering for the draft again.

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  • ELISABETH BRAW is a London-based correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.
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