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

Sweden, Short-Handed

Stockholm's Military Recruitment Problem

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. 

This is Sweden’s dilemma: when the 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.

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