The Swedish Armed Forces has started an operation to raise their readiness in the South-east and central Baltic Sea. The behind this being the “extensive military activities” being conducted in the region, which include both Russian and Western activities. According to the Swedish Armed Forces, the exercises being conducted in the region are larger and more complex, and takes place at a swifter pace compared to earlier ones. Coupled with COVID-19 the situation is significantly more volatile and unpredictable. The key focus for the Swedish operation is increased maritime surveillance (including from the air), but Gotland is also being reinforced. Readers will remember that the Battlegroup Gotland is still in the process of being stood up (eventually it will become a battalion-sized battlegroup), but what the reinforcements now consisted of are unconfirmed.
Notable is that two days ago a USAF MC-130J Commando II special forces aircraft landed on a short stop in Visby. The aircraft did not take part in any Swedish exercise, though it was reportedly taking part in an unspecified US one that included the visit to Gotland. This was followed by a three-flight of MC-130Js skirting the Swedish border during a flight from Norway today. As far as I am aware, no details have been released about the flights.
The Russian and Belarusian activities are all significant, with Belarus having initiated a readiness check that aims at raising the armed forces to their highest level of readiness, something that includes calling up the reserve. At the same time, the Russian Western Military District is reportedly home to a major exercise, including the Baltic Fleet and the Baltic Fleet’s Army Corps in Kaliningrad, as well as unspecified units in the St Petersburg area. This in turn is naturally of significant interest to the West, and among the visitors in the area is one of two RC-135U Combat Sent strategic electronic reconnaissance aircraft.
It is important to note here that Swedish Armed Forces are clear that the readiness operation is indeed an operation and not an exercise. However, there are some interesting overlaps in that the main surface striking force of the Swedish Navy, four of their five Visby-class stealth corvettes, earlier today started an air defence exercise in the waters south of Stockholm (Västervik-Nynäshamn). Crucially, the Finnish Navy is also taking part in the exercise with an unidentified mineship. So far no information has been released about what not happens with the exercise, or with the Finnish contribution.
Edit 25/08/20 11:15 GMT+2
While the exact scope of the Swedish operation remain uncertain the morning after the announcement, the fact that it is unprecedented in near-term Swedish history is starting to become clear. Johan Wiktorin, long-term Swedish defence analyst and member of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences, notes that he hasn’t seen anything similar since the 1991 Soviet coup attempt. At the same time, his colleague in the Academy, Annika Nordgren Christensen points out that the terminology used is new to the Swedish Armed Forces, and has not been used earlier.
The decision not to go with the traditional “readiness check” (Swe. beredskapskontroll) shows that the message the Swedish Armed Forces wishes to communicate isn’t so much that they practice being able to swiftly respond to a sudden crisis, but that they as of today are at a level where they keep an eye on any potentially hostile movements and stand ready to counter these should the need arise. As is usual with these cases, and as is clearly stated in the Swedish press release, the risk for open war remains low, since none of the countries involved are interested in an all-out conflict. However, with the large number of moving parts currently involved, the risk of miscalculations leading to someone getting caught in the machinery is higher than normal.
With the FDF and Finnish government having had some time to react, it does seem clear that we won’t see any Finnish participation in the Swedish operation. This would require a political decision, and as such would most probably be communicated through the appropriate channels. However, as is well known, bilateral exercises and information sharing takes place on a regular basis, and as one of the main themes of the Swedish operation is enhanced information gathering to ensure a correct situational picture over the central and southeastern Baltic Sea, there exist a significant grey zone for what is an exercise, what is an operation, and what is a unilateral Finnish operation that just happens to create information that can be shared with Sweden. As opposed to the Swedish Armed Forces culture of sharing openly and directly what is going on, the Finnish Defence Forces is known to rarely discuss anything directly related to operational activities. As such, unless the air traffic monitorers suddenly catches a Finnish bird outside of Kaliningrad, it is very difficult to tell if Finland has raised the readiness levels in a parallel operation to the Swedish one.
While the Finnish silent culture can be supported from an operational security point of view, and a good argument can be made that the message can be sent to potential adversaries as effectively through actions rather than words, it has also come under increased scrutiny and faces criticism. In particular the question has been raised how to handle this discrepancy between Finnish and Swedish ways of handling strategic communications in the event of a joint response to a serious crisis?
Edit 25/08/20 15:15 GMT+2
The Finnish Navy has now confirmed that it is FNS Uusimaa (’05’) that is taking part in the exercise.
The exercise develops the vessels’ national capabilities and the interoperability between the Finnish and the Swedish vessels in anti-aircraft warfare at sea.
The exercise is part of the larger cooperation frame between Finnish and Swedish Navies with the aim to maintain the vessels’ interoperability and the capability of the vessels to serve as part of the Finnish-Swedish fleet troops. In the exercise formation the Finnish minelayer will technically operate as part of the Swedish troops but stays under the national lead of the Coastal Fleet. In this exercise there will be no participants from other countries.
The exercise will take place at sea, and minelayer Uusimaa will not moor in Sweden. There will not be any exchange of crew between vessels during the exercise.
This exercise is preplanned among the other exercises between the two countries and it was accepted as an international exercise included in the 2020 programme by the Ministry of Defence.