From September 11 to September 29, more than 20,000 troops have been training together in military exercises throughout all of southern Sweden as well as on the islands of Gotland and Öland.
Of these soldiers, some 19,000 are Swedish, comprising a huge part of the country’s current armed forces – which have been reduced in numbers with more than 90% since the early 1990s; the rest are foreign. The biggest foreign contingent – some 1,300 troops – comes from the United States. The American units, based in Europe and the continental US, have also brought advanced heavy equipment – such as Abrams tanks, Patriot air defence batteries, and Apache combat helicopters – to the exercise. This is the first time ever a major US military contingent has exercised in Sweden on such a scale.
The other foreign units come from Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Latvia, Lithuania, and Norway, albeit in much smaller numbers. Estonia is represented by participating with a Defence League unit from the Saaremaa district as well as by a Navy ship.
It should be noted that the French contingent includes a SAMP/T air defence battery. In addition to hosting the exercise, Sweden is in the final phases of choosing a new medium-range ground-to-air air defence system for its armed forces, and it is no secret that the participation of both American and French systems of this kind in Aurora 17 is part of the evaluation process .
Formally, Aurora 17 is a Swedish national exercise to which foreign military units have been invited. However, one of its major goals is to exercise the so-called Host Nation Support treaty with NATO that Sweden ratified last year. Of the eight countries invited to the exercise, only Finland is not a NATO member. The exercise is also a substantial test of Sweden’s integration with NATO procedures and operations.
The first phase of the exercise is entirely devoted to the implementation of host nation-related issues. Receiving and hosting a large number of foreign troops – including their heaviest equipment such as tanks – is not something Sweden has done for a very long time. While Swedish troops have been hosted in and by other nations and within other frameworks many times before, the opposite has been very rare indeed, and certainly has never been on the level of Aurora 17.
The next phase of the exercise focuses on cooperation and familiarisation among the units involved; it also contains standard field exercises at training areas in south-central Sweden. It is followed by the conduct of a a major reinforcement operation to the island of Gotland. This is aimed at building up the defences of the island, which was left essentially demilitarised more than ten years ago.
The final phases of the exercise focuses on real, joint, and multinational defensive operations against attacks from two fictitious countries: A-Land and B-Land. Geographically, these countries are, according to the official maps of the exercise, located on what is Russian and Belarusian territory in the real world. According to the exercise scenario, the armed forces of these countries launch attacks on the island of Gotland and parts of the Swedish homeland, especially against strategically important areas – such as Arlanda Airport outside Stockholm. The international contingents in Aurora 17 primarily play the role of the attackers, but other foreign forces join with Swedish troops to defend against attacks from the east.
The entire exercise has been met with great interest and huge media coverage in Sweden. There are many reasons for this: it is the first time ever that a major military exercise explicitly and directly relies on foreign military assistance, especially for key resources that the country does not currently possess – such as modern medium- to long-range air defence systems and attack helicopters. But the simple fact of the exercise itself also constitutes evidence of the dramatic turn in Swedish security policy that has taken place during the last years. Only five to ten years ago, an exercise of this kind would have been absolutely unthinkable in Sweden, as it would have been seen as ”undermining the credibility of Sweden’s non-aligned policy.”
Today, neither policymakers nor the Swedish public take the latter concept that seriously any longer. Despite months of beating the proverbial drum, a number of leftist parties and organisations managed to attract only 3,500 people to a demonstration against both Aurora 17 and the Swedish ever closer relationship to NATO at a central Gothenburg demonstration venue on September 16. In general, the Swedish public seems both to accept and enjoy the fact that the Swedish armed forces are able once again to demonstrate the military capacity, at least in an exercise, that was once standard for the country. International involvement in the exercise has also been widely appreciated, especially by the Swedish troops but also, as far as can be seen, by the vast majority of the Swedish public. The only vocal opponents have come from the extreme political left.
The change in Swedish posture has not been lost in Moscow, though. Several English-speaking Russian state-controlled media outlets have noted that the exercise is yet another sign of the fact that Sweden has abandoned its traditional policy of neutrality and non-alignment.1 Noting the constant Swedish official criticism of Russian actions, especially those directed against Ukraine since 2014, Moscow seems to be forming a picture of a Sweden that is firmly on the enemy side in any potential conflict in the Baltic Sea region. Most likely, this attitude – together with the positive experiences of the Aurora 17 exercise itself – will affect the internal Swedish debate on NATO membership in the future
The author is a non-resident fellow at ICDS. The views presented in this article are solely his own.