May 05, 2023
Getting nations to develop interchangeable weapons is “about leadership. And it’s also about having a narrative that for me, in many ways, these are low-hanging fruits that will empower the West to fight better together,” Maj. Gen. Karl Engelbrektson tells Breaking Defense.
WASHINGTON — Following Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014, few countries reacted as quickly and cohesively to change their defensive posture as Sweden. In addition to the drafting of a whole-of-government strategy, spending on defense began to increase — particularly for the Swedish army. That trend has only been enhanced with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022.
Maj. Gen. Karl Engelbrektson has served as Sweden’s top army officer since 2016. During a recent visit to the US, he sat down with Breaking Defense to discuss his views of the war in Ukraine (it’s a “waiting game,” for now), what Sweden is doing to build up its own military (a lot) and his biggest areas of need.
This interview has been edited lightly for clarity and length.
Breaking Defense: From where you sit, as head of Sweden’s land forces, what is your assessment of the state of the war in Ukraine?
Maj. Gen. Karl Engelbrektson: Well, in the long run, that’s hard to say. But the next step — according to what you can read in all the open sources — is that it looks like one party is going on the defense and one is preparing for an offense. When and how that will turn out? I don’t know. And if I know, I [can’t say] either. But it’s a substantive build up of Western support to Ukraine. And right now, it seems like the war is sort of a war of attrition, and not really much is happening when it comes to gaining ground on either side now. So now it’s a waiting game and the Western support of Ukraine, to build up their forces, is what’s ongoing and quite substantial.
What do you think could bring up that logjam? Because it’s been effectively frozen for six or seven months, give or take.
Either side needs to have rather more forces if you’re on the offensive than the ones that are on defense. The Ukrainians have shown that they have a very strong defense, prepared positions, knowing the terrain, that’s one factor, another factor is the climate. So you need to have conditions, climate-wise, to be able to not only using the roads, if we are talking about the land domain. So that’s a part of it. Either you need winter and frozen ground, or you need spring or summer to have harder, dried ground.
From a purely military assessment, do the Ukrainians have the capabilities to actually be successful in an offensive operation?
You know, I would not like to comment on that. But the objective, as I read it, is that they are training and building up the capacities to be able to do that.
Sweden has sent several arms packages to Ukraine over the last year. I’m wondering, is there any equipment that you have requested not to be sent, or would request not to be sent, because it’s needed for Sweden’s own domestic needs?
Yeah, it’s always a balance. So of course, we are politically guided, we do what our political leadership tells us to do. We have [been assigned] a major task, and that is to grow the size of the army and the quality of the army. So that was taken in the defense bill [in] 2020. And after that came the war. At the same time [we need to] support Ukraine, both with material and of course, qualitative training. So that is hampering our own growth. So that is always in the military strategic advice — and it’s listened to from the political level — that we need to balance our own readiness with the support that we are giving.
Hence, there are urgent operational acquisitions in combination with support. So, on the political strategic level, it means that the parliamentary committee on defense has reassembled in order to do a quicker estimate of the security policy environment, in order to have a defense bill ahead of [planned] time. That has implications on all levels. So instead of waiting for 2025 to have the next defense bill, we will have that in 2024, which [will drive] effects on all levels. So it’s a long answer to: yes, we need to consider what we are supporting with, in relation to our own growth and readiness, and that is balanced over time.
But is there any specific capability that you look at as something that would potentially be useful for Ukraine but you simply don’t have enough of to send?
I think that goes with most stuff. You need to — it’s a combination of what you have [and] what is possible to acquire in a decent time. And those are factors that we factor in all the time. And then we come from a rather positive standpoint, because in relation to the size of the nation, we have a potent defense industry. So that’s something good to have these days. And they have boosted up their capacity significantly, so that we can mitigate [some of the issues].
Munitions are the big production concern that everyone is talking about, with the sense there’s just not enough munitions writ large. How much of a concern are munitions for you? How do you feel about your stockpile levels right now?
[We need to be] factoring in what and how much we’re giving away, so that we are confident with the stockpile we have left. But I think again, the logical conclusion is that we need to build up the production capacity, ourselves and together with others. It’s a totally different narrative than the time I worked [with NATO] in Brussels, 2010-2014. Then it was all about pooling and sharing and “smart defense” and leaner and meaner. Now, it’s the other way around. Now we need to build up the capacities. And actually, I think sometimes as well, industry needs to cooperate rather than compete in order to be able to optimize available resources. It’s everything from long-lead items to production capacities. And there we are relatively in a good spot in Sweden, because we have capacities to do something to mitigate our own problems. And of course, that’s where we advise our leaders to give away support that is related to what we can fix ourselves, like Karl Gustavs, AT4s, some of the defense munitions to our CV90s, and so forth.
We talked briefly in October and the idea was brought up of pushing for more industrial collective efforts among multiple nations, something along the lines of NAMMO. Do you sense there is interest in NATO for that?
Yes, and it has actually materialized. So practically, Norway has taken the lead because it’s Norwegian-based, even though it’s Nordic-owned. And they have invested much more than were in the plans at the time we talked last time. We are doing the same with the Saab capacities [and others in Sweden]. So since we talked last time, there have been money and orders to the problem, so to speak.
So basically, we do what we call “cross buy, cross use, cross develop” and build trust and security of supply in a regional context. So what does that mean? Well, it’s like we — practically we want to certify munitions so it can be used to all of us.
RELATED: NATO must collaborate, be ‘smarter’ about rebuilding munition stockpiles: Official
This is an is through NORDEFCO [Nordic defense cooperation] or NATO?
It’s through cooperation, that we harmonize by good cooperation, sometimes under the umbrella of organizations that you’re saying, but also sometimes based on the fact that we inform each other and say put that in the contract. So that I can shoot your ammunition and vice versa. For instance, in the tanks and CV90s and artillery — it’s practically in there, because it’s possible to do. And next level is that we want to go from interoperability [to] what we call interchangeability, not having different [systems]. And so the next generation of firearms is one example of that. Tank munition is another example, artillery ammunition is the third. So we are actually doing as we were speculating, because circumstances have pushed us forward in another direction. [So far this is Sweden and Norway] and sometimes Denmark as well, but predominantly us, because geographically it is logical. But we don’t exclude anyone.
The interchangeability idea is something that’s been around for a while as a concept. The problem has always been, as you well know, it comes down to countries want to defend their industrial interests.
Yeah, but you know, if you take support of Ukraine operations now, it’s obvious that if you have parts that are interchangeable, or hold systems that are interchangeable rather than interoperable, it’s much easier to support in one direction than otherwise. Logistically, it’s pretty clear. But you know, it’s complicated. It needs to be built on security arrangements among the parties involved, including industry, so that we can find forums to exchange information that is otherwise national security business. But we are more and more finding these ways, in a right way to cooperate and share information that allows us to go towards interchangeability. It’s easier, sometimes, said than done, because of course we are all [independent] nations.
You sound optimistic that this can actually get done in a way it hasn’t.
Yes, absolutely. Because it’s about leadership. And it’s also about having a narrative that for me, in many ways, these are low-hanging fruits that will empower the West to fight better together.
You’re looking at upgrading your fleet of CV90 vehicles, and in January announced you wanted the upgrades to happen in “record time.” Is that a capability gap for you?
So it’s not really a capability gap, it is us going into the next generation. One of the challenges all commanders have is how to use the existing legacy equipment that you have, when to stop upgrading that, and then go to the next generation. So when it came to CV90, what I meant to say with that was that I’ve guided my staff that we now only upgrade to a certain level, and at the same time, we need to go to the next-generation on record time. And that will be done because we have the Dutch turret, that is there, it’s a super modern turret. We put that on a diesel hybrid electric chassis that they have already developed. [Combined those and] then we have the next generation, and we will, on record time, be able to field this. And that is also in combination with a new strategy that we have: it’s not to change the whole fleet, but we need to have continuous upgrading. And the challenge with that is, it’s very expensive — for everyone, but for a small nation to exchange the whole fleet.
Okay, what capability gaps are you most concerned about then?
Artillery. We need more artillery. We are on the right track with that, but we need more long-range. And that is high on the agenda with cooperation with US. And a good example of that is the ground-based air defense, and [the] purchase of Patriot integrating [that with] Swedish sensor systems. We are on a good track because we were, this time, ahead of the curve interpreting the Russian ambitions — in the defense bill in 2015, it was decided that we should start growing [the military]. Hence, the decision of establishing the new regiment on the island of Gotland [east of the mainland], reintroducing partial conscription, and modernizing the army. And then 2020 came [with] much more. Basically, the task was to double the Army in 10 years time. And we had 200 percent more money for acquisition. So it was not only [talk], we have a strategy for that. And that is to build up four brigades, with all including functions of war and also setting up a proper division capability, not only staff capabilities, but additional assets on division levels. And we are setting up five new peacetime garrisons. So all of that was in the package already in 2020. What’s happening now is that we do it a bit more and quicker. So the political level seems to be putting more money on the problem, earlier.
Just to be clear, artillery is your biggest capability area of concern?
As of now, I would say long-range fires. I’m talking artillery now. So the SHORAD and stuff, that is in the plans and in reality [being] taken care of.
What are you doing to prepare to join NATO, assuming that does happen in the coming months?
It’s pretty easy for us because the task is to prepare, give freedom of maneuver for the political level, and militarily that is working very well. Thanks to the flexible organization that NATO is, having different structures allows us to prepare as well as we can. And we have been partners, ever since the [partnership for peace] were founded and we have taken all the interoperability goals of NATO very, very [seriously]. So when it comes to interoperability, I think we put ourselves in a good group in NATO. But all the military steps that is possible to do with the current invitee status puts us militarily ahead of schedule when it comes to NATO preparations. So I think we are pretty close to what you would call the day-zero ambitions.
Thanks to the lessons that Ukraine has taught the West, the West knows what is lacking. It still has time to act accordingly. If a war breaks out with China tomorrow, we would not be as prepared as we should be. On the other hand, if we had given Ukraine ALL that it asked for, countries like China would have a lot more respect for us and would fear any consequences of attacking Taiwan. Our feet-dragging, reluctant behavior is encouraging our enemies to be more audacious.
Sweden has a long, unimpressive history of emotionless fence-sitting and this Swede does not disappoint in that respect.
I agree. I think that it’s not only mafia land with bad generals in its ranks. I think it’s a very bad strategy to concentrate on one’s own defense capability at this time, when the only prospective enemy is being decimated by the Ukrainians. Number one priority should be to give Ukraine what it needs to win decisively.
Ithink Sweden is missing the boat when it comes to the Ukraine war. If they want to create a strong military and MIC then they will have to enter the arms export market to help finance it.
Win loose or draw Ukraine is going to have one of the largest militaryies in NATO and they will need to basicly need to rebuild it from the ground up. That means new equiptment and industrial base. This will be one of the largest arms markets in the world with plenty of western financing.
The problem is Sweden is practicly giving it away to the US, UK, Germany and to an extent Poland.
The irony is most of the Sweed’s weapoons and systems are ideally suited for Ukraine.
Sweden could’ve stepped up to the plate and handed Ukraine certain weapons that could help propel Sweden into a much better position globally in the weapons business. Concurrently, they could’ve learned a lot from this to help improve their designs. A big case in point is the HIMARS system, which is currently a hot ticket worldwide. Another is the Javelin. Indeed, Sweden is sleeping at the wheel.