GOTLAND: Sweden’s Fortified Baltic Island

Gotland, Sweden’s largest island, is located in the Baltic sea between Sweden and Latvia, and represents the most strategically important defensive stronghold in the entire Baltic region. The Swedish government decided in March 2015 to begin reestablishing a permanent military presence on Gotland, starting with an initial 150 troop garrison, consisting primarily of elements from the Swedish Army. It has been reported that the bulk of this initial garrison will make up a new motorised rifle battalion, alternatively referred to in other reports as a “modular-structured rapid response Army battalion”. A later report claimed that plans were at an advanced stage for a support helicopter squadron and an Air Force “fast response Gripen jet squadron” to also be based on the island to support the new garrison and further reinforce the defences. Prior to the disbandment of the original garrison, there had been a continuous Swedish military presence on Gotland in one form or another, for nearly 200 years.

Map showing the strategic location of Gotland.

Map showing the strategic location of Gotland.

The original Gotland garrison, also known as the Visby Garrison, could trace its roots back to at least 1811. That was the year the Gotland National Conscription was formed to strengthen the islands defences after the Russians had briefly occupied the island two years before. Although, the “new” garrison was just the latest in a long line of Swedish military forces protecting the island, and consequently the rest of Sweden, continuously since the 1640s. The exception being the 23 days when Russia occupied the island during the Finnish War (1808–1809), after Gotland had been left undefended due to errors in overall Swedish strategy early in the war.

In 1887, a new country wide conscription system replaced a number of previous regional recruitment and reserve systems, including the Gotlands nationalbeväring (the Gotland National Recruitment) The existing regiment defending Gotland under that system was reorganized into two new regiments, the Gotland Infantry Regiment and the Gotland Artillery Regiment. Those two units would go on to provide the bulk of the garrison forces both directly and indirectly, throughout the various crisis that threatened to overtake Sweden (including two World Wars and the Cold War), for most of the next two centuries right up to the final dissolution of the garrison in 2005.

From 1811 to 1873, the commander of military forces on Gotland (at that time, effectively a military district in its own right) also served as the governor of the island and during the existence of the Gotland National Conscription (1811–1892) the commander was by default the senior officer of that regiment. Under the military reorganisation of 1892, the then commander and his successors (up until 1937) automatically became the senior officer of the Gotlands infanteriregemente that succeeded the Gotlands nationalbeväring. He remained in charge of army troops on the island, even though Gotland was no longer the center of a military district under the new 5 area (district) system which lasted up to shortly before World War II.

During World War II, Gotland was part of both the VII Military area [area=army district] (from 1942) and the Gotland Naval District, both of which the senior military officer on the island acted as head of. Army and air force units assigned to Gotland came under the former, while naval, marine, and coast artillery units based on/out of Gotland came under the jurisdiction of the latter. With a change in the Naval Districts (see naval section below) in 1957, the commanding officer lost his maritime responsibilities, but regained them in the 1966 military reorganisation that created the Gotland Military Command (the Gotlands militärkommando), or MKG, and which changed the VII. Military area into the new expanded Eastern Military District or Milo Ö (also known as Milo Z) which was now headquartered out of Södermanland.

gotland-bunker

World War II era Kulsprutebunker (Machine gun bunker) located near Brucebo, Gotland County.

This command structure continued relatively unchanged until the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, when Milo Ö was stood down in 1991. The MKG remained operational into 2000, albeit increasingly downgraded in importance despite concerns,with a corresponding steady reduction in the units and capabilities under the MKG. In the now discredited Swedish Defence reform of that year, the MKG was replaced with the, in theory, autonomous Gotlands Military District (the Gotlands militärdistrikt) or MDG, which despite its name, only had control over the island itself (that control was also severely constrained by the existence of the, later infamous, post-Cold War Swedish Fortifications Agency). In practise this meant the MDG was responsible for overseeing the Army garrison units remaining on the island, along with coordinating with any reserve and civil defense elements still in place. There were, and as of 2015  still are, no maritime or coastal defense units remaining on the island, with the exception of a couple of naval units that did not come under the new MDG and which in any case were withdrawn in 2004. The MDG was stood down in December 2004, with the remaining garrison forces being abolished in 2005.

Alongside the Swedish Army, the Swedish Navy have played a major role in the garrisoning of the island over the last two centuries; not only helping to defend the island but also using it as a well placed base to defend Sweden and its interests in the Baltic Sea. Prior to (from 1931) and during World War II, Gotland was the headquarters of the Gotland Naval District. In 1957, during the Cold War, Gotland became part of the (now defunct) Sound Naval District, headquartered at the Muskö naval base. The Sound Naval District itself came under the new joint Eastern Military District in 1966, with operational control of naval units (including coastal defense forces) in the area of the former Gotland Naval District being returned to the commanding officer of the new MKG centered on Gotland.

In the early part of the Cold War (late 1940s to late 1950s), elements of one of the three major task forces that then made up the navy’s front line strength, including cruisers and destroyers, were based out of Gotland’s various anchorages and harbours. This was in addition to locally based elements of the Coastal Artillery’s significant support fleet, which included coastal minelayers, inshore minesweepers, and patrol craft. However, in 1958, a doctrinal switch from heavier surface combatants to smaller ASW combatants (increasingly corvette sized and smaller) and Fast Attack Craft began with most of the former being retired without replacement. The operations of these new combatants were still coordinated with submarines though, which, along with the fact that some major combatants weren’t immediately retired (e.g. the two Halland-class destroyers), ironically helped to disguise the problems with relying so heavily on light combatants in the short term. In the late 1960s, this shift towards lighter types accelerated, though more for political and economic reasons than military.

For Gotland, this meant that the naval units based out of the island by the 1970s were mostly light combatants such as FACs with relatively short range, though there were still a few larger corvettes mixed in. Submarines were generally not based out of Gotland at this point, being housed in purpose built bases such as Muskö, though they still made port visits.

By the early 1980s, flaws with the “FAC based doctrine” had become impossible to ignore, with incidents such as the so-called Whiskey on the rocks confrontation proving that the Swedish Navy had become outgunned in the Anti-surface warfare arena, and that even in areas where it should have had a local advantage in such as Anti-Submarine Warfare it was materially outmatched by potential aggressors, with intruding submarines able to breach Swedish waters almost at will.

In the short term, the navy and government attempted to address these issues with various emergency measures and programs, such as the hasty revamping of the Ytattack-81 (the Surface combatant-81) project into what would become the Stockholm corvette program. Another hastily introduced program was the construction of four new heavy coastal missile batteries based around the Rb-15 missile, one of which was placed on Gotland. Delivery and installation of the systems was to take place from 1987 to 1992. Existing installations such as coastal gun batteries and mine stations were continuously upgraded. In the longer term, among the new programs that were started in the late 1980s were two to provide replacements for various FAC and corvette classes; the Ytstridsfartyg Mindre (the Surface Combatant Small) and the Ytstridsfartyg Större (the Surface Combatant Large) programs. In the post-Cold War cutbacks of the early 1990s, those two programs were merged into a single program, the YS2000 (the Surface Combatant 2000) program, that later became the Visby-class stealth corvette. Originally, it was planned to have a class of 10 in two variants; the ASuW/Anti-Air ‘Series II’ and a lower cost ASW dedicated ‘Series I’. Finally, only four Series Is and a single Series II were built in the 2000s (with a second Series II being cancelled), and even those were not fully manned or equipped as part of further economy measures to support other non-defence areas. As a result of this reduction in class size being decided on in the late 1990s, plans for some of the Visby-class corvettes to be based out of Gotland were scrapped. This was against a background of severe cutbacks for the navy at that time, which would continue into the 2010s. Those cutbacks apparently also led to the cancellation, just prior to the disbanding of all coastal defence units on Gotland, of plans to install elements of the KAFUS coastal/underwater surveillance network in and around the island.

In an echo of events from over 60 years earlier, the navy would lose its Marinflyget in 1998, with its helicopter units being absorbed by the air force’s new ‘joint’ Helikopterflottiljen (Helicopter Wing) (the Army also losing its helicopters to this new wing). The air force then promptly retired the former navy ASW helicopters without any immediate replacement.

Boeing-Vertol 107/Kawasaki KV-107 - HKP 4A/B ASW Helicopter.

Boeing-Vertol 107/Kawasaki KV-107 – HKP 4A/B ASW Helicopter.

The resulting lack of ASW helicopters, along with the operationally incomplete state of the Visby-class corvettes, were issues that would become apparent just under a decade and a half later, during the ‘October 2014 Submarine incident’ when the military made a prolonged search without any public results, for alleged underwater activity.

Swedish Air Force elements have operated from the island since the late 1920s. The Swedish Air Force was created by the amalgamation of the air arms of both the army and the navy in 1926. The formation of the new air force would leave the navy without an air branch until it was reestablished in the late 1950s with the navy’s first helicopters. Swedish Naval aviation had already established a major presence on the island in the late 1910s, so the air force was able to take over or share some facilities with the navy, as well as building ones of its own, such as the Bunge and Roma airfields in the late 1930s. By the outbreak of World War II, the Flygvapnet was well established on Gotland. The air force’s general wartime strategy in regards to Gotland was primarily based around bombers, in particular 20 B-17s based at Bunge airfield and seaplane torpedo bombers out of Fårösund. The intention was to use them against enemy ships in the support of the navy and coastal defence units (including both gun batteries and minefields), that were the islands first line of defence against an invasion. The air force also had fighters and reconnaissance aircraft based on the island to further support the island’s defence, the latter also including seaplanes.

Even into the Jet Age, and the Cold War, the Swedish Air Force insisted on remaining being able to operate from semi-prepared airstrips and dispersed emergency airfields, which influenced its equipment development and procurement choices greatly along with the development of tactics and strategies. This allowed the air force major flexibility in its role of defending Gotland and the rest of Sweden against intruders. In some respects, this flexibility made the air force more capable than most NATO member air-forces who, especially before the advent of such aircraft as the Harrier and the A-10, were arguably over reliant on permanent airbases and long concrete runways, unlike their Soviet foes, who put in at least as much effort as Sweden into being able to disperse and operate their tactical aircraft from semi-prepared airstrips and other temporary or semi-permanent locations, including those based around specially strengthened stretches of road.

For Gotland, this meant the air force was not only able to operate out of Visby Airport (especially after its BAS-60 upgrade in 1968) and its existing airfields such as Bunge and Roma, but also from semi-prepared sites such as the Visby 1 and Visby 2 highway strips, which were officially classified as dispersed emergency (wartime) airfields as per Sweden’s general overall Cold War doctrine.

Apart from the threat of direct Soviet aggression against Gotland and the rest of Sweden, another potential wartime problem was to increasingly weigh on the minds of both the island’s defenders and Sweden’s politicians: cruise missile transits. In the event of an all out war, the airspace of neutral Sweden was seen by both NATO and Warsaw Pact planners as a possible handy shortcut for the flight paths of cruise missiles that both sides were developing, and in the case of the United States had already deployed, during the 1980s. The airspace in and around Gotland was one of the areas of Sweden seen as especially vulnerable to transit by cruise missiles en-route to their targets. A particular worry in Sweden in the early 1980s was that the US would program some of their new nuclear armed cruise missiles to fly through Swedish airspace on their way to targets in the Soviet Union. This was seen as a violation of the country’s neutrality, so Sweden officially stated that it would be obliged to shoot down any such missiles that were fired over Swedish territory in wartime. In light of this policy a number of major anti-cruise missile exercises were held by Sweden during the 1980s, at least one of which was held in and around the island. As the decade went on, fears grew that the Soviet Union would be at least just as likely to violate Sweden’s neutrality in this manner; such fears regarding the two superpowers were only partially eased by the advent of the (defunct as of 2014) INF Treaty.

Late 1980s plans to reinforce the air cover over Gotland, including one for the reactivation and deployment to the island of an additional J-35 Draken squadron to take place in the early 1990s, were to be overtaken by world events such as the Revolutions of 1989 and the Soviet dissolution.

After the end of the Cold War, the air force’s presence on Gotland had rapidly diminished to practically nothing by 1992, with the final withdrawal of deployed elements of the F13 Wing including a Saab 37 Viggen fighter detachment from Visby Airport. This was a direct result of the initial cutbacks by Swedish politicians seeking the peace dividend in order to, among other things, to fund increasingly costly social programs in an economic downturn (in part caused by the fall of the Soviet Union). Due to this, the Bunge airfield was closed in 1991. The Roma airfield had been deactivated in 1988. In the intervening years, the air force has been absent from Gotland, with only the occasional transport or support aircraft (such as ASC 890 Airborne early warning and control) making visits to Visby Airport as part of an exercise or similar.

In the 2010s, the relatively dilapidated state of the county’s defences had to be addressed by the Swedish government, with a newly resurgent Russia stepping up probes of Sweden’s defences alongside those of her neighbours with both air and sea incursions. The most noted of these to date occurred in March 2013, when two Russian Tupolev Tu-22M nuclear capable bombers, escorted by four Sukhoi Su-27, were able to enter Swedish controlled airspace unimpeded and simulate strikes against targets in and around Stockholm with the Swedish Air Force unable to effectively respond at any time during the incident. During their operation, the Russian aircraft skirted around Gotland. In the aftermath of this highly controversial failure to avert the intruders, the air force for the first time in many years deployed a detachment of four Saab JAS-39 Gripen fighters to Visby Airport. This short lived deployment was followed by another smaller one the following year, consisting of two Gripens. However, because of their strictly limited nature, these deployments were seen by observers as unsuccessful PR exercises rather than a coherent response. By the close of 2014, Swedish public confidence in the government’s ability to defend the country had dropped to 20% or lower, depending on the poll. This was a continuation of a general trend that could be traced back to even before the Stockholm incident, but which had rapidly worsened in its aftermath.

JAS-39 Gripen at Visby Airport.

JAS-39 Gripen at Visby Airport.

In late March 2015, it was reported that plans were at an advanced stage for a support helicopter squadron and a “fast response Gripen jet squadron” to be based on Gotland in order to support the new garrison and further reinforce the island’s defences.

In April 2015, a decision was made to reestablish troops permanently on Gotland within three years. The recruitment started in September 2015. The Battlegroup Gotland is to consist of 300 personnel, half of which are soldiers and half a permanent staff. As of 2016, the main issue of where to house the battle group was still unresolved. The barracks in Visby formerly owned and used by Gotland Regiment were evacuated and sold to a private company in 2006. Since 2006, the property is used by the Gotland County Administration and several private companies.

The re-militarization of Gotland once again reopened the debate about a possible threat to Sweden from Russia and Sweden’s accession to NATO.

The Battlegroup Gotland (18th Battlegroup) will fall under administrative control of the Skaraborg Regiment, which will also train the troops destined for Gotland. The battlegroup will be based at the Tofta firing range near Visby and will field 301 men.

18th Battlegroup (18. Stridsgruppen):

  • 180th Staff Company “Havdhem”
  • 181st Armored Infantry Company “Roma” with 12x Strf 9040B infantry fighting vehicles, 1x Bgbv 90 armored recovery vehicle and 1x Bandvagn 309 tracked ambulance vehicle
  • 183rd Tank Company “Lärbro” with 11x Stridsvagn 122 main battle tanks, 1x Epbv 90 forward observation vehicle, 1x Bgbv 120 armored recovery vehicle, 1x Strf 9040B infantry fighting vehicle and 1x Bandvagn 309 tracked ambulance vehicle
  • 185th Logistic Company “Garde”

In the meantime, before the 18th Battlegroup is ready for deployment on Gotland (originally scheduled to begin in 2018), it was hoped that a combination of an increase in training rotations by mainland based regular army units to the Tofta range, combined with some rather public exercises around the island by the Särskilda operationsgruppen since late 2015, would be enough to discourage any Russian adventurism.

Stridsvagn 122/Leopard 2 MBT

Stridsvagn 122/Leopard 2 MBT

However by Autumn 2016, the regional situation was considered to have deteriorated even further. So much so that following representations from the current Supreme Commander Micael Bydén, the Swedish Government reluctantly agreed that Gotland’s defences would have to be reestablished on a much shorter timescale than previously mooted (despite ongoing major divisions within the current ruling parties with regards as to the strategy & resources required to defend Sweden). To this end, the Supreme Commander announced on the 14th of September 2016 that not only would the deployment of the 18th Battlegroup to Gotland would be moved up to the first half of 2017, but also a rifle battalion from the Skaraborg Regiment which was then in the middle of a training rotation at Tofta, would now be held in place on Gotland as a interim garrison. A few Giraffe 40s normally on the strength of the Luftvärnsregementet (Lv 6) are to be attached to the battalion to provide some early warning capability. Despite this though, neither air defence vehicles such as the Luftvärnskanonvagn (lvkv) 9040, nor MANPADS have been attached to the garrison battalion to take advantage of this local radar coverage.

The plan is to within a few months relieve the battalion with another battalion or a equivalent formation, which will then remain in place until the 18th Battlegroup is ready to take up it’s posting.

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11 responses to “GOTLAND: Sweden’s Fortified Baltic Island

    • Thanks John. Gotland is strategically vital to the defense of the Baltic. I feel however, that 150 troops will not enough to defend the island. Perhaps NATO membership is the answer? Thank you for dropping by my friend.

  1. An interesting insight into Sweden’s military stance. Do the Swedes, truly see Russia as a major threat to their sovereignty? Is this caused by their ‘alliance’ with NATO or because they are strategically placed for the northern sea ports? I guess a soviet invasion would eventually (or even quite quickly) over run Sweden without her neighbours/NATO support. Great analysis Rich!

    • Hi Andy, recent reports suggest that: If there are no force restrictions Russia could simply destroy sufficient amount of Swedish military assets with nuclear weapons so that Sweden will be completely unable to resist militarily. Most likely even use of one nuclear device might prompt Sweden to surrender.

      If Russia decides it does not authorize use of nuclear weapons then they will have a lot harder time invading Sweden because there is no land route to Sweden. They would have to solely rely on their navy and air forces, and if those did not suffice for their war goal then they would be forced to carry out an invasion to Sweden.

      Sweden is one of the few countries that has the capacity to develop their own fighter craft. While Sweden’s ground army may not be large or fully prepared for a full scale land war, having to commit to a landing will similarly reduce Russia’s capacity to bring large numbers of troops to Sweden, not least because Sweden’s terrain is easy to defend, there are archipelagos on their shorelines and they not only have very advanced land based anti-ship missiles that are constantly being moved, they also have a respectable naval force and they have very modern stealth ships as well as some of the world’s best and stealthiest submarines, five of them. And they have several minelayer ships to lay mines on all the approach routes.

      These assets will make any Russian landing operation very risky.

      Sweden has very good anti-air defenses and a capable modern air force, so even gaining air superiority would be a difficult task for Russia’s air forces. Russia does not have any real stealth aircraft (at the current time of writing).

      There is no scenario where Russia is able to simply invade and conquer Sweden with conventional forces, except for a scenario where they would keep fighting a total war of attrition for years wearing down Sweden, all the while the rest of the world and NATO would be compelled to intervene.

      And if you were thinking about land route to Sweden, Norway is a NATO country and Finland’s army solely exists to wear down and fight back Russian invasions. Finland also has in reserves 900,000 people with military training and an active reserve of 230,000 troops with modern equipment.

      Russia could simply never ensure a land based supply route to Sweden. Just pushing through Finland or Norway are beyond any feasible scenario. Finns were able to stop Soviet Union during Winter War with mere rifles and Molotov’s cocktails and they stopped the best Red Army had to offer during 1944.

      Today some of the equipment and many of the troops Sweden and Finland have are better than Russia’s have.

      If Russia is willing to risk World War III, then they can conquer Sweden. Even in the mildest possible scenario occurred and the Russian’s tried to take Sweden, this would mean massive international sanctions, and if West decided to close Russia out of SWIFT or so, it would devastate Russia’s economy. In worst case, the West and NATO would support Sweden militarily and otherwise.

      • Thanks Rich. They are certainly a strong and powerful nation with a huge capacity for defence, much stronger than I thought. Perhaps they are even a model for other nations to follow, having their own capacity to develop and build their own defence network and hardware. I agree that Russia’s stealth capability is pretty much ‘nil’, and her most advanced aircraft, maritime and land based forces are not on a par with many of the western equivalents. Being so large, she tends to rely upon quantity rather than quality – having huge reserves able to be thrown into any conflict. I can’t see any use for nuclear weapons other than one that would result in the MAD scenario, even short range, smaller nuclear weapons would, I believe, result in a much larger conflict and nobody would benefit from that. The Scandinavian nations are geographically well situated, as I think are we, that in itself provides a good defensive position and one that makes invasion a difficult proposition. Thanks again for sharing your incredible knowledge of this, I have certainly learnt a lot about these countries and their military capacity that I did not know before !

      • Thanks for your reply Andy. Here though, are some sobering figures: Up until the mid-1980s, there were 100,000 active-duty soldiers in Army combat units; and counting local defense units and Home Guardsmen, another 350,000 men were available. The Air Force had over 300 airplanes; the Navy had some 40 warships and 12 submarines, and the Coastal Artillery had 28 battalions. Then everything just unraveled. In 2000, the Swedish Parliament made a new decision on defense — to cut the budget by half. Compared to 1985, there was now only:

        Fifteen percent as many Army combat units
        One tenth as many local defense units
        Half as many Home Guardsmen
        Half of the Air Force
        One quarter of the Navy

        In 2004, more units were scrapped and 5,000 military personnel (25% of the total) were let go.

        “The new defense,” said Agrell, “was supposed to be in place in 2004, but at this time, everything was a screaming mess. There was no new defense and not enough money. What to do? Well, the politicians once again ordered more cutbacks.”

        This was what was left:

        Six percent of the combat units
        No local defense
        The Home Guard was once again cut in half
        100 airplanes instead of 200
        A navy cut in half, with only seven surface vessels and four submarines

        Sweden’s defense command has responded to the growing unpredictability of a changed security landscape in the greater Baltic Sea area by toughening up the Military Strategy Doctrine (MSD) under which the Swedish Armed Forces (SAF) deals with threats against the country’s sovereignty.

        The new doctrine shifts the emphasis of national defense from a post-Cold War era strategy largely based on containment to a more aggressive model that will deploy advanced weapons systems and modern warfare forces as part of a “sustained” and coordinated high-impact strike against attackers.

        The revised MSD formats a framework under which the defense of Sweden can be conducted either “alone” or potentially in collaboration with multinational Nordic, European Union or NATO forces.

        Sweden has one major trump card. It has a powerful, modern home-grown defence industry. If push came to shove, Sweden has tha capacity and capability to mibilise and defend itself. Thanks for your input Andy.

  2. A fascinating and certainly detailed look at the military history of Gotland and Sweden as a whole. I have been reading a lot about the Romanovs in Russia from the family’s rise to power to their eventual downfall and I am always awestruck by how much of an influence Sweden had on Eastern European events and just how powerful they were. I suppose its my 21st century mindset.

    The unified helicopter command is similar in concept to the UK’s JHC although is much more rigid.

    Regarding the Swedes view on aircraft having to operate from semi-prepared strips its interesting to note that despite similar beliefs in the UK, US, France and West Germany, those countries stopped caring about such a requirement by the late 60s. Even the V-Force had a limited ability to operate from semi-prepared strips but after the Jaguar the RAF didn’t really have a true rough field aircraft (the Tornado was too soft and the Harrier, if you think about it, didn’t really have it because all it needed was a flat surface for STOVL and VTOL).

    It’s not that the concept was seen as flawed in anyway. On the contrary in a conventional conflict it still has use but in a nuclear conflict where the war could start and be over within 48 hours most theorists agreed it was unnecessary to overburden aircraft with rough field performance which often had a weight penalty.

    Its frightening to think that Sweden is so worried about Russia in 2016(!) that they feel the need to fortify the island once more. What times we live in.

    • Increasing tensions between Sweden, Finland and Norway, in particular, have led to an escalation in tensions between these states and Russia, No-one could have foreseen that a post Cold War stand-off of this magnitude could have been feasible. Unfortunately, the Baltic and Nordic States and NATO are desperately trying to fill this gap by pouring in troops and resources to the region in an effort to stem the Russian tide. One can only hope that it isn’t ‘too little too late’. Thanks for your insight Tony.

  3. Pingback: 1990.gads Gotlande | vara bungas·

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