Impact of NATO on the Swedish System – an Identity Transformation

With 2023 comes a new chapter in Swedish defence history – NATO membership. We are about to embark on a significant change that will affect the Swedish and the Nordic defence organisation to a great extent. The possibilities are many, but so are the challenges. In this blog post I will highlight and address some of them.

Written by Christian Gotare, Senior Security Manager @ Combitech

It could be claimed that Sweden is used to being “best in class” when it comes to planning and implementing in accordance with bilateral agreements, and we have, for some time and to some extent, been part of NATO’s work and operations, but not to the extent we are facing now. There will be a need for a cultural, administrative, and political shift as we move towards the “NATO state of mind”.

Although some of the changes we are facing can be hard (culturally in particular), with the right and swift political decisions we can remove obstacles and enforce a rapid transition to NATO on all levels. We may go as far as calling Sweden’s entry to NATO a Transformation of Identity, and the process should therefore be respected and treated as such to be successful.

The Strategic Timeout

To understand the “revolution” of the decision made by the government of Sweden spring 2022, we must take a step back. Sweden has, since it became a country of its own, articulated its defence policy as “we must be able to protect ourselves as a country”, even going as far as invading other countries. The Swedish Navy recently celebrated its 500th anniversary, having existed longer than most countries in the world of today.

Considering that Sweden in 1818 declared itself “independent” during peacetime and “neutral” during wartime, it can look back at a peace period of +200 years. This is essential in understanding the country’s underlying culture. Although “conflict averse”, Sweden has continued to govern its defence as a protective force against outside threats.

This is reflected in the historically close relationship (built on trust) with manufacturing, the technology leadership, and in the established and efficient processes within the Armed Forces. But in the late 1980s, things changed…

At the end of the cold war, throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Sweden scaled back its military and defence spending dramatically, following the belief in a more peaceful world. This led to numerous cutbacks and the removal of conscription in 2010. The period has by many been called a “strategic timeout”. During this period, the size of the Armed Forces was reduced from close to 4% to less than 1% of GDP, a considerable reduction from its peak during the 1980s. Sweden has to this day still one of the most advanced armies, but the “timeout period” significantly reduced its capacity.

Impact on international relations

Sweden has a historically close relationship with USA, even though no official position has been taken. On the contrary, an official hard line has been held towards both US / NATO and Soviet Union / the Warsaw Pact. This “independent and neutral” position has been important to the national identity of Swedes.

The inclusion of Sweden (and Finland) in NATO will to a great extent help strengthen Euro-Atlantic security. This was evident during the NATO exercise BALTOPS22 on Gotland. Gotland is thought by many to be key to controlling the surrounding seas and a highly valuable target in any conflict. Russia's invasion of Ukraine February 2022 was a wake-up call to many, showing how far the neighbour in the Baltic Sea is willing to go.

Ties to NATO, and the US, has naturally strengthened – the relationship to Russia on the other hand, remains undecided.

The civil defence – the Total Defence

The civil defence has been an important part of Sweden’s Total Defence, incorporating most companies – from the local shop, malls, manufactures, health providers and producers, mechanics, public services and more.

In an unprecedented upscale of the civil defence in Sweden, 10 emergency service sectors, covering 60 authorities, were established last year. These are authorities with special significance for public emergency preparedness and total defence, that must be able to “withstand threats and risks, prevent vulnerabilities, manage peacetime crises and perform their duties in the event of heightened preparedness” [, 10.2022]. Why? To ensure that key (and critical) functions work during normal times as well as in a crisis.

The Swedish civil defence, and the Total Defence, will form an integral part of the total defence of the Nordic region. It is therefore of vital importance that this part of the defence sector is equally prioritized during the transition to NATO standards.

A "cultural shock"

Considering Sweden’s military history, it is safe to assume that implementing processes and following orders will be more a cultural concern than a technical one. There is a need to learn the NATO way of interpreting agreements and standards, the NATO way of working, and the NATO way of viewing global shifts and political activities to successfully adapt.

One pressing matter in this context is the relation between defence and public / private sector. Historically, there has been a close relationship between the Swedish defence and private sector, based on the goal of technology leadership, a willingness to run high risk projects, and the supporting political view of a Total Defence of the country.

The “strategic timeout” and EU membership did however drive technology leadership from defence over to private / public sector and introduced more commercially oriented procurement processes. Many blame this growing distance on bureaucracy and “Ministry Culture”, but unless there is a return to the “pre-strategic timeout” mindset, it may represent a significant challenge to the progress of NATO onboarding.

Looking at other NATO members, domestic manufacturers and vendors are considered strategically important to the country, and their relationship is close. Decision-makers must acknowledge that leading roles in the NATO transition may be held by private sector representatives, working alongside defence. This could come as a cultural shock to many in the Swedish defence, public and private sector.

Implications of a NATO membership

To understand the immense number of changes following the approved NATO application, we must take historical developments into account.

The Armed Forces, for 470 years, ran processes based on the same principles:

  • Technology Leadership through strong in-house knowledge
  • Willingness to invest in high-risk projects
  • Innovation-driven development, usually also high-risk projects
  • An established trust between domestic manufacturers and the Armed Forces
  • Simplified processes for these trusted partners
  • An organization based on technology, rather than the opposite

With the “strategic timeout” came dramatic changes. The rapid move of officers and civil personnel from defence to civil enterprise or public administration resulted in a significant loss of knowledge and experience.

The past 30 years have seen a situation rather opposite of the principles above:

  • Loss of Technology Leadership resulting from loss of key personnel
  • Scarce resources to drive “cutting-edge” projects – risk averse decisions
  • An organization driven by financial motivations, rather than innovation
  • Changes in processes and standards, to reflect the finance-driven organisation, resulting in longer processes with more administration
  • Projects and implementations governed by organizational demands, leading to responsive procurement, rather than the former, more pro-active, technological development of the organization

The organizational foundation to build a NATO membership upon is in other words fragile, and to a great extent dependent upon private sector cooperation and Commercial Off the Shelf Products. Solving the new regime of security, functionality and operation will place great demands on both defence and private sector and will require extended cooperation.

The practical side-effects of a NATO membership

A good example of how becoming a NATO member will affect all sectors is the need for standardization. NATO is involved in approximately 1 200 standard document bodies, with up to 300 annual updates of standard papers. To drive or participate in the standardization work, Sweden needs to provide personnel with the right knowledge and experience in each of the standardization areas.

As presented, “Technology Leadership” moved to the commercial side due to the “strategic timeout”. With competence located in the private and public sector, it becomes a question of who will secure the transition, and how the defence sector is expected to build the required trust and foundation for cooperation with the sectors. Whatever the outcome, Swedish Defence also needs to adapt to the shared practice of other NATO members, complicating things further.

There will be a strong demand on talent and experience in the defence sector, because of the transfer of knowledge, a general need for staff, and the increased military capacity.

Administratively, there is a formidable task ahead. When transitioning, NATO procedures and processes must be followed, and documentation must be revised for international collaboration. Although a degree of overlap, the need for revisions is considerable. It quickly becomes a case of whether to transition fully, adopt a hybrid model, or preserve own models in relation to NATO standards and procedures. Examples include the security requirements of the Swedish Defence (KSF 3.1/3.2) versus NATO’s NIST-based requirements, and the signalling requirements (RÖS) versus NATO’s TEMPEST. Will it be easier to handle each difference exclusively, or is it more cost- and time efficient to adopt NATO standards and change procedures and processes altogether?

For materials that need re-accreditation due to prolonged operational life (e.g., system software upgrades), what accreditation baseline should be used? The former Swedish processes and documentation, or reaccreditation against NATO standards and procedures?

Should NATO documentation be handled in the same way as before NATO membership, classified according to international standards, or should the Armed Forces change to domestic classification? A 1:1 mapping, national classification, would be the most natural, due to simplification and the sensitive nature of the information classified.

Another important question is whether Sweden should drive development of own cryptology solutions? For the “Combat Cloud”, initiated by the European Defence Fund, the intention is to “deliver standards, a cloud environment and a comprehensive portfolio of cloud services and products that will help Member States to build their national solutions” [European Commission, 09.2021].

A European Cloud will remove the need for separate national initiatives, but how should the transition phase be managed? Does Swedish Armed Forces have the personnel and know-how needed to ensure the integrity and availability of information and data during this stage?

In conclusion

The need for competent and experienced personnel to ensure a sustainable Swedish NATO organization is a recurring factor when looking at transition challenges (and opportunities). Although obvious that a re-organisation of such a large entity as the Swedish Armed Forces will require a change (and increase) in personnel, the matter of locating the right people will have to be addressed, and it will require tighter collaboration between the defence, public, and private sector.

The relationship between the defence sector and domestic manufactures and vendors also needs to be strengthened and align with policies of other NATO members. Not only is the interdependency important to an efficient transition, but it is also a definite requirement for the survival of the Swedish defence industry.

The Swedish defence mindset and system is built on…

  • …the population’s willingness and commitment to defence
  • …the population’s resilience and willingness during distress
  • …the underlying trust between government and population
  • …the defence of democracy and institutions founded on this

This close and long relationship between population and the government (including the Armed Forces), secures the decisions made by the authorities. This means that most of the population supports the NATO application, and the inclusion of Sweden in the Alliance, hence firmly anchoring the changes and processes to come.

The matter that needs to be addressed, is the trust-relationship between commercial and defence organisations – only with this in place can we prepare for a successful Identity Transformation in 2023.