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Neutral Sweden to Beef Up Its Military Muscle : Growing East-West Power in Region Spurs Nation to Hike Defense Spending

May 10, 1987|LARRY GERBER | Associated Press

LULEA, Sweden — Leaders of this neutral country, wary of being caught in a cross-fire between power blocs at the top of Europe, are planning to increase defense spending after 20 years of standstill.

This year is "very definitely a turning point," said Col. Carl-Ivar Pesula, whose briefing maps at this Lapland air base show ominous signs for a country that has not fought a war since 1814.

Red circles on the regional commander's map mark one of the biggest naval bases in the world, home to nearly two-thirds of the Soviet nuclear submarine fleet, near Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula in the Arctic.

F-21 Air Base at this town is 375 miles from Murmansk, closer to the Soviet base than to Stockholm, Sweden's capital, 462 miles to the south.

Murmansk is well within the 1,500-mile range of U.S. cruise missiles in West Germany and Sweden lies between.

Bigger Western War Games

Green squiggles on the map designate NATO strength in the North Sea. The Western alliance has sharply increased the size of its maneuvers in Norway, and last year's version, with 20,000 men, was called the largest ever for a single exercise there.

Alien submarines, rarely identified by nationality, are frequently detected snooping in Swedish waters.

A highly publicized incident Oct. 27, 1981, when a Soviet sub ran aground near a Swedish naval base, was a prime factor in the spending about-face.

"People started thinking about defense," Pesula said during a visit by foreign reporters. "They realized we were going to have to spend more on the armed forces."

With 8.3 million people, Sweden spends a quarter of its annual budget on welfare programs that range from universal health care to nine months of paid maternity leave.

8% Defense Budget

The military share of the budget has declined from about 17% in the mid-'60s to around 8% today.

The government Defense Committee has put together a $19.8-billion spending plan for the next five years that will increase the military percentage slightly.

The proposal is a compromise between the governing Social Democrats, who wanted a smaller package, and the centrist Liberals and the military, who wanted a bigger one. The measure is not final but is expected to pass Parliament in June because the two parties form a majority.

Most of the money will be spent at home, since Sweden supplies about 70% of its own military hardware.

No one has suggested a change in Sweden's policy of armed neutrality or in its role as a champion of international disarmament.

'Better' or 'Worse'

However, foreign "military technology is getting better and better, or if you want to look at it that way, worse and worse," said Per Borg, chairman of the Defense Committee.

The increase, to come mostly from gasoline taxes, is an effort to keep up in a variety of areas: electronic warfare, a new fighter plane to replace the current Viggen, new armored vehicles, improved anti-submarine defenses, better radar and intelligence, and a new anti-aircraft missile.

Sweden has universal conscription for men, and about 90% of the armed forces are draftees.

The budget increase was welcome news to Col. Soren Jansson, commander of the Lapland Ranger Regiment, which trains and retrains as many as 4,500 soldiers a year at Kiruna, above the Arctic Circle.

"We have a higher food budget than most other units," Jansson said. "When they have been out in the forest and they come back, they eat like wolves."

Commando Exercises

Commando training goes on at Kiruna in temperatures of 40 below zero. The idea is to work with the weather and the forbidding terrain to cripple any invader trying to seize a base for strikes to the east or west.

Moving fast is the key, Pesula said as conscripts practiced rearming a Viggen fighter on the frozen Tarmac at F-21 Base. The drill was supposed to take 10 minutes.

It took more than 12 minutes, but officers said it was the first time for the crew, which had been training just four weeks.

The 5th Ranger Platoon at Kiruna took about the same time to disassemble a three-tent encampment, complete with anti-aircraft gun and burning cookstoves, hidden in the snow under lacy white camouflage nets.

Where would the invader come from? Strategists say attack is possible from whichever side feels disadvantaged at the outbreak of hostilities. Field officers are reluctant to point fingers.

"We are a neutral country, so never mind," said Jansson. "We defend this area, east, west, north, south. That's what we tell our soldiers."

"I don't care which side he (the enemy) comes from," said Sgt. Ulf Writskog. "But my opinion is the biggest threat comes from the East."

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