Nervous Sweden stages huge military exercise

Nervous Sweden stages huge military exercise

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There are men in the bushes carrying AK-5 rifles and American attack helicopters ducking behind trees, plus armoured cars covered in brambles and a radar station at the mall.

Residents on this island in the Baltic Sea are not really sure what to make of it.

“It’s a little bit scary to be honest,” said one man. “All these guns and soldiers are a little bit scary.”

Thousands of troops have taken part in Aurora 17 exercises on the island of Gotland

Image: Thousands of troops have taken part in Aurora 17 exercises on Gotland

However, the Swedish government thinks this sleepy-looking spot is situated uncomfortably close to Russia so they have shipped thousands of troops to Gotland for an operation called Aurora 17.

It is a huge three-week training exercise conducted with military personnel from the US, Finland, France and a host of other countries.

It is so big in fact, Sweden has not attempted anything like it in the past 23 years.

They have also deployed the defence minister, Peter Hultqvist, who we found in a stand of pine trees chatting to Finnish conscripts.

“We have a new security environment in this part of Europe with the annexation of Crimea (by Russia), war in Ukraine and pressure on Baltics,” he said.

“We’ve seen the situation worsen over time so we have a new strategy on the Swedish side.”

Armoured troops from Skaraborg's Swedish regiments

Image: The training exercise is being held with a host of other countries, including the US

That strategy means spending more money on an organisation that was virtually dismantled after the Cold War.

At the end of that conflict, the Swedish armed forces boasted 850,000 personnel – the majority formed by conscripts. Now there are just 50,000 on the books.

The troops also need practice and a US army airborne unit was brought in to help on Gotland.

We spent an afternoon watching Swedish air defence units protect the local parish church from a pair of marauding Apache attack helicopters.

Still, we did not see anyone actually firing anything. Instead, small groups of soldiers tossed empty missile casings in the direction of the aircraft.

However, there is one problem the government may not be able to crack. Young Swedes are not particularly interested in the military.

Faced with a paucity of volunteers, the government will bring in conscription next month, eight years after scrapping it.

Swedish soldiers man a tank from Skaraborg's Swedish regiments

Image: Conscription is being brought back in Sweden, eight years after it was scrapped

A national ad campaign has been launched to drum up some enthusiasm. It says: “Now everyone can train with the defence force.”

Unsurprisingly, not everyone is buying it. The topic has been hotly contested, for example, by players at Spela Paintball just outside Stockholm.

“We haven’t had it for quite a few years,” said Johan Wallsten.

“People who join may not be happy – they’ve got their own lives now. Before, you joined the army when you quit school that’s the way it was.”

The military will screen 100,000 people for suitability before settling on 4,000 recruits – and that number will be split evenly between men and women.

Fourteen-year-old Benjamin Sener told me he hopes to be conscripted.

He said: “I think it is a good thing, you wake up early, do team building and its good for your career.”

“But some young people don’t want to get up early,” I replied.

“But you have to wake up early, that’s life,” said Mr Sener, earnestly.

In the centre of town, amid the cafes and swish shopping streets, we found less enthusiasm for the Swedish draft mark two.

High school student Filip Alexandrow said: “I could do it but I don’t want to do it, it is kind of sad why we need it in the first place.”

When I asked his friend Jonas Sarpenmalm whether he was concerned about Russia, he said he thought the Russians were “cute”.

With the possible exception of Donald Trump, western leaders are not so charitable, holding up a recent operation by Russia and Belarus as an example of their concern.

The “Zapad” or “West” military exercise may have drawn on as many as 100,000 men.

As for Sweden, well, the country’s leaders admit they are currently ill-prepared and it seems a new generation of conscripted citizens will bear the burden of the nation’s defence in the future.

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