by Gen Craig R. McKinley, USAF (Ret)
Perhaps surprisingly, Sweden has been on my mind over the past month, and there are two very good reasons.
First, Carl Bildt, the nation’s former prime minister and foreign minister, came to Washington, D.C. in early May and gave a powerful presentation at the Brzezinski Institute of Geostrategy, a subsidiary of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The title of Bildt’s presentation, “Europe Surrounded Not by a Ring of Friends — But by a Ring of Fire,” left no doubt about his thinking.
During the five decades of the Cold War, Sweden maintained a strictly neutral position. Bildt said this is no longer the case. The nation today is seriously concerned about what it perceives as a delicate — perhaps deteriorating — international situation.
Bildt argued convincingly that the expectations of the post-Cold War period — that Europe would become peaceful, more cooperative and more tightly integrated — had not been realized. One issue is the ongoing problems in the Middle East. But a more direct threat to stability in Europe is Russian behavior: its interference with and eventual invasion of Ukraine, and its illegal annexation of Crimea, he said.
Bildt described recent Russian actions under President Vladimir Putin as “revisionist, reactionary and perhaps reckless.” This has led to a general perception that Russia is today “an unpredictable country.” This suggests that NATO should return to its “core mission,” and that “hard power is back in business,” he said. This was a most sobering appraisal.
Second, I had the opportunity in early June to represent the National Defense Industrial Association at the 15th U.S.-Sweden Defense Industry Conference, a biennial gathering jointly sponsored by NDIA and its counterpart, the Swedish Security and Defense Industry Association.
Measured in any category, from geographic to economic size, the United States is many times bigger than Sweden. Accordingly, the overall U.S. defense budget is 80 times its size, and its modernization accounts 100 times larger.
However, Sweden and the United States are both known for developing and leveraging technology and applying it to a broad array of endeavors spanning commercial and defense activities. These two countries are recognized worldwide as leaders in technology development and innovative thinking. This has allowed Sweden to historically have a global impact disproportionate to its size.
Despite the worrisome conditions described by Bildt, only a handful of NATO and European Union nations have managed to increase defense spending to the stated goal of 2 percent of GDP. Economic realities, combined with other national pressures and priorities, have been a significant drag on reaching this important objective. Perhaps of greater significance is the absence of a general consensus on how nations across Europe should respond to recent Russian actions and the continuing challenges in the Middle East. Although Bildt offered the view that this is a time for “determination” rather than “patience,” this perspective has yet to coalesce into broader national or regional policies.
But steps can be taken. As conference speakers indicated, the two nations’ defense industries can play useful roles. By collaborating and coordinating on emerging technologies — particularly regarding research and development — the potential exists to substantially magnify the impact of efforts already underway.
Sweden has long been a leader in many areas, including air defense, air-space management, high-performance aircraft, undersea warfare and littoral operations. It has long produced highly capable naval surface combatants and has applied innovative stealth technology to both ships and aircraft.
The United States has also been active in these areas and has greatly advanced the fields of communications and command-and-control, allowing optimal utilization and deployment of such systems. This suggests that collaborative opportunities of considerable breadth are available. Some efforts are ongoing, such as the teaming arrangement between Boeing and Saab on the U.S. Air Force’s T-X jet trainer program.
There are certainly numerous challenges to be addressed. Government-sponsored research and development always raises issues of technology transfer and the control and ownership of intellectual property. The same concerns exist regarding private sector technology development. These are barriers that need to be addressed and, where feasible, policies should be developed allowing the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts. It is clear to me that many defense companies across the United States and Europe — as was strongly suggested by the comments I heard in Stockholm — are ready to move in this direction. I think it is time that they do so, and that governments review existing policies to encourage rather than discourage such efforts.
Bildt’s warnings need to be seriously considered. As uncomfortable as they may sound, they reflect an objective and realistic assessment of the strategic environment we now inhabit. Defense budgets are, and likely will remain, constrained for some time to come. But until they increase and reach levels more reflective of the global situation, we must look for ways to leverage defense efforts in both the operational and technological arenas.
In the technological dimension, widening the search for ways to expand cooperative efforts between U.S. and European companies in the defense industrial sector would certainly be one way of doing so.
Please e-mail your comments to cmcKinley@ndia.org.