Sweden returns draft amid security worries and soldier shortage

STOCKHOLM (Reuters) - Sweden is to reintroduce military conscription next year due to difficulties filling the ranks on a voluntary basis at a time of increased security concerns, the defense minister said on Thursday.

Swedish military patrol outside Visby, island of Gotland, Sweden September 14, 2016. TT News Agency/Soren Andersson/ via REUTERS.

Non-aligned Sweden ended compulsory military service in 2010 but military activity in the Baltic region has increased since then, prompting Sweden to step up its military preparedness.

The reintroduction of the draft will cover men and women born in 1999 or later, though only a small minority will be selected to serve.

“We have a Russian annexation of Crimea, we have the aggression in Ukraine, we have more exercise activities in our neighborhood. So we have decided to build a stronger national defense,” Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist told Reuters.

“The decision to activate conscription is part of that.”

Military service was the norm for young Swedish men during the Cold War but conscription was gradually watered down after the collapse of the Soviet Union as war in the region looked increasingly unlikely.

But a resurgent Russia and tensions over the conflict in Ukraine have left politicians on both sides of the aisle looking to boost military capability and address the lack of talent keen on making a career as a professional soldier.

Signs of the lack of military preparedness have cropped up in recent years, as when Russian warplanes carrying out a mock bombing run on Sweden in 2013 caught air defense napping.

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The government’s decision entails the call-up of 4,000 men and women for military training per year in 2018 and 2019 and Hultqvist said motivation would be an important factor when selecting the recruits for service.

Sofia Hultgren, who turns 17 later this year and thus could be drafted in coming years, said many young Swedes viewed lengthy careers as military professionals as something odd and old-fashioned.

“I think many see it as something lame, something your father did, when there are so much other fun things to do,” Hultgren, a student, told Reuters.

Still, she welcomed the reintroduction of military service and said she would consider such training even if she did not want to make it a career.

“I think this can give a feeling of comfort. Conscription strengthens our defense when we see so much ugliness in the world,” she said.

A government investigation last year found that with unemployment near zero among the talented youngsters the armed forces targets, only about 2,500 were recruited annually while the military needed 4,000.

The wages for professional soldiers run well below the national average for the age group, providing little monetary incentive, while the pool of potential recruits, primarily former conscripts from before 2010, has steadily shrunk.

“This buffer is now exhausted and that leaves great challenges in recruiting,” said Johan Osterberg, a researcher in staffing at the Swedish Defense University.

Swedish military expenditure has fallen from 2.5 percent of GDP in 1991, around the time the Soviet Union collapsed, to 1.1 percent of GDP in 2015, data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) showed.

Sweden, which is not a NATO member, has since increased spending and reassigned troops to the Baltic Sea island of Gotland besides urging local governments to step up contingency planning for a future war.

Additional reporting by Johan Sennero; writing by Niklas Pollard and Daniel Dickson, Editing by Angus MacSwan and Toby Davis