13 January 2022

New study investigates how international missions affect national defence

By taking part in international military operations, Sweden contributes to dealing with pressing security crises. But it also gives the Swedish Armed Forces valuable experience and leads to increased interoperability – the ability to collaborate with others in operations and missions. This is shown by a new study from FOI. Such international efforts are thus important, even when Sweden’s focus is once again on its national defence capability. However, it is important to carefully consider why, with what, and with whom the Armed Forces should contribute to international missions, the authors say.

Swedish soldiers

In the study the authors have conducted in-depth interviews with a number of officers with extensive experience of international military operations. Photo: Bezav Mahmod/Swedish Armed Forces.

In the study, Building interoperability with partners – Swedish lessons from international military missions, the authors have conducted in-depth interviews with a number of officers with extensive experience of international military operations. Deputy Research Director Eva Hagström Frisell and Operations Analyst Björn Nykvist examine how participation in international military missions affects Sweden’s national defence, especially regarding the ability of the Swedish Armed Forces to cooperate with the countries it acts with to build national security.

“Building interoperability with partners makes it easier if you choose to protect the country together with others in the future. Interoperability is about technical possibilities and staff procedures, making sure that everything works on the human level. The latter, for example, is about understanding an order in the same way, sharing similar values and having a cultural understanding,” Björn Nykvist explains.

The study takes its departure in how Swedish defence policy has fluctuated sharply since the end of the Cold War. From a focus on a strong national defence capability to an emphasis on contributing to military efforts in conflicts in various parts of the world, such as the Western Balkans, Afghanistan and Mali, to now refocus on national defence.

“Since the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 and perhaps even more the events in Ukraine in 2014, Swedish national defence has had the highest priority. At the same time, Sweden is not alone in this. Sweden’s defence policy today rest on building security together with others, and the need for international efforts remains,” says Eva Hagström Frisell.

According to the experienced officers interviewed, it is a great advantage to be able to test capabilities and skills in real situations, such as in international operations.

“The interviewees describe it as a validation of structures and capabilities, a valuable test that everything works when you are exposed to real risks,” says Björn Nykvist.

The authors point out that the capability to cooperate is of course also built through exercises.

“In some ways, it may be more appropriate to use exercises, for example with Finland, which is one of our closest partners, to build interoperability. If, on the other hand, the Swedish Armed Forces wants to have further opportunities to practice cooperation with other countries, in addition to our closest partners, such as the Netherlands, Germany and France, then this can also be done through international missions. We consider that exercises and international missions complement each other,” says Eva Hagström Frisell.

You cannot choose either or

Do the authors see any conflict between participating in international missions and focusing on national defence?

“Those we interviewed were very careful to point out that it is the political objective that steers. In our study, we want to emphasise that it is not possible to choose either or. Sweden needs to be involved and contribute to international security to show solidarity with others,” says Eva Hagström Frisell.

The authors’ conclusion is that there are ways of designing Sweden’s international missions that result in their having less negative impact on national defence. For example, long missions with several rotations are stressful, which means that the Swedish Armed Forces is occupied for a long time in international missions, as in Afghanistan and Mali.

“Shorter missions that require less resources can also be very significant,” says Eva Hagström Frisell.

Björn Nykvist points out that it is sometimes also possible to find synergies: “For example that personnel come from one country, while ships come from another.”

The authors are interested in the possibility of a future study that examines how other countries who Sweden wants to cooperate with view the nexus between international missions and national defence. When it comes to building interoperability, another possibility the authors see is to study what international missions can provide that exercises with other countries cannot.