The Swedish Air Force prepares for the next 20 years

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As part of a military strategic analysis study up to 2045, the Swedish Air Force (Flygvapnet) designed its roadmap for the next two decades, which will guide its expansion and modernization.

The study, conducted for the entire Swedish Armed Forces, seeks to guide decisions on defense policy towards 2045. It echoes the war in Ukraine and Sweden’s future membership in the NATO structure, which marks a turning point for the country after decades of strategic neutrality.

As a NATO ally, the study presupposes an increase in the threshold for armed Russian attacks against Sweden, while changing the threat landscape and increasing the risk of military activities on the country’s borders.

The outcome of the war in Ukraine is unknown and the regional and global consequences are difficult to predict. War means that parts of Russia’s military capability will be weakened, at least temporarily, but it would also increase instability in the country, so its future is uncertain. It also takes into consideration the global challenge posed by China to American and Western hegemony, as well as the rise of other regional powers that will make the global scene more complex.

This comprehensive study also describes the emergence of new technologies, climate change, demographics, geopolitical trends and the development of new operating environments.

Swedish Air Force

The study is long, complex and interesting, but let us focus on how the Flygvapnet plans to meet the expected challenges for the coming decades.

The main tasks of the Swedish Air Force are described as air defense through airspace control, including air and space situational awareness, airlift, intelligence operations and attack on ground and naval units.

As part of the new Swedish geostrategic scenario, the study foresees the need to be able to perform long-range offensive and defensive missions inside enemy territory. This represents a novelty for an Air Force that historically focused on territorial defense.

As part of this new strategy, transport and rapid reaction capabilities will be prioritized. It will seek to create a flexible and dynamic structure that allows for integrated operations by fighter aircraft and intelligence assets, along with special operations forces deployed from airplanes and helicopters.

For force protection, all air defense assets will be integrated into a centralized command and control structure. The classic Swedish strategy of dispersed operations will continue to be relied upon and the number of air bases will be increased.

Organizational evolution forecast

The Swedish Air Force is looking to expand existing capabilities and introduce new ones. Equipment is being modernized and new equipment systems are being acquired. New units are to be created, which will expand the Flygvapnet’s power. To this end, early investments will be made in personnel and infrastructure.

Capabilities will be strengthened by implementing the following changes:
  • Development of tactical air command and control capability
  • Expansion from six to eight fighter squadrons
  • Organization of eight combat divisions
  • Organize eight light base defense battalions, with dynamic deployment capability
  • Organization of a sensor battalion, including the deployment of four mobile sensor units
  • Develop the management and operation of the sensor chain
  • Organize two combat command centers with associated transportable equipment
  • Organize a helicopter wing with four helicopter squadrons including basic support capability for ground, maritime, air and special forces operations
  • Organize a tactical transport aviation squadron and a combined government and special aviation squadron
  • Organize an air combat center for training and development
  • Organize an AI-supported intelligence analysis unit

Material dimension

To cope with the Swedish Air Force’s modernization and expansion plans, certain platforms are to be upgraded and new weapon systems are to be procured.

The following items are mentioned in the report:
  • JAS-39C/D Gripen fighters will be upgraded and their integration with the Gripen E fighters will be strengthened, which will serve together for the next 10 years
  • Acquisition of medium- and long-range precision weaponry
  • Procurement of aircraft for Special Forces deployment
  • Additional GlobalEye airborne early warning and control aircraft (AEW&C) will be purchased
  • Acquisition of a new maritime-capable helicopter system (likely MH-60R Romeo Seahawks)
  • Procurement of C-130J Super Hercules transport aircraft (unclear if these are new units, or surplus like those of the RAF)
  • Development of sensor chain mobility for active and passive sensor systems
  • Development of unmanned aerial surveillance and combat systems
  • Development of robust interoperable Air Force management with tactical data links and encrypted connectivity (something the Swedes were always at the forefront of)

Space defense

Following the trends of modern warfare, the Swedish Armed Forces will also extensively develop their space capabilities, reaching a new operational domain.

Sweden will develop a Space Command with the mission to improve the reconnaissance, communications, command and control, positioning and navigation capabilities of the Swedish Armed Forces, which will especially facilitate long-range operations.

Sweden will develop its own satellite launch capability. The study states that the country’s geographical location puts it in a very good position to launch and operate satellites in low altitude polar orbits, providing a global view, something to which several states aspire.

In order to carry out these objectives, the following actions would be carried out:
  • A start will be made by organizing the basic capabilities to produce space situational awareness
  • A space surveillance cell will be created for the production of space situational awareness.
  • A space command will be organized with a reconnaissance analysis unit and intelligence data analysis.
  • Satellite launch capability will be installed at the Esrange space center (short for European Space RANGE)
  • Acquisition of space situational awareness systems
  • Acquisition of launchers for the launch of satellites
  • Acquisition of satellites, giving priority to reconnaissance capabilities, with means to perform signals intelligence, satellites with synthetic aperture radar, and others with electro-optical reconnaissance equipment
  • Acquisition of satellite data analysis and distribution systems

Beyond Gripen

The study is indeed very comprehensive and addresses every conceivable topic within the spectrum of current and expected hybrid and multi-domain warfare, such as cyber defense, sociology, intelligence, social networks, international politics, communications, etc. but curiously there is no specific mention of the future of Swedish combat aviation beyond the Gripen.

Initially, Sweden had participated together with Italy and the UK in the FCAS/Tempest next-generation air combat system project, which sought to develop a sixth-generation fighter aircraft, along with other complementary assets. However, Sweden later withdrew from the group and the Tempest project was eventually merged with the Japanese F-X program into the Global Combat Air Programme (GCAP).

But in mid-year, Saab received an order from the Swedish Defense Materiel Administration (FMV) concerning the development of future fighter aircraft. The contract includes studies on future combat air capabilities. The study is preparatory in nature and is intended to extend the work on how future combat air capabilities can be developed and realized.

The latter could indicate that Sweden would continue its tradition of developing its own combat aircraft, designed specifically for its tactical requirements and particular operational doctrine. However, it is questionable whether they could undertake such a costly venture alone.

However, there is a passage in the publication that speaks of the Swedish Air Force having «leeway in the choice of future combat air systems,» which would open the door to the possibility that Sweden could end up replacing its Gripen C/Ds, in 10 years or less, with a foreign fighter.

Today, the most obvious option for a possible acquisition would be the Lockheed Martin F-35, the only fifth-generation fighter available on the market today (and which in 10 years will be a much more mature product), which is also the model of choice for the Air Forces of all of Sweden’s neighbors, and is becoming the de facto European fighter.

Another possibility, somewhat more distant, would be for Sweden to become involved in South Korea’s KF-21 Boramae program, which shares powerplant with the Gripen E and which Poland is considering acquiring in the future, following the selection of the KAI FA-50 light fighter.

Be that as it may, Sweden has to decide what form its future fighter aviation will take beyond the Gripen, and while the horizon today was set at 2045, the time to choose a replacement for the C/D models is considerably shorter.


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