Non-Aggressive Defence in Sweden? An Assessment of ‘Total Defence’

Alfie Hoar, a Blumenfeld Junior Fellow at Science for Peace, is completing his Masters in Physics and Philosophy at Oxford University.



Arild Vågen, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


In light of the recent events in Ukraine, defence policy has again become a central interest for governments across the Western world. A lot of focus is given to military might when it comes to defence, but there are other methods for protecting one’s country. Sweden’s model of ‘total defence’ is one that, despite its notoriety, hasn’t garnered a lot of attention. Yet, the model offers a way of increasing the resiliency of a country so that, even if a country is greatly out-gunned or out-numbered, its infrastructure and institutions can survive. This piece will briefly discuss the nature of the Swedish model, and how it developed and grew over the past eight decades.


What is Swedish ‘total defence’?


“[The] boundaries between the military and the civil, as well as between theatres of war and the previously preserved homeland, have to a large extent been erased. War has become total.” (Civil Defence Committee Report 1944)


In the early 1940s Europe found itself gripped in the midst of the Second World War, a war that had seen unprecedented destruction. Sweden was surrounded by the Nazi forces, but had remained neutral throughout the war. Being in such a position, the Swedish government recognised the need to update its defence policy to protect its neutrality throughout the remainder of this war and future wars. To achieve this, the government appointed a committee to investigate a new model of defence which started to be implemented in 1944.[1]


The model of total defence in Sweden is a combination of four key strands: military, economic, psychological, and civil. Military defence contains the preparation and strength of the army, the navy, and the air force. Economic defence considers the storage of resources such as food and medicine, in order to make the population more resilient in the event of supply chain collapse. Psychological defence involves anti-misinformation campaigns along the lines of what we’ve seen in Ukraine with the Ukrainian governments actively dismissing Russian propaganda targeted at Ukrainian citizens. Last, but certainly not least, is civil defence. This component requires the population to be involved and prepared with plans of action in the event of an invasion or war.

It would be wrong to look at this model of defence as ‘anti-militaristic’; the military is a key component to such a model. Indeed, it was the weakening of the 1930s anti-military sentiment in Sweden during World War Two that contributed to this model being adopted. However, it is reasonable to see this model as atypically ‘anti-aggression’, and this is best seen in the civil defence component. A key purpose of this is to make the country so difficult to successfully conquer that invaders are deterred, without reliance on threats of retaliative fire or destruction.

From its beginning, Swedish total defence model involved all of society in some manner. In 1944 the Civil Defence Act was passed by Parliament, which enjoined every civilian between aged 16 and 65 years old, every household, and private property to fulfil a specific function in the defence and fortification of Sweden.[2] The Act also saw the military being bolstered, with all abled-bodied males between 18 and 47 years old subject to conscription. The private sector was involved, with the Institute for Higher Total Defence Education established in 1952, with the aim of educating the social elite in the operation of total defence.[3]


Such society-wide involvement has changed in nature over the decades, but it can still be seen in Swedish defence policy today. Today, all Swedes between the ages of 16 and 70 are required to be involved in total defence, which is broken down into three categories: military service, emergency service, general compulsory national service.[4] Military service was brought back in 2018 after tensions in the Baltic states, with all 18-year-olds, both male and female, required to register for potential conscription.[5] Emergency service is an alternative for conscientious objectors. It ensures the basic functions of society continue in time of crisis. General compulsory national service only applies in times of crisis, ensuring some citizens continue vital technical and bureaucratic work. All these strands come together to work towards the traditional goal of total defence.


How Swedish total defence has changed


The geopolitical environment has changed substantially throughout the late 20th and early 21st century, and Swedish total defence has changed in reaction to this. The model has always involved the four components of military, economic, psychological, and civil preparedness, but the nature of these and how they interact has evolved over the decades.

The initial set up of the Swedish total defence model was a reaction to the devastation of the Second World War, and the subsequent Cold War meant that risk of all-out war had very much remained. The Swedish Civil Defence Board was established in 1944, and oversaw training exercise involving civilians and military personnel, as well as coordinating the construction on bunkers throughout Sweden.[6] This early period also saw large investment into Sweden’s military capabilities, with over 50% of public research funds being spent on military research. Sweden at this time had a nuclear programme capable of producing nuclear weapons and the fourth largest air force in the world.[7]


By the 1960s, defence had become integrated with the everyday workings of society. It had become part of the functioning of government, administrations, business, communications etc. Larsson compares defence in this period to sustainability today; both ideas come up in nearly all aspects of planning and operations in their respective periods. However, defence was changing. The Swedish government had recognised that shelters built up to that point weren’t sufficient for the nuclear climate that had developed by the 1960s. ‘Full protection shelters’ started to be developed, which fitted between 1,000 to 2,000 individuals along with food and resources. However, fully protecting citizens in nuclear targetable urban centres was abandoned, and a focus on evacuation was instead adopted. Still, by the early 1970s Sweden had shelter places for over half of the population, far more than most countries at that time.[8]


The 1970s and 80s saw successive cutbacks of the military defence, and in the latter days of the Cold War the government started to recognise that invasion wasn’t the most prominent threat facing the country. The Swedish Emergency Management Agency was established to research the threats Sweden was facing, and by the mid-1990s it was recognised that instances of natural disasters and terrorism were greater threats to the population than invasion. The civil defence component saw the population being informed of what to do in the event of crises, with businesses and individuals having a part to play to help protect their community. Sweden also dropped its non-alignment policy, having joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace, although it focused primarily on disaster response planning rather than military-to-military training, again showing more focus on the civil component over the militaristic.[9]


There has been a recent shift back to the Cold War style total defence, however, largely in response to growing unrest in Ukraine over the past decade. The Swedish government announced an increase in military spending of €8.9 billion over the 2021-25 period. This is paired with a €1.18 billion spent on civil defence over the same period.[10] In this new era of geopolitical instability across Europe, Sweden is moving away from neutrality, since it has applied to join NATO and aligned itself with the other Western countries in sanctioning Russia, yet the policy of non-aggressive defence can still be seen.


What can be learnt from Swedish Total Defence?


As mentioned previously, the Swedish total defence model doesn’t offer a non-militaristic method of defending one’s country. However, the emphasis on the resilience and the fortification of society means that this model can be understood as a non-aggressive defence policy. Whilst other countries focused primarily on building up military might as a deterrence, the Swedes put large amounts of effort into making sure their country was very difficult to conquer through logistics and planning. Such efforts have also produced a system which is flexible with Sweden’s defence logistics changing as different threats are perceived, all whilst keeping the same key components.


Evidently, this isn’t seen in Sweden as a replacement for military defence, as this component has remained throughout the past century. Nonetheless, by not focusing wholly on destructive power, the Swedish model could offer a way to deter aggression and thus reduce the chances of catastrophic escalation to war.

[1] Swedish total defence and the emergence of societal security, Sebastian Larsson [2] Arms Industry and Civil Defence. The Experience of War in Swedish post-war Society, Niklas Stenlås [3] Swedish total defence and the emergence of societal security, Sebastian Larsson [4] Total Defence Service, krisinformation.se, https://www.krisinformation.se/en/hazards-and-risks/hojd-beredskap-och-krig/total-defence-service [5] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-39140100 [6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Swedish_Civil_Defence_Board [7] Arms Industry and Civil Defence. The Experience of War in Swedish post-war Society, Niklas Stenlås [8] Arms Industry and Civil Defence. The Experience of War in Swedish post-war Society, Niklas Stenlås [9] Swedish total defence and the emergence of societal security, Sebastian Larsson [10] Objectives for Swedish total defence 2021–2025, https://www.government.se/government-policy/defence/objectives-for-swedish-total-defence-2021-2025---government-bill-totalforsvaret-20212025/

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