- Sweden has applied to join NATO, and the alliance has largely welcomed its potential addition.
- NATO officials are especially interested in Sweden’s air force, which has dozens of advanced jets.
- But Swedish pilots are frustrated with policy changes, and many are considering leaving service.
Even as Sweden prepares to join NATO, Sweden’s air force has a problem. Its most experienced fighter pilots are quitting.
“In the fall, around half of the Swedish Armed Forces’ fighter pilots may take leave or resign altogether,” Swedish broadcaster SVT reported in July.
The problem is changes to the retirement system, according to the trade union representing the pilots.
“In the past, pilots have been able to retire at the age of 55,” Jesper Tengroth, spokesman for the Swedish Association of Military Officers, told Insider. “But for those born in 1988 or later, the retirement age was raised a few years ago to 67, without any compensation.”
Even Swedish leaders admit there is a problem. “Overnight, they all had their retirement age raised at once,” said Maj. Gen. Carl-Johan Edström, chief of the Swedish Air Force. “The fact that a number of pilots are applying for leave is almost 100% linked to the new pension agreement.”
Many of those pilots feel betrayed. “There are a lot of people my age who have been trained and employed under certain premises which have since been removed,” one pilot told SVT.
Not surprisingly, media in Russia — which is unhappy with formerly nonaligned Sweden joining NATO — is playing up the story. “In recent years, the Swedish Armed Forces have been struggling to recruit new pilots and retain existing staff,” state-controlled outlet Sputnik News said.
There are other reasons for the pilot exodus, Jan Kallberg, a non-resident senior fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis, told Insider.
“I think this has been ongoing for a long time regarding the pilots,” said Kallberg, himself a former Swedish army officer. “I think it’s the tip of the iceberg. They have felt mistreated for generations.”
One issue is relatively low pay compared to the civilian sector, including commercial airlines that are hungry for pilots and willing to pay high salaries.
Another is post-Cold War defense cuts that slashed the number of flying slots in the air force. “That means that instead of leaving as a pilot at 55, they’re now stuck in a defense desk job” for years until they eligible to retire, Kallberg said. Sweden’s government intends to ramp up defense spending in the coming years but is still debating how to do so.
Unlike the US military, whose personnel receive a housing allowance, Swedish pilots pay for their own housing. Sweden’s entry into NATO could result in some mothballed airbases being reactivated, which in turn would require pilots to pay for new accommodations when they transfer to the new facilities.
Ironically, the question most likely to worry NATO leaders – how will a pilot shortage affect Sweden’s military capability – may actually be the least difficult. Sweden has a potent air force, core of which is six squadrons comprising 96 JAS 39 C/D Gripen fighters.
However, Sweden’s main contribution to NATO isn’t jet fighters but geography, argues Kallberg. “Sweden gives operational depth in the high north. NATO will be able to operate air wings from multiple Swedish airfields.”
Previously, NATO had to rely on a few bases on the Norwegian coast to project power into the Barents Sea, which also borders sensitive military bases in northern Russia.
Sweden is not only a larger nation with more strategic depth than Norway, but it also offers access to both the Barents and the Baltic seas, including bases on Baltic islands that could enable NATO to counter Russian naval and air power in the vital Baltic region.
“If you want to conduct deterrence — or support a fight — in the Baltic, Sweden is a natural staging area,” Kallberg said.
Kallberg does see problems in the Swedish military that need to be fixed. While Sweden has a long tradition of contributing troops to UN peacekeeping missions, its army — which uses conscripted troops — is unaccustomed to operating in larger formations for the sort of big-unit combat that might characterize a NATO-Russia war.
But Sweden is serious about meeting its NATO commitments, Kallberg said. “They know they will have to come up with the troops and assets.”
Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy Magazine and other publications. He holds a master’s in political science. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn.