Sweden is transforming its defence stance and wants to be capable of joining future coalition deployments. But there are challenges to operating with NATO forces

From 1 January 2004, Sweden plans to have the ability to deploy military aircraft on international coalition operations. The move marks a major change in the country's traditionally neutral defence posture. The last time it deployed fighters was in the early 1960s, when Saab J29 Tunnans were operated in the Congo to support United Nations initiatives.

Today, F17 Wing's 172 Sqn is working up to act as Sweden's rapid-reaction air component. It will be able to deploy eight Saab JAS39A Gripen single-seat, multirole fighters for "limited reconnaissance" and protection of aircraft flying such missions, says 172 Sqn commanding officer Lt Col Rickard Nyström.

He says the missions will be "limited reconnaissance" because the JAS39A does not now have a reconnaissance pod, although it plans to have a new one in service by 2006. By then, the squadron is due to be operating the JAS39C, which has been configured with future international operations in mind. The JAS39C, which is in Swedish air force test and evaluation, has colour displays, NATO-compatible IFF identification systems, an air-to-air refuelling capability and imperial-unit instrumentation.

"Today's Gripen is not really made for the mission, but the JAS39C is," says Nyström. The JAS39A, for instance, does not have an IFF, relying on its datalink to identify friend from foe. Using imperial units for height and airspeed brings the Swedish air force in line with most of the rest of the world.

Nyström says 2004 and 2005 will be used to gain experience before the JAS39C is available. "We would like to go straight to 2006, as then we could provide the full system, but this plan gives the opportunity to build up to 2006," he adds.

Based at Ronneby in southern Sweden, F17 Wing comprises two units - 171 Sqn is converting to the Gripen, a process 172 Sqn's 14 pilots completed in March.

The unit will be able to deploy to a base under a "lead nation", although Nyström acknowledges this is a lesser capability than some NATO countries'.

If the Swedish government agrees to a deployment request, the unit will conduct a "reconnaissance" of the operating site within 15 days and deploy at 30 days. After 60 days, control of the squadron will be handed to the lead nation.

Operational support

As well as its pilots, 172 Sqn will deploy with operational support - intelligence, operations, electronic warfare, air traffic control and weather personnel - and a national liaison team at the relevant CAOC operational command centre, with maintenance and logistics personnel.

"We started planning [to take on the role] last summer and we've begun preparations this year," he adds.

Although four Saab AJS37 Viggens with Lulea-based F21s are intended to form a deployable force, 172 Sqn does not have a formal plan to become such a unit. "There is no file as this is a new thing - we have a good guess of what's needed," says Nyström. As a result, Nyström, as 172 Sqn's commanding officer, spends significant time with his commanders working on the way ahead.

Sweden is moving away from being a neutral country, isolated from the big Cold War pacts when rules of engagement (RoE) were such that anything approaching the country's borders in times of tension could be treated as hostile, to one working with other countries in very different environments, says Nyström. "We will have RoEs and we will have to operate differently," he says. "Tactics, the way we think and airmanship will not change, but the way we operate will."

Nyström is aware that his unit could be more of a hindrance than a help. "We don't want to be a show-stopper," he says. As a result, the unit's pilots have learned NATO-standard combat search-and-rescue and other alliance procedures. They are also using English, rather than Swedish, in radio communications. "Getting used to the 'brevity words' and abbreviations is something that requires training." This task is made slightly easier because many air force words are already English, with no Swedish equivalent, says Nyström.

"We are using every minute to become mission-ready," he adds. The squadron is doing a lot of "combined air operations" and self-defence training. Saab Sk60 advanced trainers are available at Ronneby to provide a dissimilar type to operate with and against. Some of 172 Sqn's pilots are current on the Sk60 as well as the Gripen, says Nyström.

He acknowledges Sweden faces challenges. Defence cuts in recent years have seen air force wings close and for the last year or two, pilots have averaged 70-80h flying rather than the 120h intended by the air force. The conversion of most units from the Viggen and Saab J35 Draken to the JAS39 has also limited the amount of operational training, says Nyström. However, both issues are receding. Today, 172 Sqn is seen as a key unit and has priority for spares to ensure it meets its requirement for each pilot to fly 120h. The apron area at Ronneby is also to be extended to provide room for both F17 units to operate at the same time.

Sweden has little experience of peace support and wartime missions, "which makes me humble and anxious to listen and learn from others", says Nyström. "This year we are concentrating on learning." Visiting NATO members is part of this process, he adds. "We have a good relationship with Norway and are trying to get established with the UK and Germany."

On the plus side, says Nyström, Sweden is committed to being able to participate in international operations. "We have got everybody's agreement that this is the way to go." He also notes that the differences - cultural, technical and airmanship - between the Swedish air force and its NATO compatriots are not large. The unit is participating several international exercises, including one in Bulgaria and another in Hungary. Next year the squadron hopes to participate in Friesian Flag in the Netherlands and the Nordic air meet.

Unit evaluation

Nyström says the Swedish air force plans to evaluate the unit in the late third quarter/early fourth quarter this year: "I hope a NATO team evaluates us next year so we can see if we are on the right lines. We could learn a lot," he says.

The squadron will be able to fly a range of defensive and offensive counter air missions, although it will have to abandon some traditional Swedish practices. The JAS39A does not have an IFF interrogator because Sweden has a national command and control network, into which the Gripen is linked by a sophisticated datalink. "The Swedish air force relies on datalink, so for training at 172 Sqn we have shut it down to learn the old way," says Nyström. "It does mean losing some flexibility."

Rotation of pilots is an issue that will be eased by increasing the number of units and pilots trained to operate outside Sweden. Rotation is important because pilots lose skills on operations where they have restricted missions, so they need to return to Sweden to maintain skills currency. Personnel rotation issues would be eased if 172 Sqn pilot numbers were increased to 20, says Nyström, as would having more units ready for overseas commitments. "I believe in future, all Swedish squadrons will be able to deploy for these operations."

Source: Flight International