Michael Moriatis/U.S. Navy
World News /27 Feb 2019
02.27.19

The Past Glory of Swedish Submarines

It is a tricky time in history for Europe and its defending armies. Caught between a rock and a hard place, Europe is seeing the national defense budgets of all its members dwindle, while the Trump administration has threatened to withdraw from NATO, and Russia has re-built a military force to be reckoned with. To make matters worse, submarine forces have become more central in past decades in the balance of strategic forces. Formerly limited to tracking and hunting ships, they are increasingly used for intelligence and Special Forces deployments, namely for tapping underwater communication cables which have become so vital today. The question is, who will guard the Northern borders, which carry so many vital routes across the Baltic and Northern seas?

Leaving those waters unguarded could provide an open playground to Russia which is increasingly suspected of ramping up its submarine intelligence activities. National Interest reporter, Sebastien Roblin, writes: “Though Sweden is not a member of NATO, Moscow has made clear it might take measures to ‘eliminate the threat,’ as Putin put it if Stockholm decides to join or support the alliance. After a Soviet Whiskey-class submarine ran aground just six miles away from a Swedish naval base in 1981, Swedish ships opened fire on suspected Soviet submarines on several occasions throughout the rest of the 1980s. More recently, Russia has run an exercise simulating a nuclear attack on Sweden and likely infiltrated Swedish territorial waters with at least one submarine in 2014.”

In case of a military escalation, losing control of that area could paralyze Europe’s capacity for defense, by cutting off all communications among all major continental allies, such as Germany, England, and France.

In the past, Sweden has distinguished itself on the submarine front, both in the building of and in operating subs. In 2005, an old-generation diesel Swedish submarine managed to get within firing distance of a U.S. aircraft carrier, a feat never achieved before. National Interest reporter, Sebastien Roblin, wrote: “In 2005, USS Ronald Reagan, a newly constructed $6.2 billion dollar aircraft carrier, sank after being hit by multiple torpedoes. Fortunately, this did not occur in actual combat but was simulated as part of a war game pitting a carrier task force including numerous antisubmarine escorts against HSMS Gotland, a small Swedish diesel-powered submarine displacing 1,600 tons. Yet despite making multiple attacks runs on the Reagan, the Gotland was never detected.”

In fact, no one has ever doubted the quality of Swedish engineering. But it has declined, due to a string of unfortunate partnerships and decades of inactivity.

The two historical champions of submarine-building, Germany and Sweden, are in dire condition. At the turn of the century, the two sub-builders partnered up, in an arrangement which seemed promising at first. Swedish engineering provided novelties such as the Air Independent Propulsion – a compromise between cumbersome diesel-electrics and expensive nukes. Germany, on the other hand, provided the building machine it had back then. Alas, evidence revealed that German partner TKMS (the naval division of ThyssenKrupp) only wanted to run the Swedish competitor out of business and bleed it of its secrets.

David Landes reported in 2013: “According to a German naval manufacturing consultant with ties to TKMS, ThyssenKrupp is actively trying to sabotage Kockums export operations to the advantage of HDW, a strategy he dubbed as ‘TKMS über alles’ and slammed as ‘suicide.’” Due to the damage caused by TKMS, the Swedish shipyards, Kockums, haven’t seen a new contract in decades and have lost most of their know-how, thus reducing their production capacity. The Germans represent no alternative, and should be disregarded for any mid-term defense options: their naval industry is currently collapsing, and the most recent deliveries made to the German Navy (F125 Frigates) were refused and sent back to TKMS, due to quality problems.

Therefore, since it seems that the Germans are only entering a naval industry crisis, and Sweden is finally rid of its troublesome partner, could Sweden represent a glimmer of hope for European defense? After being re-acquired by Saab, the Kockums shipyards are now once again supported by Stockholm, which seems resolved to reconstruct its industrial capacity regardless of how long it takes. Because Sweden is not a member of NATO, it will remain immune to pressure from the U.S. and can focus on continental defense. In the blueprint department, the Swedes have generated advanced ideas, such as the Stirling engine (which generates ultra-quiet power to subs). National Interest reporter, Sebastien Roblin, adds: “the two-hundred-foot-long Swedish Gotland-class submarines, introduced in 1996, were the first to employ an Air Independent Propulsion (AIP) system—in this case, the Stirling engine. A Stirling engine charges the submarine’s seventy-five-kilowatt battery using liquid oxygen.” But without support from its own government, and possibly help from Europe (which is losing NATO and U.S. support), the Swedish submarine industry could disappear as early as 2025 or 2030.

The Swedes are in trouble, there’s no denying it. Another few years without contracts will presumably be fatal to Kockums, and any contract bagged solo in the next few years may well be plagued with difficulties in the implementation of said contract, due to a recent loss of know-how. Finally, any partnership with TKMS will run a high risk of an additional phase of “partner-fleecing.” But everyone should remember what is at stake: the long-lasting safeguarding of Europe’s Northern borders.

If you're interested in writing for International Policy Digest - please send us an email via submissions@intpolicydigest.org