Maj. Gen. Mats Helgesson, SweAF, the commander of the Swedish Air Force, discusses the nearly 50 percent defense spending increase approved recently by Sweden’s government, improving warfighting skills and readiness, and cooperating with the UK on developing a replacement for the Gripen fighter with Defense & Aerospace Report Editor Vago Muradian at the DSEI conference and tradeshow in London. Our coverage is sponsored by L3Harris and Leonardo DRS and in partnership with Clarion Events — DSEI’s organizer — and working with the UK Department of International Trade’s Defence & Security Organisation to bring our audience the best in British defense.
Vago Muradian: Welcome to the Defense and Aerospace Report. I’m Vago Muradian here at the Excel Center in London where we’re covering DSEI, one of the world’s truly great trade shows.
Our coverage here is sponsored by L3Harris, Leonardo DRS. And we’re covering this event in partnership with Clarion Events, that put on this great show along with many other ones around the world. And we’re working with the UK Department of International Trade, Defence and Security Organization to bring you the very best of British defense.
We’re starting out with the very best from Swedish Defense with Major General Mats Helgesson who’s the Chief of the Swedish Air Force, and I have to say one of the happiest people here because of the big budget increase that was announced last week, and I should only say probably the only other Air Chief I know who’s also Ranger qualified in the United States.
Sir, talk to us a little bit about the budget increase and what it specifically means for the Swedish Air Force.
Major General Mats Helgesson: Ten days ago our Parliament agreed upon how to finance the White Book that was issued earlier this year in May. And from my perspective in the Air Force, it means, it’s one example that I will keep my current versions of the Charlie Delta Gripens and at the same time introduce the Echoes, the new generation. That will keep a larger fleet and more aircraft. That’s a good example and it’s a great difference for us for our air defense.
Mr. Muradian: Just to let the audience know, I mean it’s a very sizeable defense increase, 45 percent over the existing plan in the next budget law process, and that’s over a ten-year period from a planning perspective.
Talk to us about improving readiness. You were of a generation that lived off of that massive investment the Swedish Air Force had. I think a lot of people don’t recognize that throughout the Cold War the Swedish Air Force was both one of the most advanced but also one of the biggest air forces in the world. The force has shrunk. Not as much focus on high intensity, anti-access operations, which is the kind of thing Sweden always prided itself on. Talk to us about that readiness curve you’ve been on. You and I talked about your plan several years ago in Linkoping when we spoke. Talk to us about where you are on that plan of rebuilding that high end capability you’re seeking.
Maj. Gen. Helgesson: I think we’re on a good way. I mean we have had really good exercises and good training for our crews and our entire Air Force. For instance, the Air Force exercise with our Finnish friends, that we have done operations for the first basis with deeply integrated air defense assets. So we are well into that process. I’m really happy where we are.
But of course we need to train more and we need to have a lot more training for larger units in combination.
Mr. Muradian: Where are you on, obviously you’re bringing a lot of remote bases, road base operations which Sweden always prided itself on. But one of the other things was increasing spare parts stores, for example. Increasing weapons stores. New generation of weapons. Latest version of the RB-15, for example. Where are you in that process of rebuilding the weapons inventories, getting the logistical and support skills where they need to be?
Maj. Gen. Helgesson: We have a plan for the upcoming five to seven years to fill the stores again, to make sure that we have all the repair parts, all the weapons and ammunition that we need. And we will also do it in a way that we more or less did in the Cold War. We will have disbursed storehouses and spread out, to be more robust and more resilient.
Mr. Muradian: Let’s talk a little bit about electronic warfare. The electromagnetic spectrum was something that Sweden’s always prided itself on in being one of the world’s most highly capable nations on that. Your presentation here was based on it. And add the anti-access area denial part of it. Everybody is talking about A2AD as if it’s a new thing, whereas there are some countries that have lived with this for quite a long time. Andreas Krause, the Chief of the Germany Navy, Vice Admiral, was a submariner in the ‘80s. He said the Baltic was an anti-access area denial area. You know, get over it. It’s something we’re familiar with.
Talk to us about electronic warfare and talk to us about a Swedish perspective on how to think about A2AD bubbles.
Maj. Gen. Helgesson: I think EW is something that you need to be — it’s a part of the DNA of fighter tactics or air defense tactics or how we use our assets. So EW isn’t something special. It’s a part of everything. It’s like the air frame. It must be there, otherwise you can’t do combat. And from my perspective, we operate inside the bubble every day. I mean we do the training over the Baltic, and that is really, really close to those assets. So for us it’s not getting into the bubble, it’s more or less surviving in the bubble.
Mr. Muradian: And how do you think about, how would you characterize the behavior of the Russians? Russia has been able to dial it up, dial it back down. Has gotten very provocative, both from an internal Swedish perspective to put disinformation out. Sweden was one of the first countries that was talking about sophisticated Russian disinformation tactics that have now been pioneered and used elsewhere in the world. While at the same time having to deal with some Russian provocation. How would you characterize Russian behavior over the Baltic from an air perspective now?
Maj. Gen. Helgesson: It’s not in the same amount of activity that we saw during the Cold War. It is not. But if you go back ten years, it’s a significant increase. So we see a lot more Russian aircraft — fighters, bombers, SIGINT aircraft — flying over the Baltic. And once in a while we see strange behavior. You see flying without transponders, we see little too close passes and stuff like that. Sometimes it’s even unprofessional. So we have seen a change, but where now it seems the last three years on a previous stable level.
Mr. Muradian: And two other questions. Sweden is proudly neutral, but still a proud member of the European Union, while at the same time having a very close and growing strategic partnership with the United States. Talk to us about both of those elements and how you’re working both with European nations, obviously an increasingly intimate relationship with everybody in the Baltics with exchange officers, for example, from Finland and other nations in Sweden now. Very open channels, directly with Norway as well increasingly. Walk us through the strategic picture of closer cooperation within Europe but also closer cooperation with NATO as well as the United States.
Maj. Gen. Helgesson: First of all since 1995 when we joined the European Union, we are not neutral anymore. So we are non-military aligned. We are not part of a military alliance, but we have a lot of other alliances. EU, Nordic Cooperation in different areas, a lot of bilateral activities with the United States. So we are not neutral, but we have a lot of different agreements, and agreements with different countries and organizations.
Mr. Muradian: Speaking about acquisition programs, you were at the Royal International Air Tattoo as were we for the big announcement that Sweden was joining the United Kingdom on its new program to develop a future combat air system. Obviously not part of the Tempest program necessarily, which is the demonstrator, but the broader program in terms of thinking about the future.
As a nation that is now bringing the E version of the Gripen, the Super Gripen, if you will, into service at this point, how are you thinking, what are the capabilities from a Swedish perspective, you want out of a next generation platform? Because it’s clear that, for example, the Brits are talking about a stealthy platform or a significantly lower observable platform. What as the Swedish Air Chief at this important time, are the capabilities you need after Gripen which is what this airplane is going to be?
Maj. Gen. Helgesson: That’s exactly what we are investigating right now with the British to find areas where we could cooperate and industry could cooperate, and our academia could cooperate. So exactly what kind of capabilities we will need in the ‘50s and ‘60s, I’m not sure about that, but I will have smart people thinking about this for a long time. And you need a long time to make sure you design your air defense in a good way.
Mr. Muradian: You just mentioned air defense, which takes me to the question that historically Sweden has done air defense with a very, very strong Air Force being on that front edge. But for the first time, Sweden now has a ground-based massive air defense system which is in the form of the Patriot which is basically a national defense system. How are you integrating that into your broader air doctrine, given that it’s something that’s a little bit of a different model. You’ve used air defense missiles with much shorter range systems. Talk to us about a system that does extend that defense bubble quite far from Swedish territory?
Maj. Gen. Helgesson: I mean we look upon the Patriot missile as a part of the air defense. We integrate it completely. It’s under my command tactically, and we operate with fighters in the same areas we are intending to use the Patriot. So it will be an integrated part as the number five in the four-ship.
Mr. Muradian: So there’s no big intellectual change from your standpoint or ConOps change in terms of the integration of the system into the Swedish operating model?
Maj. Gen. Helgesson: No, I don’t think so. We will have a stronger base.
Mr. Muradian: And in terms of reach, there are a whole series of systems, RV-15E which is the new weapon, to give you a little bit greater sea power reach. From the standpoint of extending the arms of the Swedish Air Force, both defensively but also offensively, which was a doctrine change a few years ago, talk to us about some of the priority programs you have to increase that punch and increase that defensive envelope as well. You know, obviously Meteor is a key part of that as well, but from a total package standpoint.
Maj. Gen. Helgesson: Our political masters has been very clear to us that they want us to develop a long-range ground strike capability. So that is something we will do. It’s clearly stated in the White Book issued this May. So we will be left at capacity. Some sort of cruise missile, that kind of asset.
Mr. Muradian: And conscription is one thing which you’ve spoken very strongly about, about being a good model. In fact we were talking to, having a very, very good conversation about the role of that. What’s the best way to think about conscription, and why is it so important from your standpoint as a Swedish commander?
Maj. Gen. Helgesson: It’s many different perspectives of conscription. I like it a lot because you get a good feeling for the defense among the population, and you also get training for a lot of our youngsters in an age when they are still being formed. So I think it’s very good for us. We also get the volumes we need for the armed forces. So in many perspectives it’s very good for us.
Mr. Muradian: Major General Mats Helgesson, Chief of the Swedish Air Force. Sir, it’s always a pleasure. I know your time was very, very tight here, and hopefully we’ll get a chance to see you up in Sweden. Thank you very much.
Maj. Gen. Helgesson: Always great. Come to Sweden.