UPDATE 5 MARCH 2014, 12:30 UTC | Swedish armed forces have decided to immediately increase their military readiness levels at Gotland on Tuesday 4 March 2014. The island is strategically located in the middle of the Baltic Sea near the shipping lanes from and till Russia. Although the military headquarters in Stockholm doesn’t want to disclose how the defences will be bolstered, standard “incident readiness” deployments normally consist of six to eight SAAB JAS 39C/D Gripen fighter jets. Budget restrains might lower the number this time.
In fact, a defence ministry spokesperson confirmed Tuesday evening that only two Gripens plus supporting personnel landed at Visby during the day. But the number or the type of readiness might change depending on the situation, he adds. In fact, during crew changes there could be temporarily be four Gripens on the island. According to a Swedish armed forces spokesperson the transfer of units to Gotland is “very normal considering the amount of Russian military movements in the Baltic Sea region”. However, during many earlier Russian actions the Swedes didn’t leave the mainland.
In April 2013 there was even a political outcry, when Swedish airborne defences remained on the ground when a pair of Russian Air Force Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers simulated attacks on military targets in the Stockholm area. Escorted by four Sukhoi Su-27 Flankers they came within 40 kilometres (22 nautical miles) of Swedish aerospace, quite close to the rock Gotska Sandön north of Gotland. Only after the Russians were long gone, the Swedish Flygvapnet sent Gripen planes to Gotland for a temporary deployment. They were later drawn back.
TP 84 Hercules
There is even a possibility that Sweden will activate its tank platoon at Gotland. Fourteen Leopard 2s are stored in a depot at Gotland since 2013, after the Swedish parliament demanded reversal of the withdrawal of those main battle tanks. They were just transported there in 2013, after the Swedish parliament expressed its concerns about the Russian military threat.
Tank crews and maintenance personnel just have to be flown in from Skövde deep into the main land. So if the tank platoon will be activated, it would mean Flygvapnet Lockheed TP 84 Hercules aircraft will ferry troops from the local Skövde airfield or F7 Såtenäs Airbase, home of the Skaraborgs Flygflottilj (Skaraborg’s Wing F7) and its Hercules fleet. Other assets to be flown in are likely Saab Dynamics RBS 70 short-range surface-to-air missile systems and their three man teams.
But the activation of the ground forces are more of a phase 2 of readiness. It is more likely the deployment will be limited to Gripen fighters at first, maybe backed-up by a Airborne Surveillance and Control aircraft and possibly a SAR or ASW helicopter if the presence will be maintained for a longer period of time.
Gotland is about 170 by 35 km (105 by 21 miles) big, a 3.5 hour cruise from Stockholm. Since the end of the Cold War the Baltic Sea Island is largely demilitarized. A small group of about fourty military personnel, of which only 25 are civilians, is located on the island, mainly to prepare the arrival of forces from the mainland. Moreover about 250 armed reserves and another 200 unarmed reserves can be called in (equivalent to the US Army National Guard). The only usable airfield is located near the island capital of Visby, of which its walled-in Medieval innertown is on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Although there is a small secondary landing strip near the former garrison town of Färösund and at least one public road that can be turned into landing strip.
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Gotland has been repeatedly in focus during planned large scale readiness exercises of the Swedish armed forces. In September 2013 the island was a strategic location in the international exercise Northern Coasts as well and German paratroopers jumped from a Luftwaffe C.160 tactical transport aircraft on a field in Fole to move towards and secure the airport of Visby. A regular part of those exercises and the Swedish “incident readiness” is to send up the SAAB ASC 890 Airborne Surveillance & Control aircraft with Erieye radar boom on the back.
© 2014 AIRheads’ editor Marcel Burger. Part of this article is also available in Dutch, produced for press agency ANP and published by national media like de Telegraaf newspaper and news website nu.nl.