STOCKHOLM – At the Swedish embassy in Washington in April, the National Guard’s top officer was invited to speak at a reception marking the Swedish army’s 500th anniversary.
Several days later, the Swedish government applied to join the Department of Defense National Guard Bureau State Partnership Program.
“Our National Guard is a relatively young 386 years old, compared to your army,” Army Gen. Daniel Hokanson, chief of the National Guard Bureau, said at the reception, referring to the Guard’s formation in 1636.
Relations between the United States and Sweden began not long after the first Guard militias mustered in Massachusetts, as the first Swedish immigrants arrived on the shores of Delaware in 1638.
Sweden was one of the first nations to recognize U.S. independence in 1783. The countries have maintained close ties since, rooted in shared values and goals — stability, rules-based order, freedom and democracy.
Last week, Sweden hosted Hokanson for two days of talks with its defense and military leaders to discuss its prospects of joining the SPP.
His visit came as Sweden and the United States conduct final negotiations for a new defense cooperation agreement to deepen defense ties between Stockholm and Washington.
“I am the biggest supporter of Sweden joining the State Partnership Program,” Hokanson said, emphasizing his support for Sweden’s application to join NATO. “Sweden will bring instant capability to both NATO and the State Partnership Program.”
The SPP began in 1993 as a DOD security cooperation program to help the armed forces of former Soviet states emerging from behind the Iron Curtain. It now includes 100 partner nations and the National Guard of every state, territory and the District of Columbia.
While in Stockholm, the CNGB met with Pål Jonson, Sweden’s minister of defense; Gen. Michael Bydén, supreme commander of the Swedish Armed Forces; Lt. Gen. Michael Claesson, chief of the Defense Staff, and Maj. Gen. Jonny Lindfors, chief of the Swedish army.
“In addition to the Swedish NATO membership, bilateral military cooperation between the U.S. and Sweden is crucial,” Lindfors said. “The National Guard has capabilities ranging from the trenches to space that we, as a small nation, do not have yet, nor will be able to afford.
“Here, we can learn from their expertise and ways in which to get help and assistance,” he said.
Because of its previous non-military alignment policy, Sweden built and equipped its armed forces for national defense. In a country larger than California, with a population of about 10 million, its territory is vast and location-strategic.
Though it shares no land border with Russia, Sweden considers itself a frontline state because of its extensive Baltic coastline and islands in the Baltic Sea.
Through conscripted military service and civilian emergency agency service, every Swedish citizen between the ages of 16 and 70 is a part of Sweden’s total defense and will help prepare for war, if needed.
Earlier this year, Sweden held its largest military exercise in 25 years. Soldiers from the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany and neighboring Nordic nations took part in drills to train for the event of a major armed attack on Sweden.
Jonson told Hokanson the Swedish Armed Forces are undergoing their largest build-up in decades — with concerns that Russia’s brutal and unprovoked war in Ukraine may expand into Northern Europe and the Baltics. He said the possibility of partnering with the National Guard is promising.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Jonson said, “to further expand our security cooperation with the U.S.”
The Guard has previously worked with the Swedish Armed Forces in the Arctic, armor and artillery training. Hokanson outlined some facts and figures about the Guard to Swedish leaders.
“With about 443,000 Soldiers and Airmen, we’re 20% of the U.S. joint force,” he said. “We’re the combat reserve of the Army and Air Force. We have about 20,000 Guardsmen deployed globally on any given day.”
The Guard is postured to support large-scale operations, with eight full Army National Guard divisions and 90 Air wings.
“Over the past 20 years, our efforts consisted of small formations from fixed bases,” Hokanson said. “But experience from Ukraine shows that we must be able to field and operate as large-scale formations.”
He also told Swedish officials the Guard brings important civil support dimensions, including crisis management, disaster response and improving resilience.
But security cooperation — working with partner nations to increase readiness and interoperability — is one of the most important functions of the Guard in the complex and dynamic global environment, he said.
There are strong similarities between the Guard and the Swedish Armed Forces. Hokanson said a partnership between the National Guard and Sweden is mutually beneficial, with each side possessing unique expertise.
“There’s a lot we can learn from each other,” he said, “particularly in the space and cyber domains. Also, Swedish troops are experts at working in the Arctic environment. Learning from them how to operate in cold conditions is critical. The Arctic is becoming more important every day.”
Hokanson traveled to Sweden’s northernmost province, North Bothnia. Stops in Lulea to see Sweden’s northern air force and Boden to see armor and artillery units showcased the Swedish Armed Forces’ ability to thrive in the high north.
He also met with Sweden’s Regional Command North leaders and the Swedish Home Guard unit responsible for this region.
The Home Guard consists of modern combat units. Its 40 light infantry battalions’ main responsibility is to protect, guard and monitor Swedish territory and support society in times of crisis.
Its motto is “Everywhere, Always.” As an all-volunteer force, Home Guard members work between four and 15 days per year to augment critical infrastructure defense and national defense efforts, if needed.
In many discussions, Hokanson was asked about the status of Sweden’s application to join the SPP and what U.S. states are being considered for potential pairing.
The SPP is a DOD program managed by the Guard Bureau and conducted through the geographic combatant commands. The timing and state pairing decisions are made by civilian leaders on each side.
“We’ll work closely with our leadership to find the best fit,” Hokanson said. “No matter what state is paired with any given partner nation, the partner nation’s armed forces have access to the capabilities of the entire National Guard. But everybody wants to be a partner with Sweden.”
Air Force Lt. Col. M. Caitlin Brown contributed to this story