In from the Cold: Rebuilding Sweden’s Civil Defense for the NATO Era

Steadfast Javelin II

“It’s time for action!” “There could be war in Sweden.” “Who are you if war comes?”

These were the messages and no longer rhetorical questions that Sweden’s top political and military leadership shared at Sweden’s annual security conference in early January 2024. Since 2017, officials have not ruled out the possibility of an armed attack. But restating these challenging questions in such stark terms caused a ripple effect across society, with a slew of headlines such as: “Did the Supreme Commander and government go too far with their warnings?” and “Many children are now afraid of war coming to Sweden”. Supreme Commander Micael Bydén later went onto children’s television programming to reiterate that he was not worried about war coming to Sweden right now, but about the country’s and citizens’ preparedness to respond to crisis or war in the future. Indeed, Sweden is facing the “gravest security crisis since World War II.” As a result, it is not only attempting to rapidly rebuild its military capabilities but its civil defense as well.

Sweden’s civil defense is the counterpart to military defense. Together, they constitute the country’s “total defense,” which draws upon the collective strength of the armed forces, public and private sector, and civil society to withstand crisis or an armed attack. After decades of cuts in defense expenditures in the post-Cold War era, infamously referred as a “strategic time out,” Swedish civil defense is starting from historically low levels. In the face of Russian aggression, Sweden is rediscovering its own total defense culture. Now in NATO, Sweden’s civil defense planning and capabilities can serve as a model for strengthening national and collective resilience across the alliance.



A Unique Concept

Largely mirroring NATO’s seven baseline requirements for national resilience, Swedish civil defense not only ensures the functioning of vital societal services — everything from convening national parliament and local authorities to basic utilities and emergency services — it ultimately supports military activities by maintaining critical infrastructure and logistical flows. All residents of Sweden, including non-citizens, between the ages of 16 and 70 are liable for service. The civil and total defense concepts date back to the Cold War when leveraging every aspect of society was seen as vital to maintaining a credible deterrent to uphold Sweden’s military non-alignment.

In the post-Cold War era, Sweden, along with most other European countries, cashed in on the peace dividend and substantially cut defense expenditures, civil defense included. However, since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Swedish civil defense has been gradually reactivated. To meet the challenges of Europe’s deteriorating security climate, Sweden aims to have the supplies and capabilities to resist an armed attack for three months, and for households to have the preparedness to survive one week without any external help. Though an improvement to the supreme commander’s 2013 estimate of Sweden lasting about one week against an armed attack, there remains a substantial gap between civil defense ambitions and current capabilities.

Deterring Russia, Again

Once the gold standard for civil defense, Sweden will now be starting essentially from scratch. “It’s tragic,” a civilian defense veteran lamented. “We had everything — now civilian defense is basically non-existent.” This is an assessment largely shared by the Swedish Defense Commission, writing in their December 2023 report that Sweden’s crisis preparedness and civil defense is “not designed to handle an armed attack and the extreme stresses of war.” There is a lack of planning, training, and expertise, and too few institutions and agencies have integrated civil defense planning into their routines. The ability to transition from peace to a wartime footing is lackluster. Regulatory frameworks to respond to war need to be updated. Given the deteriorated security climate and the multitude of measures and actors involved, the Defense Commission called for all these processes to be expedited, backed by long-term financing.

Though Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has expedited total defense reconstruction, with a particular emphasis on fast-tracking the civilian side, the process had already begun in 2015 in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and war in Donbas. The 2015 Defense Bill cited increasing Sweden’s operational warfighting and overall total defense capability as “the single most important issue to address in the period of 2016–2020.” The Armed Forces and Civil Contingencies Agency were thus tasked to develop joint total defense plans.

A highly public shift in civil defense policy and rhetoric occurred in 2018 with a true Cold War throwback. For the first time in 57 years, the Agency’s “If Crisis or War Comes” brochure was distributed to all Swedish households. The updated version contained much of the same language and advice as the Cold War version, including the slogan: “If Sweden is attacked by another country, we will never give up. All information to the effect that resistance is to cease is false.” The release initially caused concern, even anger, with citizens questioning why they were receiving the brochure exactly then. Did the MSB know something they didn’t? Ultimately, the release proved all too timely, with the most extensive forest fires in Sweden’s modern history occurring a few months after distribution, followed by a global pandemic, and full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

The impact Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has had on Sweden’s defense posture, and the lessons drawn for its civilian component, cannot be overstated. In the Defense Commission’s December 2023 assessment, the participatory culture of Ukraine’s war effort was noted as a decisive factor for their early success and continued resilience. Ukrainian civil society quickly reorganized their activities, focusing their efforts on wartime priorities such as weapons, ammunition, and medical equipment to increase Ukrainian defense capabilities. Grassroots initiatives complimented efforts by local governments and larger organizations to ensure the final delivery of services and supplies. “Ukraine has demonstrated the critical necessity of the population’s resilience and will to defend their nation,” summarized Sweden’s total defense report.

“The Entire Swedish People” in NATO

The centrality of the individual lies at the heart of Sweden’s re-emerging civilian defense culture. “Civil defense is not primarily a theoretical exercise,” stated Carl Oskar Bohlin, Sweden’s first minister for civil defense since the position was done away with in the late 1940s. The civilian component of total defense is “ultimately made up by [Sweden’s] population. Everyone has a role to play.”

Swedish society’s resilience is generally high. In a December 2021 report, 49 percent of respondents said they would take a combat position to defend Sweden, 77 percent would risk their lives in a non-combat role, and 84 percent would take non-life-threatening roles. There is a difference, however, in a willingness to defend and the actual capacity to do so, especially when that question is asked during a time of peace.

Thus, a second key lesson Sweden has drawn is the need for cross-sector cooperation. “Critical infrastructure is a main target for Russian attacks,” writes the Defense Commission. Yet, despite extreme circumstances, Ukraine has managed to continuously and swiftly restore essential functions. The joint efforts between different regions, local authorities, industry, and private business that have facilitated Ukraine’s ability to repair key operations highlighted for Sweden the importance of coordination between the private and public sectors.

Since February 2022, investments and structural changes to civilian defense have accelerated. In October 2022, comprehensive reforms were implemented that reorganized 41 state agencies into 10 sectors responsible for critical services. A new law and an additional 100 million krona ($10 million) to modernize civilian shelters that have fallen into disuse was introduced in September 2023. No new shelters have been built since 2002 and the current priority is to maintain the existing 67,000 shelters with the capacity to protect seven million people.

In January 2024, civilian conscript service was partially reintroduced after being abolished in 2008. As a first step, around 300 people with emergency service experience will be identified, further educated, and potentially receive a wartime placement throughout 2024. Subsequently, the energy sector will identify individuals relevant for civil conscription and propose additional civil defense measures to the government. In total, investments in regional and local governments’ civilian defense will increase by 25 percent in 2024.

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine and Sweden’s subsequent NATO application certainly led to greater situational awareness of security and defense issues amongst the public. Indeed, 2022 saw record levels of membership in voluntary defense organizations, which ranged from attending educational seminars to serving in a volunteer air corps. But the continual shock and ensuing debate in Swedish society every time the risk of war is publicly raised — from the 2018 brochure to January 2024 conference statements — stands in stark contrast to Finland, where even the statement “there can be war” needs not be said. It is instinctively understood.

Originally based in part upon the Swedish model, Finland has one of the most credible civil defenses in the entire world. This is a hard-earned expertise. The shared border with Russia and the history of Russian invasion during the Winter War have encouraged Finland to maintain its network of over 50,500 civil defense shelters, capable of protecting 4.8 million people. To keep them maintained and ready for use, Finland has opted for the shelters to be dual-use as sports halls, metro stations, home storage, and parking. Sweden only has to look to its next-door neighbor to re-learn its lost expertise and modernize its civil defense, such as a Finnish mobile phone app that shows the nearest shelter or allows an emergency signal. As the newest two members of NATO, it is vital that Sweden and Finland continue to deepen their work across borders and sectors to meet NATO requirements for societal resilience. “It’s not just the Armed Forces that are becoming members of NATO,” Bohlin reiterated after Sweden’s membership was fully ratified in March 2024. “It’s the entire Swedish people.”

Total Defense: A New Swedish Export?

Resilience is in NATO’s DNA and is enshrined in Article 3 of the North Atlantic Treaty. As a new NATO member, Sweden is obligated to meet certain thresholds for resilience. The Resilience Commitment — agreed by allied leaders at the NATO Summit in Warsaw in 2016 and strengthened in 2021 — outlines the need for civil preparedness in an increasingly complex environment. Although NATO’s renewed commitment to societal resilience was a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be tested a year later as Russia invaded Ukraine. In fact, Sweden’s lack of stockpiled supplies and medical equipment exacerbated the initial wave of the pandemic, underscoring the importance of civil defense. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated “our militaries cannot be strong if our societies are weak, so our first line of defense must be strong societies.”

The evolution of the debate in Swedish society and the re-introduction of the total defense concept have been a much-needed jolt into action. The comments made at January’s annual security conference drove home a point that has been building for years: “An armed attack against Sweden cannot be ruled out. These serious times require clarity of vision, capacity to act and persistence.” That work begins at home, with a credible civil defense. Sweden’s reinvestment in its civil defense, as part of its larger total defense ethos, is a crucial step towards not only meeting national goal of preparedness but also strengthening NATO’s own standards for resilience.

As a NATO member, Sweden’s total defense concept may become a “Swedish export” across the alliance. Though lessons can be drawn from the Cold War, Sweden is not simply rebuilding its total defense — it is developing a new model for the NATO era with the capabilities and capacity to meet novel threats. At a time when European countries are committing more to defense spending, Sweden demonstrates that investing in military hardware is only the start of building a robust and credible defense — that work begins at home. Drawing upon their unique histories, Sweden and Finland can together lead the way in creating a more resilient alliance.



Eric Adamson is a Swedish security and defense analyst working in the total defense sector. He was previously a project manager at the Atlantic Council’s Northern Europe Office in Stockholm and the Swedish Defense Association covering the NATO accession process.

Jason C. Moyer is a program associate for the Global Europe Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His current research focuses on Finland and Sweden’s NATO accession. He has written more than 30 articles on transatlantic relations and leads the Wilson Center’s Transatlantic Writers’ Group.

Image: Airman 1st Class Jordan Castelan