Boden (Suede) (AFP)
In a snow-covered forest in northern Sweden, hundreds of soldiers in white camouflage uniforms built canoes, patrolled on skis, and set up mock ambushes to test their fighting skills in arctic environments.
Winter combat skills are attracting more and more interest in Sweden and abroad as tensions rise in the strategic High North and melting arctic ice opens up new shipping routes and uncovers a wealth of natural resources. .
The annual Swedish exercise “Winter Sun” takes place just 80 kilometers (50 miles) below the Arctic Circle, where temperatures can drop to -30 Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit), opposing tanks, artillery and some 900 soldiers against each other.
The Scandinavian country also welcomes French, British and American forces to train them for war in the Arctic at its specialized school.
In such a brutal environment, even basic tasks – like changing socks regularly – can be the difference between life and death.
“Minor mistakes can turn potentially fatal within minutes,” Lt. Col. Fredrik Andersson told AFP during war training in March, a camouflaged cap pulled down over his eyes as he gazed at his unit. dig shelters to hide from the enemy and seek refuge. cold.
# photo1 Using heavy metal shovels, the recruits smoothed out any signs of their tracks in the thick snow before disappearing into the canoes to change clothes to stay dry.
Others took a moment to eat from the generous ration bags to give them the extra energy needed to work in the cold – picking between boiling pasta, candy, cereal, beef jerky, isotonic drinks. and coffee.
“Everything takes longer in the winter,” added Oscar Sandstrom, a 25-year-old young officer, the crackle of gunshots audible in the distance.
Andersson and his troops are from the Swedish Ranger Battalions – cold weather warfare specialists trained to conduct reconnaissance and ambushes behind enemy lines, traveling by ski and snow scooter.
Around him, conscripts in white camouflage jackets with thick boots rush to put the finishing touches on the snow shelters, using shovels to cover their tracks before disappearing into the canoes.
Other Ranger battalions should be created in the far north of the country, as well as an armored vehicle brigade.
Andersson says there is increased interest in the skills of his unit.
“Since the melting of the Arctic ice, we are seeing new trade routes potentially emerging, and many countries have taken an interest in this region,” he said.
# photo2 The ability to fight in subarctic environments is just one area where Sweden is expanding its armed forces, after announcing at the end of 2020 that it would increase defense spending by 40% over five years.
– ‘Change in the security situation’ –
Sweden reintroduced conscription in 2017 after several years of increasingly assertive Russian behavior, including its annexation of Crimea and violations of Swedish airspace.
Speaking ahead of this week’s Arctic Council ministerial meeting – comprising Russia, the United States, Canada, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Iceland – Moscow also highlighted guard Western countries against staking claims in the Arctic.
“There is a change in the security situation in our part of Europe,” Swedish Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist told AFP, citing “the Russian aggression against Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine ”.
Hultqvist also noticed that more countries were vying for influence in the High North, including China.
“We see that climate change opens up a lot more natural resources in this area and this creates an interest of different powers to have a higher level of influence. “
Although Sweden is not a member of NATO, it also trains in the Arctic with its northern neighbors, Norway, Denmark and Finland, performing air and ground exercises.
Niklas Granholm, deputy director of research at the Swedish Defense Research Institute, warned that climate change was not only increasing the region’s strategic importance, but could also have an impact on the operation of troops, as weather conditions become less predictable.
“Winters are not what they used to be, so operational and tactical circumstances may differ,” he said.
– Back to basics –
Lakes or bogs that freeze with ice thick enough to support military vehicles may no longer be viable as weather conditions change, with winters warmer and wetter, Granholm said.
In the forests around Boden, the head of the Swedish Subarctic Warfare School watches teams of soldiers make their way to ski patrols.
With assault rifles camouflaged in white clinging to their thick uniforms camouflaged in the snow, the group pushed along a small track on a reconnaissance mission.
Lt. Col. Morgan Gustafsson, his gray beard sticking out of the collar of the white camouflaged Ranger Battalion uniform he joined in 1986, experienced the changes in Swedish defense policy firsthand.
But Gustafsson said the key to combat in such a vast environment lies in mastering the basics.
“We start with the most basic things – how to change your socks, how to stay dry, what to eat, what to drink, and then we continue with weapons, skis, snowshoes and snowmobiles,” he said.
© 2021 AFP