Swedish JAS-39 Gripen fighter jet.US Air Force/Tech. Sergeant Corban Lundborg

  • Sweden has applied to join NATO, and the alliance has largely welcomed its potential addition.

  • NATO officials are particularly interested in Sweden’s air force, which has dozens of advanced jet aircraft.

  • But Swedish pilots are frustrated by the policy changes and many are considering leaving the service.

Even as Sweden prepares to join NATO, Sweden’s air force remains a problem. Its most experienced fighter pilots are leaving.

“In the fall, about half of the Swedish Armed Forces’ fighter pilots may take leave or resign altogether,” Swedish broadcaster SVT reported in July.

One problem, according to the trade union representing pilots, is changes to the retirement system.

“Previously, pilots have been able to retire at age 55,” Jesper Tengroth, spokesman for the Swedish Association of Military Officers, told Insider. “But for those born in 1988 or later, the retirement age was raised to 67 a few years ago, with no compensation.”

Sweden military air force pilot

Swedish pilots on the flight line during training with the US Air Force.Swedish Armed Forces

Swedish leaders also acknowledge there is a problem. “Overnight, they all had their retirement age raised at the same time,” said Major General Karl-Johan Edström, head of the Swedish Air Force. “The fact that so many pilots are applying for leave is almost 100% linked to the new pension deal.”

Many of these pilots feel betrayed. “There are a lot of people my age who have been trained and hired in a certain space who are then fired,” one pilot told SVT.

Unsurprisingly, the media in Russia – which is unhappy about the previously non-aligned Sweden joining NATO – is playing up the story. “In recent years, the Swedish armed forces have struggled to recruit new pilots and retain existing personnel,” state-controlled outlet Sputnik News said.

There are other reasons for Pilot’s departure, John Kallberg, non-resident senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, told Insider.

“I think this has been going on for a long time about pilots,” said Kolberg, himself a former Swedish military officer. “I think it’s the tip of the iceberg. They’ve been mistreated for generations.”

Swedish C-130 Hercules aircraft

A technician next to a Swedish C-130 Hercules cargo plane during a NATO exercise in Lithuania in 2014.Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images

Air Force pilots earn relatively low salaries compared to the civilian sector, and commercial airlines are hungry for pilots and willing to pay higher salaries.

Post-Cold War defense cuts have also reduced the number of flying slots in the Air Force. “What this means is that instead of going out as a pilot at 55, they’re now stuck in a defense desk job” until they’re eligible to retire, Kalberg said. Sweden’s government intends to increase defense spending in the coming years but is still debating how to do so.

Unlike the US military, whose personnel receive a housing allowance, Swedish pilots pay for their own housing. Sweden’s accession to NATO could reactivate some mothballed air bases, requiring pilots to pay for new accommodation when transferred to new facilities.

Ironically, the question that worries NATO leaders – how the pilot shortage will affect Sweden’s military capabilities – may actually be the most difficult. Sweden has a powerful air force, with a core of six squadrons consisting of 96 JAS 39C/D Gripen fighters.

However, Sweden’s main contribution to NATO is geography, not jet fighters, Kallberg said. “Sweden gives operational depth to the High North. NATO will be able to operate air wings from several Swedish airfields.”

A Swedish Air Force pilot in a JAS-39C Gripen

A Swedish pilot in a JAS-39C Gripen.US Air Force/Lawrence Crespo

Previously, NATO had to rely on a few bases on the Norwegian coast to project power into the Barents Sea, which also applies to sensitive military bases in northern Russia.

Not only is Sweden a larger nation with more strategic depth than Norway, but it also offers access to the Barents and Baltic Seas, with bases on the Baltic islands, enabling NATO to counter Russian naval and air power in the Baltic region.

“If you want to support deterrence — or combat — in the Baltics, Sweden is a natural staging area,” Colberg said.

Kalberg sees problems in the Swedish military that need to be addressed. Sweden has a long tradition of contributing troops to UN peacekeeping missions, while its army – which uses conscripts – is accustomed to operating in large formations for the large-unit battles that might characterize a NATO-Russia war.

But Sweden is serious about meeting its NATO commitments, Kalberg said. “They know they have to come with troops and assets.”

Michael Peck is a defense writer whose work has appeared in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy Magazine, and other publications. He holds a Master’s Degree in Political Science. Follow him Twitter and LinkedIn.

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