The Swedish Navy Is Hunting a Russian Submarine and Doesn’t Have the Tools for It

If you ever find yourself sailing in the waters off Sweden’s coast and come upon a Swedish Navy vessel, you are likely to hear a common joke: “Look, there goes the Swedish Navy!” The joke, of course, being that the Swedish defense has been so gutted that it has been reduced to but one boat. ...

Top photo by ANDERS WIKLUND/AFP/Getty Images
Top photo by ANDERS WIKLUND/AFP/Getty Images

If you ever find yourself sailing in the waters off Sweden’s coast and come upon a Swedish Navy vessel, you are likely to hear a common joke: “Look, there goes the Swedish Navy!”

The joke, of course, being that the Swedish defense has been so gutted that it has been reduced to but one boat. That isn’t quite true — the Swedish Navy is in possession of boats, plural — but with the country’s armed forces currently carrying out a frenetic search for a mystery submarine off the coast of Stockholm, the joke has a ring of truth to it. After spending the 1980s playing cat and mouse with Soviet submarines, the Swedish submarine defense is now a shadow of its former self. Most importantly, the helicopters critical to submarine hunting were phased out in 2008.

Over the weekend, Swedes woke up to the eye-opening news that their country’s military had received credible reports of “foreign underwater activity” in the dense archipelago outside Stockholm. While the Swedish authorities refuse to comment on what type of vessel they are searching for or to whom it belongs, it’s almost certainly a Russian submarine.

On Sunday, Oct. 19, the Swedish authorities released a photograph showing what looks to be a periscope peeking above the surface. The man who took that photo has since come forward and says he is certain that it shows a submarine. Moreover, the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet reported that Swedish authorities intercepted an encrypted distress signal from the area in which the submarine is believed to be located. That signal was reportedly bound for the Russian naval base in Kaliningrad.

One working theory is that the submarine has been damaged and is unable to navigate out of Swedish waters. The incident comes on the heels of the Northern Archer military exercise in the Baltic Sea, which involved Swedish and Dutch forces, and some analysts have speculated that the sub was in the area to observe the exercise and gather intelligence.

The image below purports to show the vessel.

On Monday, the hunt for the mystery vessel continued, with Swedish military commanders emphasizing that they are carrying out a “surveillance” mission. The clear message to Russian authorities is that Swedish forces do not plan to fire on the vessel and would prefer that the sub not attempt to sink any Swedish ships. Parts of the archipelago have been closed to air traffic, and the search area is currently moving south, away from the capital.

But in carrying out their search, the Swedish authorities are being severely hampered by their lack of sonar-equipped helicopters. Because the Stockholm archipelago is a dense island landscape, it has become something of a notorious playground for submarines, which have ample natural features behind which to hide and evade surface vessels. Unlike ships moving on the surface, helicopters have a distinct advantage in tracking down submarines, which have great difficulty monitoring aircraft while underwater. A helicopter can quickly cover large areas, surprising submarines by dropping sonar sensors. But Sweden’s fleet of anti-submarine helicopters were phased out in 2008, and the replacement isn’t expected until 2018.

The cuts were part of Sweden’s broader reduction in defense spending in the aftermath of the Cold War. While the notion of a Swedish military usually only draws guffaws in the United States, Sweden maintained active coastal defenses and a robust air force in the decades after the Second World War. And Sweden’s Navy has been a particular point of pride, even as it is now suffering from budget cuts. Indeed, Swedish submarines participated in exercises with the U.S. Navy in the mid-2000s in which a Swedish diesel-electric submarine succeeded in sinking U.S. aircraft carriers, creating a bit of panic among American admirals.

But Sweden’s military might is a function of the investments made in it, and defense spending has been steadily declining:


Russia’s renewed aggressiveness in Europe — in both Ukraine and the Baltic Sea — is scrambling the politics of defense spending in Sweden. This year’s recently concluded national election saw a renewed debate over whether Sweden should join NATO, and this weekend’s submarine hunt is drawing comparisons to similar Cold War incidents.

The most infamous of those was the so-called “Whiskey on the Rocks” fiasco, in which a Soviet Whiskey-class submarine ran aground in 1981 and was discovered near a Swedish naval base by a fisherman. The boat’s skipper insisted that the incident was the result of a terrible navigational error and that he had believed he was off the coast of Poland. Swedish investigators later confirmed that the boat’s navigational equipment was in working order. More importantly, the approaches to the naval base in question are extremely treacherous, and the fact that the boat made it as close as it did was a remarkable feat of underwater navigation. The boat, a U-137, turned out to be carrying nuclear weapons, and its grounding turned into a diplomatic crisis that was finally resolved when the Swedes returned the sub to the Soviets after inspecting it.

The incident was an early salvo in what would come to be known as the submarine crisis of the 1980s. According to a 1990 Rand Corp. study of Soviet submarine incursions of Swedish waters, on average between 17 and 36 “foreign operations” were conducted every year in Sweden’s territorial waters during the 1980s.

Russian forces have now stepped up their operations against Sweden. Last year, Russian bombers carried out a mock bombing run on Stockholm. In September, two Russian fighter jets violated Swedish airspace. And earlier this month, a Russian fighter jet buzzed a Swedish surveillance plane at a dangerously close distance. Considered against the background of Russian operations in Ukraine, these incidents have all generated considerable concern among Swedish politicians and security analysts. This weekend’s submarine incident is a sort of grim cherry on top. “What’s been happening in the Baltic Sea, including airspace incursions, shows that we have a new, changed situation,” Peter Hultqvist, the Swedish minister of defense, said to Svenska Dagbladet.

As a result, Sweden may very well be recalibrating its defense spending. “I would be extremely surprised if what has happened this summer and is possibly now happening in the Stockholm archipelago hasn’t had an impact on all parties’ budget priorities,” Allan Widman, a defense spokesman for one center-right party, told Svenska Dagbladet.

Then again, it may not turn out to be a Russian submarine lurking in Stockholm’s waters. This is my favorite alternate explanation:


Graphic: Emma Carew Grovum/FP

 Twitter: @EliasGroll