Soon, we will see a submarine of the Swedish navy transiting the Panama Canal for the first time ever.
It’s part a deployment that vividly illustrates the new global strategic realities and the discreet role that even Sweden plays in these.
The submarine Gotland is on its way from the Swedish naval base area of Hårsfjärden outside Stockholm to the vast US navy base in San Diego in southern California. It left on May 12th, and is expected in San Diego in mid-June.
Its journey is part of a much bigger story.
Back in the days of the Cold War and the Soviet Union, the role of the security policy of Sweden was fairly obvious, although not often explained to public opinion.
We built impressive military forces to defend ourselves, not the least against a Soviet attack across the Baltic. And the submarine force was a very crucial part of that effort.
Over the decades, we developed, built and operated what was probably the very best submarines in the world for the sort of shallow waters that the Baltic is. They were – and are – truly formidable systems.
We also played a more discreet role in intelligence gathering and intelligence exchange. The island of Gotland was a solid intelligence gathering platform.
Now, the world has changed beyond recognition. And the role of Sweden is changing fast.
The journey of Gotland is intimately related to the military rise of China and the nervousness this causes in the US.
China is busy buying advanced submarines from Russia and building up advanced capabilities in this respect.
It has already bought four Kilo-class submarines, designed by the Rubin design bureau in St Petersburg and mostly built at the Admirality yards in the same city.
Now, a further eight submarines of the 636 class – a more advanced version of the Kilo – will be delivered. They are also equipped with advanced anti-ship missiles in addition to its torpedoes.
Again, it’s the Admirality yard in St Petersburg that are building, and they are tested out in the waters of the Baltic.
The US Navy got really scared about the capabilities of modern conventional submarines also when they exercised against the Swedish submarine Halland in the Mediterranean some years ago. Their defences simply didn’t work against advanced systems like this.
And now they see the Chinese starting to build up capabilities that over time might become as capable and as threathening.
This will have profound strategic implications. If US aircraft carriers can’t get sufficiently close sufficiently fast to Taiwan, they can’t defend the island. The threat from Chinese submarines might force them to stay at a distance, or to go much slower.
It changes the entire political and military equation in the area.
That’s why the US asked Sweden to borrow a submarine to start to train against the Chinese threat they see emerging out of the shipyards in the Baltic.
Gotland will soon operate under Swedish flag as part of the command of Submarine Squadron 11 in San Diego. It will work with units of the US Third and Seventh Fleets in the Pacific in order to train their skills in meeting the emerging threat.
It’s a truly unique assignment that should be seen against the background of the huge strategic shifts underway – and the sometimes discreet way in which also Sweden is part of these.
The island of Gotland was of great strategic importance in the old world. Now the submarine of Gotland is of obvious strategic significance in the emerging new world.