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Out of Friendship? 'Neutral' Sweden Salutes NATO Forces and Inches Closer

NATO's airborne early warning and control systems (AWACS) planes have been granted extended permission to fly through Sweden. This month, the Swedish government's 6-month extension of the ability of NATO's AWACS planes to fly over its territory came into effect. This marks the officially "non-aligned" state's latest step in NATO's direction.

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NATO's AWACS planes were first granted permission to fly through Sweden in 2014. At first, only a monthly permit was issued; it was later extended by six months at a time.

According to the respected UK-based Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), Sweden's first decision to grant six-month permits is a clear example of Stockholm's increasingly intimate relationship with NATO.

"There are both practical and symbolic aspects to the extension. In practical terms, it reduces the paperwork, while symbolically signaling the strength of the partnership between Sweden and NATO," military expert Douglas Barrie of the IISS told SVT.

Up to now, Sweden, in the capacity of the receiving party, has determined the details of the passage. According to the country's Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces, passing airplanes may not use their own search radars in either active or passive mode over Swedish territory. Instead, only navigation sensors may be used.

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By NATO's own earlier admissions, Sweden is not a spy target for AWACS planes, as their radars are turned off. Instead, Sweden is an important shortcut to the strategically important areas, en route from Norway to Poland and back again.

"This means that if we have to respond quickly to an incident, flying through Sweden saves us time. If we see something happening in the Baltic states, then it is faster to fly straight through Sweden instead of flying around," Lieutenant Colonel Ed Spinelli told Swedish public broadcasting network SVT earlier this year.

After flying over Sweden for roughly two years, AWACS planes took part in a joint Swedish-NATO exercise this spring. In March, Sweden participated in Crisis Management Exercise, a major military exercise, which pitted NATO in a fictitious scenario against Moscow in simulated Russian invasion.

Surprisingly, the Swedish government hastily launched a general mobilization of the entire defense force of almost 60,000 men, a decision which greatly pleased NATO's command. Sweden also allowed NATO aircraft and ships to freely use Swedish territory. Remarkably, the details of exercise were never revealed in full until today. According to the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter, a number of Swedish ministries and competent bodies participated in the exercise, which lasted from March 9 to 16.

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NATO's fleet of 16 AWACS aircrafts is unique. They are some of the few military assets that are owned and operated by NATO, as opposed to "ordinary" powers, which are comprised by member countries' armed forces. AWACS planes are registered in Luxembourg, whereas some of the planes are stationed at the Norwegian air base of Ørland near Trondheim.

Officially, the scope of an AWACS radar is at least 400 kilometers. This means that a single plane can monitor an area equal to at least two thirds of Sweden. Two planes can jointly keep an eye on at least 60 percent of Europe, whereas three planes can monitor almost all of Europe.

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