A military exercise area for war in northern Sweden, a commercially independent but politically very hot area where the US and NATO countries are testing their weapon systems on previously neutral, but now only “alliance-used” land. The exercises also disturb the residents in neighbouring areas, and occur without regard to the UN Indigenous Rights Declaration.
What used to be several small training areas for the Swedish military have now become the largest military test range in Europe, open to other countries' armed forces to test their weapon systems. The area covers a large part of northern Sweden, offering unique conditions such as darkness and "uninhabited" areas but the areas that are populated by several reindeer-herding Sami communities.
On 15 December 2004, ie 10 years after Sweden's entry into the EU, a decision was made in parliament about our future defence. The decision was part of a proposal part of a military testing ground already existing in the north, that NEAT, the North European Aerospace Test Range, could also be rented to foreign countries' armed forces and their arms industry.
NEAT does now - after the cooperation agreement between Swedish Peace Corporation (SSC) and the Swedish Defence Material Administration (FMV) - consists of both Esrange Space center, outside of Kiruna and Vidsel Test range outside of Älvsbyn. NEAT is thus made out of two test sites, NEAT 1 and 2, that are connected by an intermediate airfield, which can be used for test--flights. Together they constitute an area almost the size of Macedonia. This makes NEAT Europe's biggest military test range in a contiguous area of land. It is the Swedish government that approves which weapons may be tested, and which countries/companies can use the test range and particpate in the exercises that are offered.
Space has become an increasingly important part of modern warfare. Esrange, the world's largest download station for satellites, is an important component of the training of airborne weapons systems, eg unmanned aerial vehicles, UAVs. Large investments are made in infrastructure and facilities at Esrange and Vidsel for advanced testing of UAVs. Opportunities for similar activities are almost non-existent in densely populated Europe, but NEAT provides a unique opportunity, according to SSC. Also the Swedish war industry is investing in unmanned aircraft. Along with other European countries, Swedish Saab is developing the unmannes plane Neuron. Neuron is a prototype worth 400 million Euros, and will pave the way for future unmanned bombers. Saab will begin its testing in 2012.
Land for sale
Gun Britt Mäkitalo, who lives in Kiruna and is a member of Women for Peace, is very critical to the development of the military test range.
- We realised, of course, those of us who followed the development, that it would be very negative to give our land up to the highest bidder, either countries or companies. We made desperate attempts to contact various peace organizations, before the decision was taken in 2004. But very few responded to our cry for help. Then it did not take long, she says, until the air was filled with noise and planes from all sorts of countries.
2007 was the worst so far, she says:
- The sky was swarming with military aircraft, in an exercise that was called Nordic Air Meet, and I think it was the start of military operations on a large scale. In the newspapers they said it was a milestone because it was such a large practice area without restrictions. We from Women for Peace were protesting with our placards, as usual, she said.
- The head of the US Air Force in Europe was so amazingly happy that it was such a vast area, because they had been driven away from Germany's training area, north of Berlin, a few years earlier.
In 2009 it was time for a big NATO exercise led from Bodö, Norway. It was called Loyal Arrow, but the antimilitarist group Ofog renamed it Royal Error. That was exactly what it was, a royal error - because we're not a part of NATO. During 2010 the Americans came and pracised dropping bombs in Vidsel, and now the turn has come of the Royal Air Force from Britain. They will train through almost the whole year up here.
We are really tired of this and we are looking forward to the major international action camp in July this summer that Ofog is organising. Because we want to show that we do not accept this. I hope there will be lots of people that will join us.
It's not just Women for Peace who are dissatisfied. Lilian Mikaelson, vice president of the Sami National Organization, Same Ätnam, is also very critical: Sweden has signed the UN Declaration of Indigenous Peoples. In paragraph 30 it says that military operations should not be conducted on indigenous lands/territories unless justified by a significant threat to the public interest. In the same section it says that states shall consult with affected indigenous people, through their representative institutions, before they use their land for military activities, she says.
Lilian Mikaelson calls for information on what is happening and how these military operations will affect the reindeer-herding Sami life. "Is it indifference or ignorance that such a thing has not yet happened?" she wonders.
Neutrality - an echo from the past
All this is going on while a majority of the Swedish population is unaware that Swedish security policy has changed quite dramatically during recent years. Most Swedes think that their country is “alliance-free” and many believe that they are still neutral. But according to the former colonel Per Blomquist, Sweden is now an aggressive state. The Swedish armed forces are not equipped for military defence but for attack.
The fact that Sweden no longer is a neutral country, and that its foreign policy draws closer to that of NATO countries, does not affect only its own population and neighbours, but it may have consequences for stability throughout the surrounding region.