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Speech by Minister for Civil Defence Carl-Oskar Bohlin at the Folk och Försvar Annual National Conference


Speech by Minister for Civil Defence Carl-Oskar Bohlin, delivered at the Folk och Försvar Annual National Conference in Sälen on 9 January 2023.

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"Every citizen must be prepared to make the utmost contribution to Sweden’s total defence – in the armed forces, the civil defence, war production, the national supply of goods, health care and in the home. Every single Swedish citizen must also know how to protect themselves against the dangers of a modern war and understand how important it is to remain calm and composed even in critical situations."

These aren’t my own words but those penned in 1961 by the then Swedish Prime Minister, Tage Erlander, in the pamphlet Om kriget kommer [When War Comes].

Tage Erlander did not only hold the post of Prime Minister. Earlier in his political career he was the Minister for Civil Defence, a post later abolished until this Government took office. Although the years have passed, his words remain true and valid to this day. And yet, as we all know, views on civil defence have differed greatly over time.

Hindsight is easy but at the same time hard-earned. Showing foresight is difficult but cheaper in the long run when done correctly. Our civil defence was one of the strongest and perhaps most well-established systems in the world – tightly integrated with, and providing support to, the military organisation.

Our civil defence was, however, built up based on one scenario. With the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Francis Fukuyama going as far as to claim “the end of history,” it also signalled the end of our scenario. With this scenario losing its relevance, it was felt Sweden no longer needed a strong civil defence.

However, just as we cannot take one single approach in our relations with the rest of the world, our need for safety and security cannot be dependent on an individual scenario, however likely or unlikely it may appear at the time.

If we instead determine what the ultimate consequences are – the ones our civil defence must withstand – it may be easier to explain to those who follow in our footsteps that the strength of our civil defence needs to be as permanent as Prime Minister Erlander’s description of its role.

The ultimate consequence that our society must withstand is war. That is our defining task. Everything else falls into place under this on a scale of negative consequences and outcomes.

We must not fool ourselves into thinking that no other crisis that befalls our country can be as difficult and far-reaching, but a natural disaster is not a dynamic opponent. It doesn’t actively seek out our vulnerabilities. It doesn’t try to create cascade effects. It hasn’t prepared its next move on the battlefield. It is not an antagonist.

In short, civil defence can deal with crises better than crisis preparedness can deal with wars. That said, civil defence begins with you, me and our personal readiness.

Personal readiness is an act of solidarity with your country. Doing your duty in a small way means helping in a big way when the situation becomes critical. Every person in this country who normally manages without help from society must be prepared to do this even when society is prevented from carrying out its basic functions. But that is not all. Everyone must also do their total defence service if called upon, and that requires personal readiness.

There is a link between the civil defence that was dismantled and the one now being rebuilt, and that is the people who never stopped. The unsung heroes who didn’t take a strategic time-out when Sweden’s politicians and public sector did. I am talking about the 350 000 Swedes who make up our voluntary defence organisations.

Ensuring that these organisations are given what they need to conduct training and exercises is of central importance, but so is ensuring that they have a clear and defined role vis-à-vis the public sector during times of heightened alert. There is more to do in this respect. Ensuring that this happens is one of the things that will, in fact, rapidly increase our capability.

The new Government has taken office at a difficult time defined by crises and a war in our neighbourhood. We will take Sweden into NATO, and just over a week ago Sweden took over the Presidency of the Council of the EU. It will be a presidency marked specifically by war and crises. The security environment has not been this unstable since the Second World War.

The rebuilding of Sweden’s civil defence has begun. Last year, a new civil contingencies and civil defence structure was established, incorporating government agencies and public authorities that have a specific responsibility for emergency preparedness (some also have a sectoral responsibility) and civilian areas at a higher regional level. The 2020 Defence Resolution sets out a clear path for modernising civil defence. The Government has now increased appropriations by almost SEK 1 billion for 2023.

But let me be honest. We’re starting from a very low level and at a time when every expenditure must be weighed against others. It is therefore important that we ask ourselves how we can achieve the maximum increase in capability for every krona invested. The new Defence Commission is very important. It will lay the foundations for Sweden’s new defence and security policy. The Government’s ambition is to continue to strengthen total defence and develop civil defence.

Civilian service

In light of the work underway to strengthen Sweden’s civil defence, I would therefore like to briefly dwell on two pieces of news, the first of which was announced by the Prime Minister, the Minister for Defence and myself at a press conference earlier today. On Thursday, the Government will instruct the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency to implement the necessary measures to prepare for activating civilian service within the municipal rescue services.

Given the prevailing security situation, the Government believes that activating civilian service in the specified areas is a very important part of the work to strengthen Sweden’s total defence.

The business sector

Secondly, there is a need to secure Sweden’s supply preparedness. The business sector, which is ordinarily responsible for, and is a natural part of, the supply chains, will have a clear role to play in supply preparedness in times of crisis and war. It will also constitute an important part of the total defence.

The previous Government decided to establish a cross-sectoral business council, but this never materialised. Last autumn, we revised the decision. On Thursday, the Government will initiate the process of setting up a new cross-sectoral business council better equipped to share information between the Government and the business sector in greater detail in order to advance the work in this area.

This year, a long-awaited inquiry will present its proposals for establishing a body with responsibility for supply preparedness and for principles and means of financing society’s supply preparedness. We all need to take a forward-looking approach to this matter. Sweden’s supply routes can be easily cut off. The ‘just-in-time’ society was one of the first casualties of the pandemic. We need to think and act collectively with regard to stockpiling, supply chains and switching production.


The simpler society appears to be, the more complex its underlying way of functioning becomes. Almost 10 years ago, I went to South Korea to study housing construction. As part of the study trip, I visited a concept home whose ultra-modern features would raise few eyebrows today. The front door was unlocked with an eye scanner, and so on. My first question was: How do I open the door if there is a power cut?

The person showing me around could not give me an answer. This was clearly not one of the usual battery of questions that they were used to. The point here, however, is that a power cut is hardly the only problem to afflict a complex and connected society.

Sweden has not been at war for over 200 years, but this is not the case in the cyber world. We are putting considerable resources into trying to protect ourselves from antagonistic threats and cyberattacks. Even here we must improve our capability.

For some time now, we have had a national cyber security centre, but now it is time to step up the work. Academia, the business sector and public sector actors need to make better use of each other and work closer together in this area. For instance, a review of the national cyber security centre will be carried out in the spring.

Concluding remarks

We must keep two perspectives in mind when modernising our civil defence. First of all, what is happening right now. Lessons must be learned from what is going on in Ukraine. Measures that increase our capability must be identified and prioritised here and now, and this applies to all actors in the system.

Russia’s brutal war of aggression, which has seen Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and population become tactical targets in an attempt to break the will of Ukrainian society, shows the realities with which we are dealing: a rules-based world order cast aside.

However, while we deal with what is happening right now, we must not forget to widen the circle around ourselves in order to better understand our context and avoid short-term thinking in the very policy area that is perhaps least suited for this very thing. As we know, history didn’t come to an end after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Nor will it come to an end after Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping. Civil defence must be regarded as an integral part of society, and in that respect, it is incumbent upon every government to also advance these issues from the long-term perspective that they actually deserve.

Thank you.