Even as Sweden prepares to join NATO, the country’s air force is experiencing difficulties. Its most experienced fighter pilots are leaving the service.

“Roughly half of the Swedish Armed Forces’ fighter pilots may take leave or resign entirely in the fall,” Swedish broadcaster SVT reported in July.

Even Sweden’s leaders acknowledge that there is a problem. “Overnight, their retirement age was raised for everyone,” said Maj. Gen. Carl-Johan Edström, chief of the Swedish Air Force. “The fact that a number of pilots are requesting leave is almost entirely due to the new pension agreement.”

Many of those pilots believe they have been betrayed. “A lot of people my age were trained and employed under certain premises that have since been removed,” one pilot told SVT.

Not surprisingly, Russian media, which is upset that formerly nonaligned Sweden has joined NATO, is exaggerating the story. “In recent years, the Swedish Armed Forces have struggled to recruit new pilots and retain existing staff,” according to the state-controlled news outlet Sputnik News.

There are other reasons for the pilot exodus, according to Jan Kallberg, a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis.

“I believe this has been going on for a long time with the pilots,” said Kallberg, a former Swedish army officer. “I believe it is only the tip of the iceberg. For generations, they have felt mistreated.”

NATO previously relied on a few bases on the Norwegian coast to project power into the Barents Sea, which also borders sensitive military bases in northern Russia.

Sweden is not only a larger country with greater strategic depth than Norway, but it also provides access to both the Barents and Baltic seas, as well as bases on Baltic islands that could allow NATO to counter Russian naval and air power in the vital Baltic region.

“Sweden is a natural staging area if you want to conduct deterrence — or support a fight — in the Baltic,” Kallberg said.

Kallberg sees issues in the Swedish military that must be addressed. While Sweden has a long history of sending troops to UN peacekeeping missions, its army, which is comprised of conscripted troops, is unaccustomed to operating in larger formations for the type of big-unit combat that could characterise a NATO-Russia war.

According to Kallberg, Sweden is serious about meeting its NATO commitments. “They are aware that they will be required to provide troops and assets.”

Michael Peck is a defence writer whose work has been published in Forbes, Defense News, Foreign Policy Magazine, and other outlets. He has a master’s degree in political science. You can find him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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