The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Swedes are calling up women to help fend off threats like Russia

A squad from the Skaraborg Regiment patrols outside the Swedish town of Visby's 13th-century wall on Sept. 14. (Soren Andersson/TT News Agency via Reuters)

LONDON — Only a few years ago, the draft appeared to be a dead model both in Europe and in North America. Now, it is not only in resurgence but also in the midst of adaptation.

In a development closely watched by armies worldwide, Sweden recently announced that it will bring back the draft. Perhaps even more surprising is that women also would be eligible if the plans are implemented. A legally binding decision is expected next year.

That gender may soon have no bearing on military service in Sweden is no surprise to many there. The country has already established gender-neutral preschools and recently added a gender-neutral pronoun to official dictionaries: 'hen.'

Neighboring Norway has drafted women for years. Officials there say they consider their system a model for smaller Western countries that often struggle to find enough qualified military personnel. Only a handful of countries require women to serve in the army, including Israel.

“Within the Army and Air Force, once the soldiers are moved to their unit of specialization, they normally move into mixed living quarters. However, such living is voluntary for both genders," Norwegian military official Asgeir Spange Brekke said in an email.

In Sweden, the fear of Russia has caused the rethink, experts said.

Russia's annexation of Crimea and military movements along the borders of Nordic European countries have raised alarm bells in European Union capitals. In Sweden, Finland and Norway, concerns that it would take Russia only a few hours to launch an invasion are regularly cited in parliament and by media outlets.

Similar to what is planned in Sweden, Norway has a mixed system that combines conscription with voluntary military service.

Whereas professional soldiers stay in the army for years, conscripts serve only for a short time. But both professional soldiers and conscripts in Norway join voluntarily. Unlike in Israel, where nearly everyone is drafted into the army, Sweden would follow Norway's more liberal approach, which allows eligible conscripts to drop out or not register. There are 60,000 candidates every year in Norway, but only about 8,000 are drafted. Up to 20 percent of them are women.

Apart from promoting equal rights and opportunities, the recruitment of women is supposed to strengthen the military. "Operational demands and high levels of specialization and sophistication dictate the need to recruit as widely as possible. We cannot afford to exclude half of the population in the recruitment process," Spange Brekke said.

"It is widely acknowledged that a more even gender balance changes the work environment in a positive way," he said. But Spange Brekke acknowledged that difficulties remain: Sexual harassment is among the main reasons women leave the army.

Sweden introduced gender-neutral conscription in 2010 but never actually drafted women because the country abolished conscription altogether the same year. "The armed forces were not prepared to compete on a free market. For instance, the salary they offered was simply not comparable to most other jobs," said Johan Wiktorin, a fellow at the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences.

"The gender-neutrality approach has not even been discussed that much here in Sweden. To us, it is clear that people should have equal opportunities and duties," Wiktorin said.

In a recent survey, 70 percent of Swedes expressed support for the planned return of conscription. In other E.U. countries, public agreement with such a model has been on the rise. In terrorism-hit France, for instance, 80 percent recently said they would support a draft-based service to secure the country.

"Sweden is responding belatedly to the new security situation in Europe. Its government has just started to reverse course, after running down the country's military for 20 years," said Keir Giles, an associate Russia and Eurasia fellow at Chatham House in London. "There has been a slow realization that the country has relied on a lightweight force for too long."

Although Giles said that the likelihood of Sweden being attacked by Russia was extremely low, he emphasized that the perception of a threat had probably been the deciding factor for the reversal on conscription.

"Its impact of the country's defensive preparedness will be small," Giles said, referring to the small number of recruits in comparison with Russia. "But it also provides a unifying factor for the country."

Read more:

Some E.U. countries got rid of the draft years ago. Now, they’re thinking about bringing it back.

Sweden is about to add a gender-neutral pronoun to its official dictionary