Micael Bydén takes over as Sweden’s Supreme Commander

Micael Bydén takes over as Sweden’s Supreme Commander

On 1 October, Sverker Göranson handed over to Sweden’s new Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, Micael Bydén.  Described as a fearless warrior, Mr Bydén is set to take over a military in the middle of a major transformation while tackling the worst security situation Sweden has faced since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Before the modern era, the Swedish King was expected to command the armed forces himself. This remained the case formally until the 20th century.  In 1939, just after the Second World War commenced, Sweden’s first Supreme Commander, General Olof Thörnell, was appointed in conjunction with rearmament of the Swedish Armed Forces.  The aim was to make the system stronger by appointing a manager with overall responsibility for all elements of the Armed Forces.  Subsequently, ten men have held the position. In 1942 it was decided to keep the office of the Supreme Commander even after the end of the war.  Still, the Supreme Commander would, in wartime, formally report to the King in Council until the enactment of the new Instrument of Government in 1975.  Since then, the Supreme Commander has formally reported to the government.  Nowadays, the Supreme Commander plays a vital role in the Armed Forces, but the role has over the years become increasingly one of managing a government authority.

On October 1, Major-General Micael Bydén (b. 1964) took over the leadership of Sweden’s Armed Forces.  Twenty-six years earlier, in 1989, he began his military career as a SAAB Viggen pilot at the Norrbotten Air Command F 21 in Luleå.  He was the fearless type.  In a blog posted the recently he wrote: “During my flying career, I have broken air traffic control clearances. I have overloaded aircraft.  I have collided with birds and landed in the wrong runway direction.”  In 1989, he flew so low during a reconnaissance mission that he landed with a hole in the edge of one wing.[1]  He also likes to drive cars. Fast cars.  This summer he participated in the Gumball 3000 race driving a Ferrari F12 Berlinetta [2]

Mr Bydén accumulated 1,500 flight hours before he began a management program at the Swedish National Defence College in the mid-1990s.  Subsequently, in 2001, he was appointed Air Attaché at the Swedish Embassy in Washington D.C. after having served as Assistant Air Attaché for two years.  During the years in Washington D.C. he developed very good contacts with the Americans which remain to this day.[3]  Mr Bydén’s media breakthrough came in 2009, when he, as Commander of the Swedish helicopter fleet in Linköping, sounded the alarm about the lack of fireproof bras for his female crewmembers.  He speculated in media that until the issue was resolved, women would decline to wear bras when they were flying.[4]  The last six years Micael Bydén has spent at the Headquarters of the Armed Forces.  He served as Chief of Staff at ISAF’s Regional Command North in Afghanistan[5] before being appointed Chief of Staff of the Swedish Air Force in 2011.[6] He has described the role as Air Force Chief as “the nicest job I can imagine, getting to nurture and manage a gemstone – the Swedish Air Force”.[7]  His experience from the air force will prove useful in his new role as the Armed Forces are about to obtain new Jas 39 Gripen fighter jets, and Sweden hopes to export the jets to more countries.

Bydén about Russia: ”What’s next?”

In 1982, Micael Bydén began his military service as a second lieutenant at the Coast Artillery Regiment KA 4 in Gothenburg, the year after a Soviet submarine had run aground outside Karlskrona.  He now takes over Sweden’s top military position amidst a security situation somewhat reminiscent of the 1980s.  He will lead an organisation of 50,000 people and be in charge of a budget of SEK 43 billion.  It’s a big job.  The former Supreme Commander, Sverker Göranson, went on sick leave for exhaustion in January 2013 after three years in office. It took eight weeks of rehabilitation before he was back at work.[8]  Nothing points to Micael Bydén having an easier task ahead of him.  On the contrary.  He takes over at a time with an on-going conflict in Ukraine and Russia’s renewed superpower ambitions making relationships around the Baltic Sea increasingly tense.  At his disposal, he inherits what Sverker Göranson called a ‘one-week defence’, meaning that in case of a limited armed attack, Sweden would be able to defend itself for one week.

As late as June of this year, Micael Bydén, in his capacity of Air Force Chief of Staff, denounced provocative tactics used by Russian pilots in the Baltic region as “very dangerous” and said Swedish Air Force countermeasures have increased by 50 per cent in the last two years: “As trainee pilots we flew no closer than 10km from borders and we expect (Russians) also to do this, but after Crimea and Ukraine, the million dollar question is ‘What’s next?’  I grew up with it, but this is unpredictable and I don’t like the development,” he said at the 2015 Paris Air Show.[9]  But Mr Bydén also said that while Russian aircraft were regularly probing Sweden’s defences, there had been only one recorded case of an airspace violation by a Russian aircraft.  He was more concerned about Russia’s continuing intelligence-gathering flights with transponders turned off and not responding to radio calls.  To illustrate the problem, he pointed to a couple of 2014 incidents involving near collisions with airplanes departing Copenhagen’s Kastrup Airport.  The airliners came into close proximity with Russian air force Il-20 “Coots” operating in mid-level altitudes in international airspace near where the airliners were climbing to cruise height.[10]  In both of these incidents the aircraft had their transponders switched off, making them invisible for civil air traffic.  Speaking to media at the time, Mr Bydén said it was “highly inappropriate” that such aircraft choose to fly in highly populated airspace.[11]

Increased defence funding enables ‘troop factory’

The problem is not really that the Swedish system is so bad, but that it is adapted for a world that is now gone.  For 15 years, Sweden’s Armed Forces have been focused on international operations and emergency responses to crises around the world.  Changing the mindset of the Armed Forces will be a challenge, but changing the system means that Mr Bydén will have to convince politicians of the need for continued increased funding.  In the spring, the government and the Alliance parties, except the Liberal Party, agreed to allocate the Armed Forces just over SEK 10 billion between 2016 and 2020, thus reversing the trend of cutting defence funding and the largest budget reinforcement for the armed forces since World War II.  On 30 September, the Armed Forces announced how the extra money will be used. Much of it will be spent on new staff, equipment, exercises and setting up new military units. T he Armed Forces will increase headcount by around 1,200 full-time employees.  In some areas, there will be fewer people working for the Armed Forces. In Boden and Arvidsjaur in the north, 60 jobs will be cut, and just as many will go in Skövde, Karlsborg and in Skåne.  The new jobs will mainly be in Karlskrona, Enköping and on the island of Gotland, where a new unit of around 300 people will be created.  In 2016, the Armed Forces will begin new basic training program to ensure access to enough soldiers. The Armed Forces call this “the troop factory” (soldatfabriken).  The system will be similar to the previous system of conscription, although it will be voluntary.   Approximately 4,000 soldiers will be trained every year.[12]

The agreed sum of SEK 10.2 billion is, however, about SEK 8 billion less than what the Armed Forces had requested and considered necessary to deliver the objectives set by the politicians.  Current affairs magazine Fokus notes that, as such, the stage should therefore be set for a clash over money between the Supreme Commander department and the Minister for Defence Peter Hultqvist (S).  As a former defence minister, Thage G Peterson, wrote in his memoirs; all Social Democratic Defence Ministers have had poor relationships with their respective Supreme Commanders.  The fact that Mr Hultqvist is both respected and well liked in the Armed Forces suggests that it might be different this time.  That his State Secretary is Jan Salestrand, a former Chief of the Armed Forces Defence Staff, bodes for better understanding.  Mr Bydén and Mr Hultqvist also seem to share the same views in the increasingly heated debate about Swedish NATO membership: as long as the Armed Forces deepen cooperation with the United States, there is not much sense joining the defence alliance.  Hence, for the first time in many years, Sweden has a defence duo that pulls in the same direction.[13]


The appointment of Micael Bydén as Supreme Commander has bipartisan appeal, which is invaluable – and probably necessary – for the tasks he faces.  He is regarded as a competent, calm, trustworthy and a confidence-inspiring person.  The news of his appointment has been very well received and, indeed, applauded.  Still, no appointment is made at this level without weaknesses and disadvantages being discussed.  Already ahead of his appointment, there was speculation that JAS Gripen export orders would be a strong decisive factor should Mr Bydén be appointed Supreme Commander.  Meanwhile, the headquarters Armed Forces is a hierarchical organisation in which degrees and decorations are important. Until now, Mr Bydén has not been part of the leadership of the Armed Forces.  He has spent his whole career in the Air Force, and has only been a two-star officer.  With the promotion to Supreme Commander, he jumps ahead of three-star lieutenant generals with both more experience and deeper knowledge of the defence organisation.  A similar situation has only occurred twice before, and then under extraordinary circumstances: during the Second World War in 1943 and during the Korean War in 1951.  The choice of Mr Bydén therefore signals that the government is looking to change the job description of the Supreme Commander from one of managing a government agency to being responsible for leading Sweden in combat. Mr Bydén’s international experiences will also likely broaden and deepen cooperation with the United States and NATO.

Mr Bydén succeeds a popular supreme commander – stepping into Sverker Göranson’s shoes will not be easy.  His appointment comes at uncertain times; it is illustrative of the state of affairs that the Foreign Minister, Margot Wallström (S), called up the Russian Ambassador for a “serious conversation” on the day Sweden’s new Supreme Commander was presented.  Today’s security policy environment and the uncertainty surrounding the Armed Forces make it a short take-off for the new Supreme Commander.  But, on the other hand, such skills a fighter pilot has in abundance.

[1] http://blogg.forsvarsmakten.se/flygvapenbloggen/2012/11/16/manskligt-att-fela/
[2] https://www.crowdrise.com/gumballteam21
[3] Fokus, no.39, 2015, p.14
[4] http://www.thelocal.se/20090510/19358
[5] http://blogg.forsvarsmakten.se/flygvapenbloggen/2011/07/06/besok-hos-vart-helikopterforband-i-afghanistan/
[6] http://web.archive.org/web/20120927210232/http://www.forsvarsmakten.se/upload/dokumentfiler/cv/CV%20Micael%20Bydén.pdf
[7] http://www.helahalsingland.se/halsingland/nordanstig/sunt-gnarpfornuft-leder-nye-flygvapenchefen
[8] http://chef.se/swedish-supreme-commander-of-the-armed-forces-speaks-out-about-his-job-burnout/
[9] http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/show-daily/paris-air-show/2015/06/14/swedish-air-chief-denounces-russian-provocations/71219618/
[10] http://aviationweek.com/paris-air-show-2015/russia-s-baltic-operations-burden-swedish-air-force
[11] http://www.aftonbladet.se/nyheter/article20016179.ab
[12] http://www.forsvarsmakten.se/sv/aktuellt/2015/09/organisation-som-ger-okad-operativ-formaga/
[13] Fokus, no.39, 2015, p.15

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Jessica Nilsson Williams is the CEO & Founder of Mundus International. She has a long-standing interest in international affairs, having studied and worked in the field for more than 20 years. She began her career as the political advisor at the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm, and then worked in London and Singapore before returning to Stockholm. In 2011 she took up a senior role at the New Zealand Embassy before founding Mundus International in 2012. In addition to working for foreign missions, she has worked in sectors such as NGOs and non-profit organisations (e.g. the Clinton Foundation and the International Red Cross), and television. Jessica is a Member of the Board of the Swedish Cricket Federation.