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Danish Defence – Global Engagement


A Commentary on the English-language Summary

The Report by the Danish Defence Commission 2008, chaired by the decade experienced Hans Hækkerup (whom this author first met when he was a member of the North Atlantic Assembly, even before his tenure as Defence Minister) is a very authoritative document. As far as can be seen from the summary, the issues relevant for policy decisions on Denmark’s future security policy are treated fully, competently and very concretely. Also the degree of consensus established in a commission with broad political representation is impressive.

The chapter on “Premises of Security Policy” sets the stage and is a succinct précis of the international situation, security challenges, actors, the need for multilateral responses, and is presented in an original way. Missing may be a description of the Danish national interests ‐ save the mention of the Arctic developments ‐ and also a more solid statement on what relevance NATO has for Danish defence policy. (However, in fairness it has to be admitted that if something seems to be lacking, it may indeed be addressed in the full version.)

The typology of tasks (armed conflict, stabilisation operations and international policing operations) appears constructive, the description how they may overlap is realistic and the remaining tasks related to Danish territory are given convincing emphasis. The characterisation “robust military operations in unstable environments”, including their complexity and “hybrid” character, is fitting, as is the insight that they will be long‐term and periodically high‐intensive. (The political class has to be honest and outspoken with the public about these aspects!)

In the context of foreign missions, the tasks presenting themselves there and the required capabilities for all NATO and contributing nations, indeed for the International Community at large, some soul‐searching is required: after the experience made thus far, much greater modesty would be in order with regard to objectives realistically attainable in far‐away countries with a totally different culture, mentality, history, societal organisation and experience. To some degree, the emphasis given by the Report to local “capacity building” (indigenous security forces) reflects this thought.

The call for integration of military and civilian components of operations, for a coordinating body to this effect and for a readily available pool of nonmilitary experts and political advisors certainly responds to the ”comprehensive approach” proclaimed within NATO, and of which Denmark had been an early proponent and creative promoter.

The chapter about “The Danish Armed Forces – Aims and Tasks” reflects the conclusions drawn from the “premises” and resumes that the global security environment is “uncertain and unpredictable”. However, even if “unlikelihood of general war breaking out in Europe” reflects a fair assessment, the statement about an “absence of a conventional military threat against NATO territory” is very apodictic and true only at present (bringing to mind the famous warning never to make predictions “and particularly not about the future”).

But it seems that the Defence Commission is realistic with regard to the “new” missions, which does not mean that the tasks have shifted from one end of the spectrum to the other, but that the spectrum has become broader. Relating to NATO, the Norwegian Defence State Secretary Eide just recently highlighted this insight ‐ in some minds and some member countries the pendulum may have swung to far to one side, which is reflected in quite onesided priorities. The Report seems to reflect a reasonably cautious approach, which should also be advocated in NATO.

Thus the emphasis on national responsibilities is responsible, but the subordination of the “Total Defence” under the Danish Police as the lead agency looks like an aberration (an extreme amplitude of the abovementioned pendulum). That the Defence Commission calls for a revision of the Act on the Armed Forces in that regard appears consequential, although today’s military is much more in a supporting role for civilian efforts, whilst in defence planning during the Cold War almost the opposite was the case.

Rightly the Defence Commission gives clear quantitative indications for future foreign missions (up to 2000 personnel), made possible by the improvement of the “teeth‐to‐tail” ratio. It also mentions the difficulties produced by the unexpectedly high number of missions in different theatres, by the high need for certain specialised units and by the ad‐hoc composition of deployed units. It is right, and would be right also in other countries, to squarely and candidly address these problems which impact on the ability of armed forces to effectively conduct such missions.

Seen from the outside, the process of restructuring in parallel with the conduct of increasingly demanding missions described in the Report marks an impressive achievement. It is true, in the period of great hopes for a “peace dividend”, Denmark was not different from other countries who neglected the basic truth that restructuring and even reducing armed forces firstly costs additional money before smaller armed forces require smaller budgets. But present challenges and imbalances are not hidden: equipment procurement and modification, compensation for wear and tear, need for new capabilities (e.g. training, close protection and reconstruction teams).

With regard to the level of ambition and the expectation concerning future missions, however, the unknown remains how the development of the situation in Afghanistan will, together with the “soul‐searching” about realistic aims, impact on the readiness of NATO and its members to engage “out‐of-area” in times ahead, and to what extent.

Also in the chapter on “Technology and Equipment”, focusing on how these are impacted by the missions abroad, the Report is very candid in its assessment, starting from the importance that sufficient resources as well swift adaptation and procurement of equipment have for avoiding loss of human life. It recommends particular attention to technological fields such as radar and sensor technology, missile technology, means of defence against attack from rocket, mortar and artillery as well as IED protection. That makes eminent sense, as does the demand that training should be conducted with the same equipment that is used in the missions.

In unison with the 2007/08 Committee on Equipment, service life reduction and the consequences for procurement are highlighted, as well as the importance of sufficient stocks, the impact of loss, damage and field strain. The increase in expenditure on maintaining, updating and replacing equipment is clearly named. And the fact that this June a considerable raise in the Danish defence budget was agreed for the next five years shows the value of such a Defence Commission speaking out clearly. In the same clarity the Report addresses Denmark’s failure to meet NATO demands (a defence expenditure of 2 % of the GNP and 20 % of the defence budget for equipment investments), but there Denmark is “in good company” and still provides an excellent “output” in terms of its contribution to operations.

“People” are dealt with in the following chapter in a very thoughtful way. The present shortages appear as result (or part) of a “vicious circle” including unfilled positions, surplus workload for the remaining personnel, training deficiencies, fewer prepared units, more frequent deployments for the other units, shorter breaks between deployments etc. The resulting inability to keep promises concerning the length of absence on mission is particularly harmful, not only in Denmark, and negatively affects some specialist groups in particular. Initiatives like “better workday” do not seem to particularly convince the Commission, and an expansion of recruitment, if successful, will require temporary expansion of the training capacity. The Commission’s support for making better use of reservists can be positive if promulgated to the addressees, who would help to assuage some of the problems.

An interesting individual subject in the Report is the process of reintegration and readjustment of personnel returning from international operations. Germany’s society has just recently been made aware that it is an illusion that “the majority of troops deployed on international service return without any physical or psychological disabilities” and that the post‐traumatic stress syndrome is much more widespread than authorities are aware or those who are affected admit. Incidentally, since the Danish Military Chaplains’ Service is very good and engaged, it is curious why it does, in the Report’s enumeration, not figure among the experts able to help.

With this considerate and solicitous treatment of issues relating to the personnel (in addition to the ones mentioned there are more such as families, subsistence of wounded and handicapped veterans, civilian accreditation for military education), the 2008 Defence Commission proves to be a good advocate for the interests and concerns of what is most important in armed forces: their people.

In the next chapter on “Support”, the experience with centralisation rings familiar, as does the sceptical assessment of a “just adequate” or “just in time” support structure. Other critical aspects of the (nonetheless unavoidable) establishment of joint functional services regard relocation, reduced levels of expertise through the departure of qualified personnel in the course of the restructuring, division of responsibility, cooperation and communication, interfaces etc. If the body of the Report is sufficiently differentiated in this regard, it will help to analyse pros and cons of centralisation in an “unideological” way.

In the context of outsourcing and public‐private partnership, the Report mentions the “use of civilian companies in connection with international operations” in a disturbingly neutral way, mentioning that Denmark “is currently engaged in mapping the many aspects of using civilian contractors in military operations”. If here a somewhat engaged comment is allowed, it might contribute to that “mapping” process: It is obvious that the growth of Private Military Companies (PMC) calls for debate and clear normative decisions. For the “Westphalian” achievement of the state’s monopoly on the  use of military force is being eroded faster than regulatory measures are put into place. To be sure, privatisation and outsourcing of logistical, transport, supply, maintenance and medical services, as a trend in all modern armed forces, poses potential basic problems only with regard to their reliable availability in foreign missions and dangerous environments.

On the other hand, the expanding role of PMCs in conflicts worldwide, providing training, security services, armed support, or even active participation in combat within foreign missions, raises important ethical, political, legal and military concerns to which NATO as an alliance which prides itself to be a community of values, as well as its member states, cannot turn a blind eye. Ethically, warfare for profit is highly problematic. And not easily justifiable is the inclination of some Western governments to have PMCs or mercenaries fulfil tasks for which they want to avoid the public controversy their conduct by the regular armed forces would stir up – PMCs as a reserve army outside public interest. “License to kill” in a foreign country without a firm legal base, accountability, jurisdiction and transparency should not occur in connection with NATO operations. Recent incidents have raised public concerns and possess the potential to damage the credibility not only of individual Member States, but also of the Alliance in toto.

Efforts should be supported to expand current, insufficient, legislation, such as the US Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act, to apply arms export regulations, to establish codes of conduct, to improve reglementation and accountability, to encourage prosecution of wrongdoing, to enhance military commanders’ oversight over PMCs and to improve democratic transparency of the subject.

The considerations about the “Development” of the Danish armed forces are based on a very sensible selection of factors such as the level of ambition, quick and flexible configuration and deployment of contingents, sustainment of up to 2000 troops in foreign missions etc. The present unfavourable manpower situation is regarded as a problem strategically challenging the development.

It is striking that compulsory military service is mentioned (with a positive bias?), but not discussed. This may be due to dissenting votes within the Commission, or a fuller treatment takes place in the full Report. However, clear messages on this subject are important, as can be seen in Germany right now, where the advocates of abandonment of conscription may soon carry the day with their very selective arguments and the popular assertion that the draft was “a useless relic of the Cold War”. Nations still maintaining conscription should not hurry to make the same bad experiences that some of their neighbours have made in recent years with giving it up. 

The mention of a number of remaining national tasks fits into this line of thought, and it is clear that the Defence Commission keeps an eye on both sides of the spectrum, on the one hand advocating the development of specialised capabilities for foreign missions, on the other hand maintaining the right structures at home, including the supporting role of the Danish Home Guard. Also the roles foreseen for Navy and Air Force make sense.

Finally, on “Resources”, the Commission candidly addresses the imbalance between tasks and resources allocated. It states concrete sums for, i.a., stocks, for the “train as you fight” principle and the concomitant procurement of training equipment, for operation and maintenance of equipment, for the “better working day” measures, for increasing the training capacity, for the increase of staff positions and an expansion of the structure, and for IT equipment. The aforementioned decision to enlarge the defence budget for the next five years by 3.5 bn crowns covers only part of the stated demand, but testifies to a serious recognition of the necessities.

The summary of “Recommendations” is very concrete and reasonable, a good working tool for preparing decisions. In sum, the recommendations are tailored to what a small country can do (and which, in the case of Denmark, is quite impressive). A German observer would like to see such a commission or enquête committee established in his country that would go beyond the slick, polished statements of the Defence White Book and deal with the requirements in such a concrete and tangible way.