Denmark: Defense Woes in the Little U.S. Ally That Could


Denmark has been a stalwart ally of the United States since 1999, participating in operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali, and off of the Horn of Africa, and transporting chemical weapons out of Syria. Last September, Denmark reacted quickly and enthusiastically to the American call to join the anti-Islamic State coalition, contributing a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft early on, 7 F-16s, and 120 soldiers to train Iraqi security forces. The Danish parliament overwhelmingly approved these deployments and the new Danish government of Lars Løkke Rassmussen has pledged to extend the mission when its mandate expires in October, but it is unclear whether the Danish military can continue. The ability of this small country to sustain its deployments for years on end has impressed American defense officials, but it is now cracking under the strain of defense cuts and sustained operations.

The latest alarm came from the chief of the Royal Danish Air Force. Recently, Maj. Gen. M.A.L.T. Nielsen said, “We have a group of employees who have undertaken an extraordinary effort. We engaged in Iraq in October 2014 and have flown more than 4,000 hours, more than 410 missions, and have dropped more than 350 bombs. We cannot continue to do this.”

Nielsen pointed to the ongoing strain that flying combat missions has put on his aged F-16s, but, more pointedly, to a shortage of mechanics to maintain them. The lack of support personnel is a long-term problem for the Danish air force exacerbated by budget cuts. Thirty out of 210 positions for mechanics are vacant and will not be filled anytime soon because it takes 4–5 years to adequately train a competent aircraft maintenance technician. Furthermore, a large cohort of mechanics is reaching retirement age and cannot be replaced with the current training pipeline. Unfortunately, this high-demand, low-density career field has been neglected in favor of other priorities — such as purchasing adequate supplies of precision-guided munitions — given fiscal constraints.

Nielsen’s alarm did not resonate with the Danish media and political class, however, until 14 trade union representatives wrote to their parliamentarians. They argued that the air force’s mechanics have been overworked both in Kuwait and at Skrydstrup air force base in southern Jutland, home of Denmark’s 30 operational F-16s. The mechanics have not been able to follow the established policy of six months of preparation before a year of operations followed by six months of rest and reset. The senior shop steward, Henrik J. Christiansen, said that his mechanics cannot continue at the current pace and that neither more money nor more people could solve the problem. Instead he suggested that Denmark withdraw its F-16s and support staff from the fight against the Islamic State.

Shop stewards may garner more media attention than generals in this small country, but parliamentarians set foreign policy and they are divided. The spokespersons for the parties that did not support the mission — Alternative and Unity List — have predictably suggested that overworked maintenance crews means Denmark should certainly not extend its mission past October when the current mandate expires.

Søren Espersen, foreign policy spokesman for the Danish People’s Party and chairman of parliament’s Foreign Policy Committee, argued that protecting Denmark is the primary mission of the Danish armed forces and if fighting terrorists in Iraq has strained them to the point that they cannot adequately defend Denmark then they should come home. He suggested that the Americans in particular would understand if Denmark lacked the capability to continue.

Given Denmark’s chronically low defense spending, he should not be so sanguine. Cuts in support personnel were deliberately made to save money and the inability to sustain a deployment is precisely the sort of failure that the United States has warned its allies about. Repeatedly. Danish defense spending has been declining steadily since 1990 and it now spends approximately 1.2 percent of GDP. It is set to endure more cuts through 2017, when the current five-year defense agreement expires. The political parties are reluctant to reopen that agreement in order to meet either current obligations or Denmark’s pledge to eventually reach the two percent target agreed to at the NATO summit last September. The United States was understanding when Denmark could sustain meaningful deployments despite its small budget, but if those days are over American empathy will depart with the last Danish F-16.

On the other side of the political spectrum, the Conservative defense spokesperson, Rasmus Jarlov, recognized that “it is embarrassing if Denmark cannot manage to keep seven fighter aircraft deployed to Kuwait.” He and the Liberal party have argued that the mission must continue and that ways must be found to support it. They have suggested that Denmark look to its coalition partners for help in maintaining the deployed Danish aircraft.

This has worked for Denmark in the past. As I argued in a report released this past April by the Centre for Military Studies of the University of Copenhagen, when the Danish air force suffered a severe pilot shortage in the 1980s, the United States Air Force manned one of Denmark’s four F-16 squadrons to train Danish pilots, an arrangement that bent Denmark’s prohibition on basing foreign forces on its soil.   When Denmark deployed four F-16s to Afghanistan in 2002, it did so with the Norwegians and the Dutch, sharing support personnel and enabling a deployment that none could achieve or sustain alone.

It is almost certain that the United States or other coalition partners will extend help to Denmark to keep its aircraft in the fight, but they should make clear to Danish parliamentarians that they are in this predicament because they have consistently underfunded their military. The United States certainly appreciates Denmark’s reliable support but it has been its ability to sustain meaningful military contributions to coalition efforts that have won Denmark plaudits. If its leaders do not value that ability enough to fund it, then Denmark’s reputation will lose its luster and help will not be forthcoming as readily as it may be today.


Dr. Gary Schaub Jr. is a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Military Studies at the University of Copenhagen, which conducts research-based consultancy work for the Danish Ministry of Defence. He previously served on the faculty of the US Air War College and the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies.


Photo credit: Senior Airman James Richardson, U.S. Air Force