Denmark moves to upgrade bare-bones military

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Denmark moves to upgrade bare-bones military
Danish military personnel on exercises. The country's defences are set for added spending. Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

Embarrassing malfunctions, angry dismissals and soaring costs have recently exposed the dire state of Denmark's military after two years of generous donations to Ukraine, prompting Copenhagen to upgrade its armed forces.


The country of just six million people has been one of the top donors to Ukraine, and there has been broad political support for the help, even though it has come at the cost of depleting its own military.

"We gave a lot of materiel, a lot of weapons systems and ammunition to Ukraine, and only kept what was absolutely necessary," Peter Ernstved Rasmussen, the head of specialised defence magazine Olfi, told AFP.

Denmark's bilateral aid to Kyiv so far totals 2.4 percent of its gross domestic product, making it the second-biggest donor in terms of GDP, behind Estonia, according to the Kiel Institute.

In mid-April, Copenhagen approved its 17th aid package, worth 2.2 billion kroner ($314 million).

The generosity has "pulled back the curtains -- you could suddenly look in and see that what we thought was an effective defence force was broken," said Ernstved Rasmussen.

In mid-March, the Scandinavian country said it would increase its defence spending by 5.5 billion euros ($5.85 billion) over the next five years, on top of last year's announcement of 19.2 billion euros over 10 years.

Denmark's 2024 defence budget amounts to 4.8 billion euros.


Good reputation

Since the end of the Cold War, Denmark has become one of the United States' staunchest allies, flexing its military muscle by participating in international operations from Kosovo to Afghanistan and Iraq.

Over the years, Denmark "earned a reputation for being an ally who stood up in difficult times (even though it) had a relatively small defence," Jakob Linnet Schmidt, a researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, told AFP.

"Today we see a change of mind in Denmark towards taking care of our own security," he said.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has shone a spotlight on Denmark's responsibilities as a NATO member, both with regard to its own capabilities and the Alliance's target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defence.

"It's peer pressure from the other NATO members -- and especially to be on very friendly terms with the United States -- that in my opinion has been the decisive issue" for the recent investments, said Peter Viggo Jakobsen, a researcher at the Royal Danish Defence College.

"Denmark was the only (NATO) country around the Baltic Sea that did not spend 2 percent" of GDP on defence, the NATO requirement, he said.

He said the country needed to act urgently because of "the general state of the armed forces".

"We're short of equipment. We're short of personnel, and we're struggling to meet our obligations."


'Will take decades'

Denmark's partners can nonetheless still count on its help, as Copenhagen continues to offer at least the bare minimum.

A battalion of 800 troops was sent to Latvia to protect NATO's eastern flank in 2022, but its mission was not renewed due to a lack of troops.

Other embarrassing issues -- unrelated to each other, according to experts -- have recently made headlines.

This winter, two Navy boats that were supposed to patrol the Arctic and North Atlantic remained docked in Greenland for seven weeks due to engine trouble.

In March, a Danish frigate sent to the Red Sea to protect commercial shipping from attacks by Yemeni Houthi rebels was temporarily unable to use its anti-air missile system during a drone attack due to a malfunction.

Defence Minister Troels Lund Poulsen was not immediately informed of the incident, and after the announcement of additional costs related to new artillery systems he sacked Chief of Defence Flemming Lentfer after having "lost confidence" in him.

The country, which recently increased its mandatory military service from four to 11 months, is turning over a new leaf.

"There is broad support in parliament and the funds that are absolutely necessary have been allocated," Ernstved Rasmussen said.

But no new materiel has been delivered to the Danish military yet, he noted, and questioned who would train the new conscripts given the shortage of officers.

"It is not possible to solve the problems within one or two years. This is going to take 10, 20, 30 years to bring back the defence forces to a state where we can call ourselves a trustworthy ally," he lamented.


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