Denmark holds a significant geostrategic position in Euro-Atlantic security, sitting astride two key regional access points. The first is its role at the northern end of the Greenland-Iceland-UK (GIUK) gap (Greenland is a self-governing country within the Kingdom of Denmark). Second is Denmark’s position below the Kattegat/Skagerrak Straits, the maritime link between the North and Baltic seas. The GIUK gap and the Kattegat/Skagerrak Straits are increasingly important strategic choke points in the Euro-Atlantic theatre, given returning great power competition, naval rivalry, and an increasingly unstable security balance. Access through these choke points, the position of key NATO and partner states in providing Host Nation Support (HNS) for NATO forces, and securing sea lines of communication (SLOCs) through such choke points and to connect such HNS nodes are major areas of current NATO focus.
These issues were discussed by Rear Admiral Torben Mikkelsen, head of the Royal Danish Navy (RDN), at the Maritime/Air Systems and Technologies (MAST) conference in Copenhagen, Denmark on 4 September. In the face of great power competition and rivalry at sea, Rear Admiral Mikkelsen said; “The trans-Atlantic link is more important now than ever.” Consequently, he continued, Denmark has a key role to play in supporting the maintenance of SLOCs (Sea Lines of Communication) and providing the best HNS possible. In the context of SLOCs security, he noted; “I see it as my job to produce as efficient Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW) units as possible [and] anti-air warfare units as possible, because they are likely to be part of the protection of the SLOCs.”
Moreover, the Admiral added, the RDN can play a crucial role in supporting the mobile air bases provided by aircraft carriers operating in the Euro-Atlantic theatre. In the event of crisis or conflict in, for example, the Baltic region relating to NATO’s Baltic State members, he argued that carrier-based air power could be crucial in establishing Baltic air superiority. Aircraft carriers are a returning presence in the region. Two US Navy (USN) Nimitz class carriers – USS George H W Bush and USS Harry S Truman – deployed there in 2017 and 2018, respectively. The UK Royal Navy (RN) now has two carriers at sea preparing for operations. In 2019, the RN also led a nine-navy amphibious task group (including the RDN’s lead combat support ship HDMS Absalon) into the Baltic Sea for the inaugural Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) maritime deployment. The RDN has worked with USN carriers; in 2017, its Iver Huitfeldt class guided-missile frigate HDMS Peter Willemoes deployed with the USS George H W Bush carrier strike group.
HDMS Peter Willemoes also operated in the Arctic region in mid-2019, in waters off Greenland. Underlining the size of the maritime area, the RDN must cover including North Sea/Baltic waters and North Atlantic/Arctic waters around both Greenland and the Faroe Islands (another Danish self-governing country), Rear Admiral Mikkelsen told the conference; “The Greenland coastline is the equivalent of two times the US coastline.” He added that Denmark was required to patrol a maritime area the size of Europe with a very limited number of ships and aircraft. The admiral argued, there are measures the navy and other branches of Denmark’s armed forces can take to improve security coverage of its Arctic areas of interest, even with limited assets. Part of the solution here, he said, “is to establish good surveillance, to establish good picture compilation, and to establish good picture integration.” Focusing on these areas will be important in enabling the necessary sea control in time and space terms, he added, with integration of such capabilities critical in improving coverage as the navy cannot cover the whole area at the same time. He added that the Arctic coverage question can also be addressed through improved international collaboration.
“If we collaborate our efforts out there amongst the [countries] operating up there, we would get a much better idea about what the actual picture is,” he said. “If [we] can share that picture, and we can share the intelligence related to that picture, we actually have the possibility to react on what is not a normal picture. There’s plenty of room for improvement.” He continued; “We need to collaborate [on] the effort up there, and I think we have a lot of possibilities to do that still: we do not need to [deploy] more ships and more aircraft.”
As regards particular concepts and capabilities that also can improve the RDN’s overall flexibility, he noted the development of containerised weapons systems, for example. Such an approach means that “when a platform is obsolete, we do not necessarily have to change it all, and when the weapons system is obsolete, we do not necessarily have to change the platform.” He argued that more still can be done to improve containerised capability, such as fitting different sensors into containers to make them more deployable. He also noted the need to use both 20-ft and 40-ft containers.
Dr Lee Willett, Copenhagen