Keeping Danish F-16s in the Fight: Three Lessons


2015-08-10 By Gary Schaub, Jr.

Last September, Denmark reacted quickly and enthusiastically to the American call to join the anti-Daesh coalition, contributing a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft early on, 7 F-16s, and 120 soldiers to train Iraqi security forces.

During the past 10 months, Danish F-16s have flown over 452 missions, flown over 4,000 hours, and used over 397 PGMs.

Dr. Gary Schaub, Jr of the Centre of Military Studies. Opening the Danish Airpower Conference in April 2015. Credit: SLD
Dr. Gary Schaub, Jr of the Centre of Military Studies. Opening the Danish Airpower Conference in April 2015. Credit: SLD

It has been a stalwart American ally since Operation Allied Force, sustaining significant military contributions to operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Mali, and Syria, but its military is straining under the stress of repeated deployments, decades of being underfunded, and continued budget cuts.

The newly-formed Danish government of Lars Løkke Rasmussen announced in the first week of August that it intended to continue the participation of Danish F-16s in the air campaign against Daesh and that it would seek parliamentary approval to extend the mandate before it expires in October.

Now, however, it is reconsidering this pledge.

Major General M.A.L.T. Nielsen, the Chief of the Royal Danish Air Force, as well as the union representatives of the men who maintain his aircraft, have warned that Denmark’s F-16s and the personnel who keep them flying are being stressed to the breaking point. “We cannot continue,” concluded General Nielsen.

Although the government’s initial response was to find a way to maintain the deployment, the new and inexperienced defence minister, Carl Holst, has indicated that he may abandon that option.

I have a clear feeling that the military value of radar support is very usable.

It can be an element” in Denmark’s contribution to the fight against Daesh.

While Denmark’s TPS-77 Long-Range Air Surveillance Radar might indeed prove “usable,” it certainly would not be as useful as Denmark’s 7 F-16s.

The inability to sustain their deployment would indeed be “embarrassing” and damage Denmark’s reputation as a remarkably reliable ally.

 There are three lessons to be drawn from this episode.

First, Denmark’s F-16s are reaching the end of their useful service life.

The government chose to delay buying new aircraft in 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. At each juncture it and the political parties behind the defence agreements chose to reduce the number of operational aircraft, engage in creative management of flight hours, and increase already extensive maintenance in order to keep a smaller fleet of F-16s flying.

Danish F-16 fighter jets takes off from Flyvestation Skrydstrup in Jutland, Denmark, on Oct. 2, 2014. (AP / Janus Engel, POLFOTO)
Danish F-16 fighter jets takes off from Flyvestation Skrydstrup in Jutland, Denmark, on Oct. 2, 2014. (AP / Janus Engel, POLFOTO)

These solutions will no longer work. When the Parliament reconvenes it must quickly engage in choosing a new type of aircraft.

Whether it is the Eurofighter Typhoon, the F/A–18 Super Hornet, or the F-35 Lightning II, the parliament should also enable the government to speed up the procurement so that the new aircraft are delivered quickly.

Otherwise Denmark may lack an air force that can participate in international air campaigns for a number of years, an outcome that will be even more likely if one of the increasingly decrepit F-16s crashes from an equipment failure.

Second, Denmark must increase its spending on defence.

The shortage of maintenance crews, the restricted number of new mechanics being trained, and indeed the insufficient number of the new mechanics in the training pipeline resulted from deliberate decisions taken given the budget cuts mandated in the December 2012 Defence Agreement.

That agreement cut defence spending by 15% in total and directed that those cuts come entirely from the half of the budget that provided support to the operational forces.

Military leaders did as they were ordered and cut where they hoped the least damage would be done.

Now it should be clear to all that support functions are important and necessary for Danish military operations to continue and for the Danish Armed Forces to perform at the level of professionalism that has been their hallmark.

Furthermore, politicians should not be sanguine and expect its partners will understand given Denmark’s chronically low defense spending. Denmark has never met NATO targets for its defence spending, whether in the Cold War or since.

Danish defence spending has been declining steadily since 1990 and now rests at approximately 1.2 percent of GDP. More cuts are forthcoming through 2017, when the current defence agreement expires.

In an atmosphere in which European countries that are not meeting their budgetary and fiscal obligations are being manhandled by those countries carrying what they feel is an unfair share of the burden, Denmark will be opening itself up to criticism and embarrassment.

The inability to sustain a deployment because of budget cuts is precisely the sort of failure that the United States has warned its allies about. Repeatedly.

Third, if Denmark cannot do it alone it must do it with others.

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 1 of Denmark’s 4 F-16 squadrons to train Danish pilots, an arrangement that bent Denmark’s prohibition on basing foreign forces on its soil.

When Denmark deployed 4 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 have achieved or sustained alone.

It must be emphasized that such cooperation requires political leadership.

The decisions of Norwegian and Dutch political leaders precluded the multinational deployment of a joint Danish-Dutch-Norwegian squadron for operations in Libya in 2011, but if Denmark needs their help then these decisions will block Danish efforts.

Danish diplomacy ought to be devoted to encouraging the better integration of air force deployments with these countries, particularly since they cooperate deeply with Denmark in the maintenance of their F-16 fleets.

Cooperation should not be pursued on an ad hoc basis or handled by other coalition partners.

While Denmark need not go as far as the Netherlands and Belgium, which have indicated the ambition to fully integrate their air forces in the coming decade, Danish leaders should think creatively about how to develop concerted efforts with these countries.

Given the goodwill that Denmark has earned through blood and treasure over the past 15 years, it is almost certain that the United States or other coalition partners will help to keep its aircraft in the fight against Daesh.

But it should be 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 political support but it has been its ability to sustain meaningful military contributions to coalition efforts that have won American respect.

Quickly acquiring a replacement for the F-16s, increasing defence spending, and pursuing meaningful cooperation with Norway and the Netherlands are three actions that the new government ought to take to keep it for the long term.