Royal Danish Navy: Future Capabilities and Options

By Commander K.T. Madsen, Royal Danish Navy

For the first centuries of its existence, the RDN was involved in fighting against the Hanseatic League and Sweden. Denmark controlled all approaches to the Baltic and demanded customs duty from ships passing in and out of the Baltic Sea. It wasn't until 1658 that Denmark finally lost control over southern Sweden, an area over which several wars had been fought.

During those wars and the following Great Nordic War, the Navy was able to stop all enemy landings on the Danish islands. Only when ice covered the Danish straits did the Swedes succeed in crossing the belts. After the wars it was obvious that Denmark's forward line of defense was its navy, and the security and prosperity of the nation were dependent on a strong fleet.

The Danish Navy became a naval power involved not only in the defense of the kingdom but also in the protection of the Danish trade. After a battle with the Barbary states, Denmark for several years kept a squadron in the Mediterranean, for presence and to protect trade.

During the Napoleonic Wars, Denmark tried to stay neutral, but as the war expanded to involve neutral trade, it was forced to join the Armed Neutrality. Fearing that Denmark would join the war on Napoleon's side and make the Danish Navy—the largest in Continental Europe—available to France, Great Britain sent Nelson to Copenhagen, where the ensuing battle did significant damage to the Danish fleet. In 1807 another British force besieged Copenhagen and after a fierce bombardment of the city captured most of the Danish Navy. The partners of the Armed Neutrality did not come to Denmark's assistance.

The two lessons learned were that Denmark alone cannot defend itself against a major power and that allies and alliances don't last forever. The same lessons can be drawn from the conflicts of the 20th century.

During World War I, Denmark was able to remain neutral mainly because the country's strong armed forces were able to deter participants from expanding the fighting to the north. In 1940, Germany occupied Denmark, which later in the war scuttled most of its fleet under German attack. After the war, Denmark had to rebuild its navy nearly from scratch. With the advent of the Cold War, Denmark became a frontline state, located in the shadow of the Iron Curtain. The Navy became a coastal navy focused mainly on the Baltic.

From the Cold War to New Missions

When the Cold War ended, the Danish armed forces were faced with a political requirement to reduce defense expenditures and manpower. Since 1989, Danish defense spending has dropped from 2.1% of the gross domestic product to 1.7%. From 1990 to 1999, a long-term reduction plan will cut manpower by 14.3%.

Initial savings were accomplished by reductions in the relatively high state of readiness. But the ever-increasing demand for budget cuts have resulted in less sea time and fewer flying hours, too. Further trimming in this area is not recommended, so the Navy has been looking into reducing available ships. In 1990, the Navy consisted of 57 ships, 5 submarines, and 8 helicopters; in 1999, the number of ships will drop to 50. At the same time, the number of ships and submarines in active service will drop from 42 to 35. 1 A number of missile boats already have been transferred to reserve, in a very low state of readiness.

The mission of the Danish armed forces is stated in an act passed by the Parliament in December 1993. Defense is an essential instrument of the nation's security policy, and its aims are to prevent conflicts and war, maintain Danish sovereignty, ensure the continuous existence and integrity of the country, and promote the peaceful development of respect for human rights worldwide. 2 The main mission, however, always will be the defense of Danish territory.

The new defense act gave the Navy two broad missions. The first is to maintain control of—and support national interests in—Danish home waters and those waters surrounding Greenland and the Faeroe Islands. This is the top priority in war. The second is whatever mission is assigned to Danish units operating within NATO or other multinational forces.

Currently, the Navy maintains capabilities adequate to execute the first mission, while developing an improved capability to perform the second. 3

In wartime, the main task basically would remain unchanged: to maintain control of the Danish straits and defend the territory against attack from the sea. But in accordance with the new NATO strategy, the Navy also must be able to participate in conflict prevention, crisis management, and defense in a broader NATO context. Finally, the Navy must be able to participate in conflict prevention, peacekeeping, peacemaking, and humanitarian missions in the United Nations or OSCE context.

The Influence of Technology

In recent decades, sensor and weapon ranges have increased dramatically. Only below the surface have developments been less drastic. Modern equipment also has increased in price and complexity. For a coastal navy, it has become increasingly difficult to buy and find space for all the needed equipment in all the small ships, not to mention meeting the demand for training and spare parts.

Rear Admiral K. Winther has said, "Equipment and weapon systems are purchased in numbers insufficient to meet the needs of the training establishment and schools. At the same time, the complexity of equipment fitted into our ships and aircraft increases, rendering units less ready and making them fully operational later—if at all!" 4

When modern systems are not only complex and expensive but also difficult to maintain and operate at anywhere near designed efficiency, ships become so expensive and so complex that they cannot be risked. The small navy then has to reconsider the quality/quantity question.

Finally, a navy must consider the impact of the transfer of modern weapon technology to many nations that previously operated with very simple ships and systems. In the future, ships no longer will be able to hide on the vast oceans. Only in a task group will ships be able to defend themselves against a determined attack, because of the synergistic effect of working in concert. The submarine will be able to operate alone and unseen, but it will not be able to fulfill all the missions required of a fleet. It will be able to conduct intelligence collection and surveillance and in a hot war situation sea denial, but other missions will have to be carried out by surface ships.


The Danish coastal navy of the Cold War did not fit either the new strategy of NATO or the new missions, and funds have not been made available to build a new navy. The Navy has been using available forces and is hoping that future ships and submarines will be more suitable.

Currently, the Danish contribution to NATO Reaction Forces consists of one corvette, two mine countermeasures vessels, a submarine, and, on demand, a command and support vessel to the Multinational Maritime Forces (MNMF). The contribution to Area Forces consists of a corvette, a submarine, ten missile boats and patrol craft, one mine countermeasures unit, and available forces off Greenland and the Faeroe Islands. The rest of the Navy is part of the Main Defense Forces.

The major shortfall in the present contribution to the MNMF is the size of the corvettes, which were built as missile boat leaders for use in the Baltic. The submarines also were built for Baltic and North Atlantic service and lack battery-cooling or air conditioning, which makes them unsuitable for operations in warmer waters. Replacements for the submarines are planned in the beginning of the next century, but a replacement for the corvettes is further away. In both programs, the quality versus quantity question will be a vital issue.

For the foreseeable future, the RDN will play a supportive role in areas far from Denmark. Without any afloat support or power-projection capability, Denmark will be able to support only missions run by other nations or an international organization.

Denmark still will be able to establish control over sea areas close to its borders. The defense of this area must be done within the concept of forward defense in coordination with other NATO countries. In front of the minefields, aircraft and submarines must deny an enemy free use of the sea, while surface ships will operate behind and through the mine barriers.

The Options

With new missions plus reductions in defense expenditures and manpower, the possibilities for big changes are limited. The Navy still has to be able to maintain control of the Danish straits and defend Danish territory against attack from the sea, so the coastal fleet can't be neglected. Readiness and days at sea can be reduced further, but you will never get experienced commanding officers and crews if the ships can't go to sea.

If a navy cannot afford ships both in adequate quantities and of high quality, how can it develop affordable forces with sufficient capabilities to meet future requirements? Can a less-expensive ship with limited capabilities be built? Will it be able to accomplish all the missions? Some, such as naval presence, can be done, but the ship must have a fighting chance in a hot-war situation. Will a cheap ship—perhaps lacking speed or an offensive or defensive capability—be a valuable asset to a task force commander? If the navy chooses high quality, the number of ships will be limited, and the delicate balance between frontline and support structures will be upset.

Another option is specialization within the alliance. Should the Danish Navy give up mine countermeasures, submarines, or another special branch of its inventory? History has shown us that allies and alliances don't last forever. And if you lose a capability in modern warfare, it is very difficult to regenerate it. Giving up capabilities has other problems, as well. For example, if you are unable to clear mines, you might be reluctant to lay them in the first place. Will politicians be likely to believe a piece of vital intelligence collected by another power, if their own military cannot verify it? Finally, if the Danish Navy's primary mission is to maintain control of the Danish straits and defend the territory against attack from the sea, will the politicians accept a specialized navy that is unable to carry out those missions? Specialization doesn't appear to be an acceptable solution for the RDN.

One way to obtain affordable naval forces with the needed capabilities would be to build ships of the same type in greater number. Then each ship would be cheaper to build, because design, development, and construction costs would be spread across more units. This can be done if several nations join a common program. It has been tried before, but it often has failed because one or more nations had requirements that exceeded those of the other nations. The final, higher requirements then make the ship more expensive than a national solution would have been. The solution, which may be unpalatable to some, is to compromise on some requirements and agree on a ship that is not perfect but acceptable. With further integration, reductions in costs for spare parts and training also can be obtained. The Nordic countries are studying this approach in their search for the next generation of submarines.

The Future RDN

Any prediction is difficult. The future development of the Royal Danish Navy will depend on developments on the international scene. But Denmark attaches great importance to membership in and integrated military cooperation within NATO, so the future of its Navy will be within the alliance.

With no imminent threat to Denmark and with the requirement for contribution to NATO Reaction Forces, those forces assigned to NATO will be given a high priority. And top priority will be given to those units assigned to the MNMF. The replacement of submarines and corvettes therefore is critical.

The forces assigned to surveillance of Danish waters and the waters around Greenland and the Faeroes also will be given a high priority. Fortunately, most of the ships for this task are new.

Lowest priority will be given to main defense forces. One of the main tasks of the "Home Fleet" will be the training of personnel with available forces. Funds will not be available for national afloat support or amphibious forces.

The RDN will be a smaller naval power in the future, but it will not become a specialized force, only able to support other navies. In waters vital to Denmark, the Navy will be able to operate and fight independently; in waters far from home, it will have to accept a supporting role.

1 Et forsvar for fremtiden. CHOD DEN, March 96, p. 24.

2 "Facts about Denmark." The Armed Forces. CHOD DEN, May 1996.

3 VAdm. Knud Barck, RDN, "The Commanders Respond," Proceedings, March 1994, pp. 35-36.

4 RAdm. K. H. Winther, RDN, "The Commanders Respond," Proceedings, March 1996, p. 43.

Commander Madsen is commander, 5th Squad (De), which consists of the Danish submarines and SEAL teams. He has commanded the fishery inspection ships HDMS Vadderen and HDMS Beskytteren , six submarines, and a mine layer.


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