Scandals Blight Denmark's Buildup of its Armed Forces as it Eyes Possible Threats from Russia

Denmark Faulty Missile
The Danish naval frigate Niels Juel is docked in Korsoer, Denmark, on Thursday, April 4, 2024. (Emil Nicolai Helms/Ritzau Scanpix via AP)

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — A series of scandals has blighted Denmark's Armed Forces at a time when the Scandinavian country and member of the NATO alliance is building up its defenses, chiefly as a response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The events have so far led to the dismissal this week of Denmark’s top military chief, Gen. Flemming Lentfer, who failed to inform the defense minister about an incident on the frigate HDMS Iver Huitfeldt last month while deployed to the Red Sea, where it was part of a U.S.-led operation to defend commercial shipping against Houthi militants.

On Thursday, a technical error onboard its sister ship, the frigate HDMS Niels Juel that was docked in a Danish harbor, led to the air space and maritime route being briefly closed due to fears a navy missile might launch unintentionally — but not explode — and send fragments falling into the busy shipping lane between the islands of Zeeland, where Copenhagen sits, and Funen.

The Iver Huitfeldt, which returned from its Red Sea mission on Thursday, ahead of schedule, reportedly experienced a half-hour long malfunction of its missile and radar systems during a drone attack on March 9, according to the specialist defense news website Olfi.

“I have lost trust in the chief of defense,” the defense minister said briefly without elaborating why he fired Lentfer on Wednesday. Maj. Gen Michael Hyldgaard was appointed as his replacement.

The firing of Lentner was “the culmination of so many years of deep crisis,” Martin Krasnik, the editor-in-chief of the weekly Weekendavisen wrote Friday. “The pitiful state of defense management, the unclear division of roles and, to a particular extent, political irresponsibility have led to the fact that Denmark has no defense today. We cannot defend a meager frigate, and we cannot contribute meaningfully to NATO’s defense.”

Peter Viggo Jakobsen, an associate professor with the Royal Danish Defense College, agreed with Krasnik that “there are many problems” in Danish defense, chiefly because spending was reduced in 2012 and Denmark has been “very slow at coming up again.”

“It starts to show now. We will see breakdowns more and more often,” Jakobsen told The Associated Press.

Olfi cited a leaked document written by the commander of the Iver Huitfeldt that the problem with the missile and radar systems had been known for years. The frigate eventually fended off the attack by the Iran-backed Houthis, shooting down four drones with guns.

Danish media have reported that Denmark’s military intelligence service was asked to investigate the leak to the press of confidential information in the case of the Iver Huitfeldt.

In addition, staff have been leaving the Danish Armed Forces more quickly than they can be replaced, some for poor pay, while military facilities in a shabby and dilapidated state, soldiers and their unions have said for years.

In August, the defense minister at the time dismissed his top aide after criticism over the handling of the purchase of artillery from Israel. The equipment was to replace much of Denmark's own weapon systems that had been donated to Ukraine.

On May 30, Denmark’s centrist government said it wants to invest some 143 billion kroner ($20.6 billion) in the country’s defense over the next decade, citing a “serious threat picture,” and an ambition to reach NATO’s target of spending 2% of gross domestic product on military budgets by 2030. Last month, the government announced it wants to increase the number of young people doing military service by extending conscription to women and increasing the time of service from 4 months to 11 months for both genders.

Denmark, a staunch supporter of Ukraine, has donated a total of 33.3 billion kroner (nearly $5 billion) in military aid to Kyiv since Russia’s invasion in 2022. The Danish donations include part of its fleet of aging F-16 jets.

Danish lawmakers have “strongly prioritized Ukraine and not the Danish defense,” Jakobsen said.

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