Strange message about deterrence from Danish general

Danish Chief of Defense Bjørn Bisserup has given a comprehensive interview to defense website DefenseWatch (in Danish). The interview was published on the same day that I published my review of Gerasimov’s speech, and what a difference. Unfortunately it seems to me that the Russian general has a much more realistic approach to the challenges ahead.

Below I have made a summary of what Bisserup said in the interview, and in the end I have appended some comments.

Bisserup’s message: Unfortunate that we must spend more on defense

Bjørn Bisserup
General Bjørn Bisserup. Photo from the Danish Defense.
Bisserup’s interview is given at a point in time when a new political defense agreement is being negotiated. It is expected that this agreement will cover the years until 2023 and increase the defense budget for the first time since the cold war. With the expected budgets Denmark will increase its defense spending from about 1.17 percent of GDP to about 1.3 percent.

According to Bisserup it is unfortunate that Denmark and other countries need to spend more money on defense. “It is not the kind of world that we would like to have,” he says.

The defense budget increase is not directly related to a threat from Russia, and essentially Bisserup does not seem to distinguish much between a possible conflict with Russia and military operations in other places like Mali, Syria, or Afghanistan. Asked directly about a Russian threat, Bisserup answers that there is no reason to look for new wars, because there are plenty in the world already. “There is no concrete threat towards the Danish area. But that said, it is difficult to spot any place in the world where things are moving in the exact right direction.”

The Chief of Defense is happy that the times are over when deterrence was the primary task for the Danish military.

“I am a product of the Cold War where we didn’t do much besides education and training. If things didn’t go well one day, we could do it all over tomorrow. We were waiting for something that we didn’t think would ever happen. Today it is important for the recruitment of soldiers that the defense actually solves some real, concrete tasks.”

Therefore Bisserup is glad that the military now assists the police with protection duties, so there are some real assignments that can attract qualified personnel in times when Denmark is not heavily engaged in international operations.

The state of the defense is, according to Bisserup, basically good. In 2004 Denmark transformed the military into a deployable force by dropping the ambition of being able to mobilize a national defense. It was the right decision because it has permitted Denmark to deliver much more on the international scene than it could otherwise have done. “I believe it was the right thing to do because there was no threat against Danish territory,” Bisserup explains.

The decision in 2004 means that Denmark today has much better equipment than ever before, but it also means that the military is smaller than ever before. That gives some challenges, but it also gives a good starting point for the next political defense agreement.

The ambition is to create a deployable brigade that has all the necessary equipment to operate independently. That will require heavy investments in materiel. The brigade will be on a 180 days readiness notice because it is the same soldiers that Denmark will send out on international operations around the world.

“It is not hard to imagine that if we get into a situation where NATO asks us to send the brigade to for example Poland or the Baltic States, then we are in a very serious situation. Then something has gone wrong in the world.”

The idea is that if this situation comes and NATO wants to use the Danish brigade, then the parts of the brigade that are engaged elsewhere are to be withdrawn from those operations. Such a situation will not come out of nowhere so there will be a good warning.

As part of the next political defense agreement, Denmark will probably invest in area air defense missiles for its three frigates, but it does not seem like Denmark will invest in long-range cruise missiles. Both Bisserup and rear admiral Nils Wang have pointed out that long-range missiles like the Tomahawk could be a good weapon against the Russian Iskander batteries in Kaliningrad. But it does not seem that the politicians are ready to take this step.

“In my job you could say that it is always nice to be heavily armed. It is also easier to knock out Russian missiles while they are in the launchers than in the air. However, you also have to consider the strategic impact of acquiring cruise missiles. How would Russia perceive it? Would Tomahawk missiles mean new demands to the Danish defense – would we be asked to use them somewhere else on the globe, for example? You have to consider these things before you buy Tomahawks or some other strike capability, even if it is the right solution from a narrow perspective. But I wouldn’t necessarily rule it out either.”

Lately there has been some debate in Denmark about the calculations behind the acquisition of the F-35 aircraft. It has been criticized that the assumptions are much too optimistic, and that it is unlikely that Denmark can solve the same tasks with 27 F-35s as they can with 44 F-16s. Bisserup recognizes that there are some risks, but he fundamentally believes that the purchase decision is made on a sound basis.

“In the end it is a question of not buying more aircraft than we absolutely need. Are there risks? Yes. Are they well documented? Yes, if you ask me. In the end you must consider the risks against the collective economic resources of the society. We must do that in the defense as well as in other areas of society.”

In addition to these things, Bisserup also elaborates on some issues that have a narrow Danish focus like the HR-system and a possible future recognition of a military education within the national vocational education system.

Comments to Bisserup’s message

I find the comments from the Danish Chief of Defense surprising. It’s as if the general doesn’t truly comprehend the nature of the conflict between Russia and NATO. This is an existential threat that bears no comparison to any other military operation that Denmark is engaged in.

Deterrence is a core task of a military force, and it is remarkable that the general disregards this as something that is not a real or concrete task. The Danish military has been in a situation for the last 15 years where the defense planning has focused exclusively on distant wars where Denmark could contribute with whatever there was to offer. By focusing on a few relevant assets, Denmark could reduce defense spending while keeping only the capabilities that could sustain a high activity level abroad. This luxury situation is over. Now the military needs are dictated by a powerful adversary in close proximity to Denmark.

That demands a focus on deterrence so you can’t settle for just enough personnel and equipment for daily operations. Of course Denmark is a part of NATO, but that is not an excuse for outsourcing the deterrence work to the others in the allicance. Having a deployable brigade means that you have a brigade that can be deployed, and having F-35 means that you have enough.

The general should put aside the sensitivities to what other people think and instead argue for the militarily best solution. There is no need to suck up to pacifist tendencies in the society by suggesting that defense spending is an unfortunate burden on the taxpayers. That’s a silly statement. It’s like saying that without poor people we wouldn’t need welfare, and without criminals we could cut police spending. At best it’s a trivial thing to say, and at worst it derails the defense debate.

And the general should stop worrying what Russia would think if Denmark were to acquire some weapon. Of course Russia doesn’t want Denmark to have strike missiles, because that would be a highly effective weapon. That’s what deterrence is about. The Russians would complain immensely if Denmark were to acquire these weapons but it would not lead to an arms race because Russia is already rearming as quickly as they can.

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