I recently published an article in a the book Maritime Security: Counter-Terrorism Lessons from Maritime Piracy and Narcotics Interdiction, edited by Edward R. Lucas, Thomas Crosbie, Samuel Rivera-Paez, and Felix Jensen, ISBN 978-1-64368-088-0.
The final publication is available at IOS Press through http://dx.doi.org/10.3233/NHSDP200055. Fortunately, the publisher makes it possible for authors to publish their work on personal or institution websites, which is great because open access to research is important. Therefore, I have also published the article below to make it accessible to a broader audience, or you can download a watermarked version of the final article.
In the article, I use recent operational history of the Royal Danish Navy as a case study into the particular challenges that small navies face. Denmark provides a useful lens because the long counter-piracy mission from 2008–2015 consumed a substantial amount of the navy’s collective warfighting resources. The experience was that it was impossible to maintain a sufficient level of warfighting skills while also committing so many resources to a maritime policing operation. From the literature on small navies it is identified that they typically struggle with problems related to critical mass of materiel, maintaining a sufficient training and education system, limited bureaucratic strength, and a tendency of their leaders to be over-ambitious. It is shown that the requirement to prioritize resources has enticed the Danish Navy to find innovative solutions, but that in the process some choices may have led to an unconscious acceptance of lower standards and disregard for the complexity of less prestigious tasks.
In this chapter I examine how small navies manage conflicting requirements when forced to prioritize between maritime security operations and high-intensity warfighting. All navies face the challenge of balancing ambitions and means, but small navies are particularly obliged to make hard choices. For them, setting priorities is often a matter of abandoning tasks altogether, whereas larger navies have more resources to shuffle around.
I use a case study of Denmark as a prism into the problem. Denmark provides a good example because the country has combined a lean military structure with an impressive willingness to commit naval forces abroad. This means that the Royal Danish Navy (RDN) has had to display flexibility to make ends meet. Between 2008 and 2015, the counter-piracy mission around the Horn of Africa absorbed most of the resources for the country’s larger warships. Then, in 2015, a dramatic shift in focus occurred, as the Navy removed its ships from the counter-piracy effort and instead focused on regaining lost abilities in high-intensity warfighting. The consensus was that the counter-piracy effort had influenced negatively on the performance of the warships in traditional naval disciplines, and that it was time to “get back to basics.”
The Danish example is profound, but it is also characteristic. All small navies face similar dilemmas of balancing tasks and resources. It is also common to experience that a long counter-piracy mission makes it hard for a crew to remain sharp at high-intensity warfighting. But the Danish case is particularly useful, because Denmark committed so wholeheartedly to the operation against Somali piracy for six years and then quit abruptly.
First, I lay out the theory about small navies. I elaborate on the theoretical aspects, as the goal of the chapter is to say something general about small navies and not particularly about Denmark. I examine different standards by which navies can be categorized, and I show why it is reasonable to say that Denmark has a small navy. This may seem like a commonsense argument, but indeed by some of the popular categorization models the RDN is not small. Then I move on to describing the particular challenges that small navies face. I particularly draw on Geoffrey Till’s (2003, 2014, 2016) writing to derive a model that can function as a framework for analysis. This model identifies critical mass, training and education, and political influence as the three areas that particularly cause problems for small navies. I also expand on a point by Basil Germond (2016) to show that small navies gravitate toward overstretch in order to overcome the inherent unpleasantness of “smallness.”
Then I move on to describing the history of the Danish engagement in the counter-piracy mission off Somalia. I show that it was a hard mission, and that it took time before the RDN and the bureaucracy at home mastered the challenges. I also describe the costs that counter-piracy had for the Navy in regard to retention problems and training standards. To solve these problems, the RDN contracted with training institutions in the United Kingdom and Germany to bring the ships back up to standards. To this day, this training and certification effort remains the most pronounced commitment for the Danish warships.
In the last section of the chapter, I analyze the Danish counter-piracy endeavor from a perspective of small navy theory. I identify patterns and problems related to critical mass, training and education, and political influence, and I point to instances where the desire to overcome smallness has led the RDN to make compromises. I apply the theory with a critical approach to investigate assumptions and explanations. In all areas this leads to distinctive explanations and warnings about possible pitfalls, and especially within the category of training and education the critical approach indicates some areas where unconscious assumptions may have led the RDN to make choices that probably aren’t helpful in the long run. This contributes with particular (and hopefully useful) knowledge about the RDN, but it also provides an example of how small navy mechanisms play out more generally, and how such an analysis could be performed with a different case study in mind.
Theory about small navies
The first problem in a theoretical discussion about small navies is how to define them. Several classification systems have been developed to group navies into conceptual categories. One of the more popular models was created by the naval historian Eric Grove in 1990. The system was mainly based on quantitative data about a navy’s capabilities, and its nine categories were defined by the ability to project power abroad (Germond, 2016, pp. 35–36). Grove later revised his system and optimistically included Denmark as a rank three navy because of the improvements in force structure (Grove, 2016, p. 18). This places Denmark as a “Medium Regional Force Projection Navy.” Grove notes that small navies are from level four and smaller, so by this standard, the RDN is not a small navy.