Russian military resurgence and sea ice melt due to climate change have led to a surge in academic and popular interest in the military balance of the circumpolar region. Many such discussions have tended to emphasize a new “militarization” in the Arctic, focusing on recent military acquisitions and exercises on the part of Russian, Chinese, and NATO members. The Kingdom of Denmark, by virtue of its defence responsibilities over the semi-autonomous territories of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, has received especial attention in this context. This article provides a brief overview of the capabilities and operations of three generations of the Royal Danish Navy’s (RDN) Arctic patrol fleet operating in these waters. It argues that although the RDN’s equipment reflected only a constabulary law enforcement role in the Arctic during the American-led unipolar moment, the decades preceding 1991 and years after Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 saw Denmark’s Arctic naval forces being adapted for notable, though limited, military tasks. This military emphasis will likely increase in the coming years. This multidecade approach reminds analysts that Arctic waters have long been militarized and regional actors have their own historical approaches to the enduring issues at play.
In the early 1960s, the RDN commissioned the four Hvidbjørnen-class offshore patrol ships, replacing the Flower-class Thetis that had been serving since the Second World War. The first in the country to be equipped with a hangar and deck for Alouette III helicopters, these new 1800-ton vessels provided a dedicated naval presence in Greenland and the Faroe Islands during the Cold War. Despite being armed with only one 76mm deck gun and basic depth charges, they were still earmarked for NATO’s SACLANT use in wartime and classified as “DE”, or destroyer escorts.[i] This reflected a unique position occupied by the Danish constabulary fleet in the Arctic, which had the only NATO ships that operated year-round in the oft-ice-covered waters of Greenland while regularly transiting the North Atlantic to and from their main bases in Denmark. These ships were also designed to be equipped with American Mk 44 antisubmarine torpedoes, though these were never fitted.[ii] The fears of Soviet submarine incursions into the waters around Greenland were not just figments of the Danish admiralty’s imagination. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Greenlandic police and Danish navy personnel either witnessed submarines on the surface or retrieved communication buoys broken off by sea ice.[iii] These military concerns were secondary to the Hvidbjørnens’ day-to-day operations, which were mostly fisheries enforcement within coastal waters. Their logbooks between 1964 and 1971 indicate the vast majority of their activities were unremarkable inspections of fishing vessels along the southwest coast of Greenland from Disko Bay to the southern tip of the island in areas well within sight of land.[iv] The fundamental soundness of the Hvidbjørnen design was proven by the acquisition of the Beskyterren, a slightly modified member of the class, in the mid 1970s in response to the establishment of the 200 NM Exclusive Economic Zone.
Regardless of the relative frequency of military versus constabulary activities, concerns over submarine incursions in Greenlandic waters during the 1980s led to enhanced antisubmarine capabilities in the form of a variable depth sonar for the Hvidbjørnens’ replacements. The new sonar was not accompanied by enhanced ASW weapons, however, and the replacement vessels maintained the single depth charge rack consistent with the “warning shot” approach of their predecessors.[v] These new ships, the four 3500-ton Thetis class, were also fitted with the “STANFLEX” containerized equipment system which theoretically allowed ships to be rapidly equipped with modules ranging from simple utility cranes to Sea Sparrow surface-to-air and Harpoon anti-ship missiles.[vi] Entering service as the Soviet Union dissolved and during the rise of American unipolarity, these ships never had the opportunity to operationalize swapping out their STANFLEX modules from peacetime equipment to wartime weapons. As of April 2021, the 2195 historical and contemporary photos on the Danish military’s photo gallery have shown no signs of any STANFLEX configuration on the Thetis-class beyond the bow 76mm and hangar-side utility cranes. The limited practicality of the modular approach was perhaps most clearly illustrated during the Thetis class’s midlife refit in the mid 2010s, when the STANFLEX slots next to the helicopter hangar were permanently replaced with hangars for rigid-hull inflatable boats that are more useful for the ships’ constabulary missions.[vii] Similarly, the variable depth sonars for locating deep-water submarines were removed from all ships during the 2000s due in part to concerns over their lack of stability when sailing at slow speeds in the ice-covered waters of coastal Greenland.[viii]
The Thetis class was augmented in the late 2000s and early 2010s with the three 1700-ton Knud Rasmussen class patrol ships. These replaced the 330-ton Agdlek class coastal cutters previously responsible for near-shore constabulary duties in Greenland and the Faroes. The Knud class’s much larger size reflected the increased concern over emergency scenarios that may arise in the 200 NM Exclusive Economic Zone which require improved seakeeping.[ix] Similar to the Thetis class, the Knud class also have STANFLEX modular equipment slots. Built with one on the forecastle and three on the helicopter deck, only one of latter has been equipped to fully interface with all modules.[x] As with the Thetis class, the Knuds’ STANFLEX slots have also not been exercised for increased armament. This is an important point, as many observers have tended to exaggerate the RDN’s ability to rapidly transition to a more robust wartime role thanks to the STANFLEX system and therefore signifying Denmark’s intention to employ military force in the region.[xi] Furthermore, the Knud class’s standard crew of 17-19 severely limits their ability to carry out multi-day operations.[xii] Without any training or crew to operate them, the physical compatibility of missile-armed STANFLEX modules is of limited utility.[xiii]
As Russia increases military activities in waters near the Danish Kingdom’s Arctic regions, there has been a notable clamor amongst the Danish navy and defence department for increased surveillance capabilities. The Danish Ministry of Defense’s 2016 document Forsvarsministeriets fremtidige opgaveløsning i Arktis, or which roughly translates to Future Missions in the Arctic, outlined a blueprint for of the RDN in the Arctic and highlighted an explicit interest in increasing the military capabilities of Danish naval units in the region especially in the context of the Thetis class replacement. As interim measures, the RDN has deployed its Iver Huitfeldt air defence frigates and Absalon class support ships to Greenlandic and Faroese waters in recent summers. These large 6000-ton vessels were designed to support Denmark’s post-Cold War policy of expeditionary operations in support of NATO missions far from home waters, but the concerns over increased Arctic military activity have resulted in their deployment to spaces traditionally reserved for constabulary concerns. Despite their lack of ice-strengthening, their more advanced radars were deemed necessary to provide aerospace awareness in parts of Greenland.[xiv]
Denmark’s naval forces in the Arctic have long had military roles since the Second World War, despite a predominant concern with constabulary tasks such as fisheries inspections. Popular discussions over the “new” militarization of Arctic spaces ignore the very long history of naval forces in the region. At the same time, the military capabilities of the RDN should not be exaggerated, as the limitations of personnel and logistics dramatically limit the practicality of modular weaponry.
[i] Søværnets Materielkommando, “Status Report on Material for NATO Naval Forces and Maritime Patrol Air Forces—Part 1—Initial Equipment: Form ‘A’: Country: Denmark” (1970 and 1971 versions), 5012 Søværnets Materielkommando: 1970–1985 KC. Hemmelig kopibog (afklassificeret): 1968–1971 mm. Rigsarkivet [Danish National Archives].
[ii] Peter Bogason, Søværnet under den Kolde Krig – Politik, strategi og taktik (Snorres Forlag, 2016), 192.
[iii] Forsvarsministeriet, “Redegørelse for undervandsbådsobservationer ved Grønland.” Billæg [Attachment] 99, July 25, 1983, in 0028 Forsvarsministeriet Ministersekretariatet: 1976-1992 Emneordnede sager: Udvalg – Folketingets Forsvarsudvalg 1982-1983. Rigsarkivet [Danish National Archives]; Peter Nyholm and Christian Brøndum, “De mystiske ubåde ved Grønland,” Berlingske, October 31, 2015, https://www.berlingske.dk/samfund/de-mystiske-ubaade-ved-groenland; Tom Wismann, Inspektionsskibene af Hvidbjørnen–klassen 1961–1992 (Helsinge, Denmark: Steel & Stone Publishing, 2015), 28; Per Herholdt Jensen, Støt Kurs: Flåden ved Grønland i 275 år – Grønlands Kommando i 60 år (Nautilus Forlag, 2011), 243.
[iv] Grønlands Kommando, Fiskeriarkiv Nr 4. 20/5 – 1964 til 28/3 – 1967, in V. Materiale vedr. fiskeriinspektionstjeneste (1924-1971) V-7, Søværnets Operative Kommando, Rigsarkivet [Danish National Archives]. Other logbooks referenced from the same box are as follows: Orlogskutterne Mallemukken og Teisten: 27-8 – 1960 til 2/6 – 1971; Fiskeriarkiv Nr. 2: 16/9 – 1964 til 10/12 – 1969; Fiskeriarkiv Nr. 3: 12/9 – 1969 til 31/3 – 1970, 12/11 – 29/11 1963; and Fiskeriarkiv Nr. 3: 6-14/7 – 1967, 1/2 – 1970 til 11/6 – 1971.
[v] Folketinget, “Første behandling af beslutningsforslag nr. B 114: Forslag til folketingsbeslutning om begyndende erstatningsbyggeri af helikopterbærende fiskeriinspektionsskibe til Grønland og Færøerne: Af Pelle Voigt (SF) m. Fl. (Fremsat 26/2 85).” Tillæg F, 1984-1985 session of Folketinget, March 21, 1985: 7802-7803.
[vi] Pelle Voigt (SF) et al., ”Beslutningsforslag nr. B 114. Fremsat den 26. februar 1985 af Pelle Voigt (SF), Margrete Auken (SF), Leif Hermann (SF), Hanne Thanning Jacobsen (SF), Gert Petersen (SF) og Ebba Strange (SF). Forslag til folketingsbeslutning om begyndende erstatningsbyggeri af helikopterbærende fiskeriinspektionsskibe til Grønland og Færøerne.” Tillæg A, 1984-1985 session of Folketinget, February 26, 1985: 3794.
[vii] The scope and extent of the refit was also confirmed during observations on board HDMS Hvidbjørnen in May 2019.
[ix] Per Herholdt Jensen, Grønlandssejlerne: Flådens Inspektionskuttere og Inspektionsfartøjer (Frederiksværk, Denmark: Nautilus Forlag, 2010), 190-191.
[x] Forsvarskommissionen, Bilagsbind 1: Dansk forsvar—Globalt Engagement: Beretningfra Forsvarskommissionen af 2008 (Copenhagen: Forsvarsministeriet, 2009), 87, 100. (Appendix 1 to the 2008 Danish Defence Commission Report).
[xi] Examples include the following: Rob Huebert, “Cooperation or Conflict in the Arctic?” in Changes in the Arctic Environment and the Law of the Sea, eds. Myron H. Nordquist, Tomas H. Heidar, and John Norton Moore (Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2010), 53; Robert Smol, “Understanding the Delusion and the Reality behind Canada’s Offshore Patrol Ships,” Canadian Naval Review 14, No. 2 (2018): 26; Frederic Lasserre, Jérôme Le Roy, Richard Garon, “Is there an arms race in the Arctic?” Journal of Military and Strategic Studies 14, No. 3&4 (2012): 1–2; Bob Weber, “Denmark joins Arctic arms race,” The Star, July 26, 2009; Doug Thomas, “Warship Developments: Those Innovative Danes!” Canadian Naval Review 4, no. 1 (2008): 40-41; Commodore Mike Cooper (Ret’d), “Comment about ‘Those Innovative Danes’,” Canadian Naval Review 4, no. 2 (2008): 34.
[xii] Interviews with Danish naval officers on HDMS Hvidbjørnen, May 2019; Adam Lajeunesse, “Canada’s Arctic Offshore and Patrol Ships (AOPS): Their history and purpose,” Marine Policy 124 (2021), 6.
[xiii] Interviews with Danish naval officers and crew of HDMS Hvidbjørnen, May 2019.
[xiv] Arktisk Kommando, ”Træning med udenlandske flådeenheder ved Grønlands vestkyst,” Forsvaret.dk, August 22, 2019; Lars Bøgh Vinther , “Fregat afløses I Arktis,” Forsvaret.dk, July 16, 2019; Thomas Ahrenkiel, Forsvarsministeriets fremtidige opgaveløsning i Arktis (Copenhagen: Forsvarsministeriet, 2016), 233.