Recent discussions about the military have focused on its structure. But what we should be asking ourselves is why a modern state like Denmark needs a military at all. Focusing the discussion on what the military should look like, rather than on the types of missions it should be carrying out, leaves people with the impression that the military lives a life of its own.
A military is just one tool a state can use to further its foreign policy, along the same lines as diplomacy, negotiation or aid. The military and political decision makers have a close relationship, and final control of the military rests in the hands of elected officials; without political decisions, there would be no military missions. In the end, all tasks carried out by the armed forces are determined by politicians. Be it Arctic search and rescue, protecting Libya’s civilian population, or fighting Afghan insurgents, military missions are political when put into action. The level of resources the state throws behind such actions depends not on the size of the mission, but on the goal the state hopes to achieve.
But questions remain. What does Denmark want to use its military for? What is our national security policy? What threats are we seeking to neutralise? What are the values we want to promote, and how should we do so? These are the topics we should be discussing, but aren’t.
If Denmark views its security policy in a NATO perspective, then what strategy are we planning? Should this strategy be reflected in our contributions to NATO operations, such as ballistic missile defence, or should we focus on supporting individual NATO members in the expectation that this can later be cashed in for political influence? Or, is it the strategy that Denmark should be able to contribute to each and every operation the UN Security Council approves? And what would such a decision mean for the tasks we ask the military to carry out. Or, is the military’s role more of a territorial one, in which it is responsible for enforcing our sovereignty, particularly in the Arctic. Or, is it all of the above?
What does parliament expect of the military? Asking it to simply carry on with its current missions is the easy way out. Does parliament expect that Denmark should be able to deploy a battalion-size force at any time, have a frigate continuously at sea and be able to send fighter jets into action on short notice? Don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer. The discussion right now is focused on the military’s structure, not on what it needs to be able to succeed. Which political goals should the military be prepared to help accomplish?
Our educational system and our health system have clear political goals. For schools, it’s offering the world’s best education. For our hospitals, it is providing a diverse range of treatments. But, when it comes to the military, the goals – ‘enforce sovereignty’ and ‘take part in international UN and NATO operations’ – are so broadly defined that they are almost meaningless. What does it mean to enforce sovereignty in the Arctic? Is it even necessary to do so in Denmark? What are international operations? Do they include offensive military operations, like in Afghanistan? Or are they just peace keeping missions, like in Cyprus? There is a world of difference between using fighters to enforce your sovereignty and having them on standby to take part in pre-emptive strikes. And, if Denmark sees its security policy in terms of NATO, why is the military contributing to capacity building in eastern Africa and carrying out naval operations outside of the NATO structure?
If the military were an insurance policy, our policy would insure us full-coverage, without actually indicating what that included. If parliament wants such a policy, it at least needs to state its expectations clearly. Only once that happens can we begin to discuss budget, force size and base alignment. As it is right now, we’ve avoided the toughest question and simply asked the military to carry on as normal, and instead focused on its organisation. Lawmakers should be careful what you wish for, however. They just might get it.
The author is a navy commander and a military analyst with the Danish Institute for International Studies.