A decision to build a new class of warship and a polar-research vessel shows Denmark wants to be able to stake its Arctic claim on something other than Greenland
In his 1890 book, The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783, A.T. Mahan, a US naval captain and head of that country’s Naval War College, a lab for the development its war plans and its naval officers, argued for the importance of maritime dominance, establishing what to this day is a guiding principle for American foreign policy. Danish foreign-policy thinkers, it seems, have had their copy of his book down from the shelf recently.
Denmark, to be sure, has none of the great-power ambitions America possessed at the cusp of the 20th century. But, in the minds of Copenhagen’s leading diplomats, the Kingdom of Denmark is an “Arctic great power”, with a seat at the table next to the US and Russia. This status, though, is thanks to Greenland, a self-governing country that has the ambition — and, crucially, the right — to declare its independence. In order to prevent rump Denmark from losing its Arctic influence when that happens, Copenhagen is looking to the seas.
On paper, the new vessels Denmark plans to build are simply a “multifunctional” patrol vessels, and their introduction — sometime after 2025 — is to “strengthen the Danish fleet”. The announcement last month that a consortium to design the MPV-80 class had been selected did not go into detail what their functions would be or where they would serve, but the intention is that they will replace the four ‘80s-era Thetis-class patrol ships, which do service in Greenland and the Faroe Islands alongside Knud Rasmussen-class ships, ice-strengthened vessels that are among the navy’s most modern ships.
Danske Patruljeskibe, the consortium set up to design the ships, reckons it will be able to come up with a basic vessel that can be tailored for use by navies and coast guards in other countries, and which incorporates the same system of interchangeable modules successfully incorporated into Denmark’s Absalon-class of frigates. In essence, the system allows for mission equipment to be containerised, which, as cargo shippers have learned, is a much easier way to get things on and off a ship; for militaries and coast guards, this would mean less time to gear up for missions.
By separating the ship from a specific mission type, the consortium hopes that the new class will be able to keep up with changing operational demands for longer than other classes of ships can, and that this will be another selling point for foreign buyers.
Mixing military prowess and commerce is in keeping with Mahan’s thinking, but the Danes are taking things a step further by adding research to the mix: their ship-building programme also includes replacing the Dana IV, Denmark’s only research vessel capable of operating in the Arctic. It recently turned 40, and the concern is that it will soon become too expensive to operate.
The ship that will eventually be known as the Dana V is still being designed, but DTU, the technical university that owns the Dana IV, wants its replacement to be capable of things like monitoring fish stocks and carrying out oceanographic studies in the Baltic and North seas year round, and in polar waters in summer and autumn. The latter will require the ship to have at least a minimum ice classification and to meet the standards of the Polar Code, a set of UN regulations.
DTU sees the Dana V as a vessel where scientists from throughout the kingdom can carry out field work together. The point of such statements are to placate Greenland, but they are unlikely to keep it from sailing its own ship someday. When that happens, Denmark’s Arctic influence need not become history.
Kevin McGwin, Polar Journal
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