- Students’ Column
- War and Military
For several years, now, Denmark has been seeking to purchase new howitzers. A first request for proposals stalled in 2015 and is now being re-launched. But a very similar shortlist is confusing experts, wondering what caused the initial deal to fall through, if only to do the same thing all over again. Here is a closer look at the various parameters and working hypotheses.
The military purchase isn’t only military. It’s about becoming a key-player in multi-national operations and strengthening alliances. And this political aspect of the howitzer-renewal operation is probably what makes it so obscure. Denmark has been ramping up its military capacities over the past years, in order to compensate for the small size of its army and become an important player in multi-national and NATO operations. Advanced artillery systems would enable the Danish army to control large areas of territory on foreign battlefields and therefore be a major contributor to allied missions. After cancelling last year’s deal, which was rumored to give the technical advantage to the Israeli ATMOS 2000, Denmark is repeating the same process. Today, the shortlist contains the ATMOS 2000 from Israel (1), again, the French Nexter Caesar (2), and the Korean K9 Thunder (3).
One of the main criteria when choosing self-propelled artillery systems is the chassis: both wheeled systems and tracked systems exist. Tracked howitzers provide increased mobility and capacity to overcome extremely rough terrain, like most tracked armor. Wheeled systems, on the other hand are slightly less able to evolve in very rough conditions, but compensate with all-wheel drive, and much higher speeds on roads and tracks. Wheeled systems therefore enable quicker deployments and larger areas of control. In the current Danish shortlist, the K9 Thunder is a tracked vehicle; the ATMOS 2000 and the Caesar are wheeled truck chassis. Wheeled chassis are also easier and cheaper to maintain, which should interest Denmark, with its limited military budgets.
The origin of the artillery is also an important matter for the Danes. Such a purchase will be (rightly) seen as a strengthening of ties between Denmark and the selling country. Copenhagen needs to be able to fully trust the supplying country – and firm -, as it will continue relying on it for many years, for maintenance, training, and upgrading services. This led to the withdrawal of one of the previous bidders: BAE Systems and its Archer. Although BAE systems comes from a trusted ally (Great Britain), Denmark cited delays and performance problems as a withdrawal motive.
In addition, choosing the supplying country will have political consequences abroad: any purchaser of Israeli weapons systems can expect to be harassed by anti-Israel activists (4) and blamed for its partaking to so-called “Israeli imperialism”. This would tend to turn Denmark (or any other country) away from the Israeli ATMOS 2000, but is compensated by American support, which pressures allied countries to purchase from Tel-Aviv. In April 2016, following an article (5) on the Danish deal cancellation from the armament blog Snafu Solomon, it was suggested that “It was cancelled by the retard extreme left wing government then in power, exclusively for political reasons, that is to say because the Israeli system won the competition, and the rabid anti-Israeli (and pro-Palestinian) parties simply couldn’t live with that so they came up with a bogus excuse* to cancel the project altogether. They used the lame excuse of having to divert funds to replace the then recently crashed helicopter in Afghanistan, to say there wasn’t enough money for artillery. As if a 20-million-dollar helicopter would eat up the several hundred-million-dollar artillery budget.”
The technological level is also an important factor. Many of the artillery systems for sale today are based on the M109 Howitzer. The K9 Thunder is one upgraded and re-engineered version of it. While this howitzer did become a world reference for it reliability and excellent design, it was created in another context, of low-mobility and high-intensity cold-war battlefields. The Korean K9 Thunder comes with several modifications on the initial M109 design (longer tube, beefed up on-board computers for firing and navigation), but remains quite close to the initial idea. The ATMOS 2000 and the Caesar come as completely new systems, designed for lower-intensity and higher-mobility modern-day battlefields.
Norway is just across the Skagerrag, and they’re in the middle of the same kind of deal (6). Norway is currently considering the alternative between the upgraded M109 and the K9 Thunder, which is a bit of a non-choice, as they bear the same characteristics. What is clear is that both neighbors are paying a lot of attention to what the other chooses. The first country, between Denmark and Norway, to make a choice will have a heavy influence on the other. If both countries choose the same system, they could save substantial maintenance and operating funds – an important factor since financial reasons were given as a motive to cancel the first deal.
The stymie inside the deal is simply whether Copenhagen will give in to Western-American pressure and purchase the Israeli ATMOS 2000. It is likely that Denmark will choose a wheeled system. Most Western multinational operations (NATO or others) nowadays are area control missions or counter-insurgency missions. In both settings, high mobility and speed are key. With a quick and agile enemy around, putting 4 soldiers inside a box that fires shells, with low mobility and even lower visibility seems like a poor choice. A rapid self-propelled howitzer with all-around visibility and easy disembarking seems better fitted. In addition, Denmark’s army is small and wishes to compensate for this size so as to fully integrate with allies. It therefore needs a rapidly deployable vehicle (Caesar and ATMOS 2000 can emplane on a A400 or even a C130), with a long firing range (K9 and Caesar can hit targets in excess of 40 km, using rocket assisted shells), with high deployment speed and range (the ATMOS has longer range on roads than the Caesar, but the Caesar is faster – the K9 is both slow and has much shorter range). Having said this, the hidden key to the deal will always be political.