HELSINKI — Elected in June, the conservative-liberal Danish government continues to grapple with funding issues around the estimated $4.5 billion Fighter Replacement Program (FRP).
Progress in the FRP has also been complicated by rising development costs and technical problems relating to Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightning 11, which along with Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Eurofighter consortium’s Typhoon, is one of three short-listed candidate aircraft in the Danish competition.
That the Ministry of Defense has seen three different ministers come and go in the past two years, with political oversight for the FRP moving from Nicolai Wammen to Carl Holst and to the present minister, Peter Christensen, has also been a contributing factor in extending the decision-making process.
Christensen has told the Parliamentary Defense Committee (PDC) there will be no announcement on aircraft selection until all funding issues have been resolved and the government finalizes a finance plan.
This Danish government is set to announce a selection in the first quarter of 2016.
The PDC had specifically sought answers from Christensen regarding technical issues raised about the F-35’s capabilities in the Director, Operational Test & Evaluation Office (DOT&E) report for the US secretary of defense.
Christensen’s decision not to address any questions directly relating to the F-35 did not go down well with many PDC members.
"I find it strange and disturbing that the defense minister, so close to the end of the aircraft type selection process, will not address the critical assessments of the fighter plane that is regarded as the favorite in this competition. I had expected that the minister would have more to say about the F-35 and its technical issues," said Eva Flyvholm, the Red-Green Alliance party member on the PDC.
Denmark has contributed an estimated $291 million to the Joint Strike Fighter development program.
The three competitors have submitted bids for 24, 30 and 36 aircraft to the MoD's Project Office. Denmark had originally sought bids for up to 48 aircraft to replace the Danish Air Force’s aging F-16s.
However, economic uncertainty and tougher public spending cuts have reduced Denmark’s appetite for higher budgets and lowered its ambitions regarding the number of aircraft to be acquired.
The Danish government’s FRP finance plan is also certain to take into account the Danish Defense Forces’ need to modernize its armored infantry vehicle and artillery capabilities. In this regard, the MoD will be mindful to craft a finance plan that does not erode the military's future procurement budget.
The government’s final finance solution could reduce the number of fighter aircraft to be bought to 24. Any offset in the Air Force’s capability could be covered by the acquisition of drone aircraft capable of operating in extreme climates, specifically in Denmark’s vast Arctic territories around the Faroe Islands and Greenland.
Underlying the political significance of the funding issue around the FRP, the Danish government has promised "absolute transparency" in relation to project financing, the fighter selection and the overall decision-making process.
"We want the highest transparency possible in the process. There will be a public debate about the government’s decision-making and choice. The selection will only be revealed once a finance plan is in place," Christensen said.
Information that may be classified due to its commercial or military sensitivity, said Christensen, would be made available to so-called defense-agreement parties and the national parliament.
"From what we understand from the defense minister, the number of aircraft to be bought will be closely linked to economic factors and affordability. I believe the basis for a decision on a new aircraft was available in June, but the general election delayed matters," said Rasmus Jarlov, the PDC’s chairman.
The aircraft evaluation process within the FRP examined the military, economic, strategic and industrial advantages of the three possible candidate planes.
Some defense industry chiefs are questioning the government’s commitment to connecting the fighter aircraft contract to guarantees covering long-term cooperation, capital investment and job creation in Denmark.
"In my view, and one widely shared by defense industry companies in Denmark, it is crucial that the government demands guarantees of industrial cooperation tied to the possible acquisition of the F-35, just like we do in the case of the possible purchase of the Super Hornet or Eurofighter," said Jan Falck Schmidt, CEO of Falck Schmidt Defence Systems and a former chairman of the Danish Defence and Securities Industries Association.
Schmidt said the Danish government needs to secure industrial cooperation and capital investment commitments from Lockheed before the aircraft recommendation process is complete and a final political decision is made.
"We cannot simply settle for promises," Schmidt said.