HELSINKI — The Danish government's decision to recommend the F-35A Lightning II as the country's preferred multi-role next-generation fighter option is likely to stir a heated, political debate focused on the affordability of the fighter procurement program (FPP).
Moreover, leading opposition parties are unhappy that the total cost of the FPP, conservatively estimated at DKK 56.4 billion (US $8.6 billion), will need to be found within the Danish military's Defense Forces (DDF) existing low-spend financial framework.
The cost of aircraft acquisition, within the total estimated appraisal, amounts to DKK 20 billion (US$3bn). This delivers a flyaway per unit cost of about DKK 729 millionUS$111.7 million. The DKK 56.4 billion total capital outlay appraisal includes life cycle costs based on a projected 30-year, in-service estimate.
"There will be an intense debate on this. There are varying views on cost, affordability and the number of fighter aircraft that Denmark needs. It will be up to the national parliament to decide the direction and outcome of this project," said Marie Krarup, the Socialistisk Folkeparti’s (Socialist People's Party) spokesperson on defense.
According to Krarup, funding the FPP under the strict economic parameters set down by Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen’s minority-backed government (Venstre) risks creating a massive imbalance in Denmark’s national defense and overall capability. Rasmussen is a member of the Liberal Party.
"By adhering to, and financing the project within the current financial framework, we face the risk of having a super strong Air Force but a seriously weakened Army unable to afford modern weapons systems," Krarup said.
A number of opposition parties, including the Socialist People's Party, intend to pressure the government to significantly increase the level of spending in defense budgets going forward in order to offset the Danish military's spending power due to the financial drain caused by the FPP.
"If we are serious about our commitment to NATO, we need to raise annual spending on defense to the 2 percent of GDP recommended by the alliance," Krarup said. "At present we are at 1.2 percent of GDP."
Political disagreements between the government and opposition parties are expected to flare in respect to the affordability factor. The government will propose the acquisition of 27 F-35A aircraft to the Folketing, Denmark's national parliament, once the full-on political debate commences in the second half of 2016.
The Conservatives (Konservative), the main party backing Rasmussen’s minority administration, will push the government to purchase 30 aircraft, while the Socialist People's Party wants the number lowered to between 18 and 24 fighter planes.
"Under our financing plan we will strive to find the money both within the defense framework budget up to 2026, in addition to achieving further savings in the defense organization," Rasmussen said.
The Danish Ministry of Defence (MoD) aims to complete negotiations on the new fighter acquisition program in 2018. Under this time frame, Lockheed Martin would be expected to deliver the first F-35s to the Royal Danish Air Force (RDAF) in 2020.
Under this plan, all 27 F-35As would be fully integrated into the RDAF's defense system by 2027. The new fighters would be based at the RDAF's headquarters in Skrydstrup.
This "tight" delivery time frame will pose a new challenge for Denmark and the RDAF, Rasmussen said. "There will be a window of around three years between the delivery of new aircraft and the phasing out of our existing F-16s when we will not be able to provide aircraft for international missions."
The RDAF intends to start phasing out the first of its 30 F-16s over a three-year period beginning in 2020.
Danish Defence Minister Peter Christensen described the estimated three-year "gap" in the RDAF's fighter numbers and operating capacity as "unfortunate and inconvenient" but said it was not a game changer in regard to the choice of aircraft.
"The F-35 is becoming the backbone of the US military, Britain, the Netherlands and other allies who are also purchasing the aircraft. By replacing the F-16s we have, we are replacing it with a fifth-generation fighter," Christensen said.
Chief of Defense Gen. Peter Bartram said the government's decision to recommend the F-35 as its preferred fighter option was welcomed by the defense community in Denmark.
Denmark had commenced its search for a next-generation fighter type in 2005. However, the project was subjected to a series of postponements connected to changes of government, funding disputes and certain technical delays in evaluating candidate aircraft.
"The F-35 clearly emerged from the evaluation process as the best all-round performing aircraft type. It will be the fighter of the future for many of our partners, and this provides operational and logistical advantages," Bartram said.
The three candidate aircraft in the contest — the F-35, the F-18 Super Hornet and the Eurofighter Typhoon — were evaluated under four main criteria: strategic, military, economic and industrial aspects.
The F-35 emerged as the best performer under all four headings, followed by the F-18 Super Hornet and the Eurofighter.
The MoD has calculated the combined spin-off value of industrial cooperation tied to the aircraft procurement contract at DKK 18.7 billion. This is based on 30 joint production ventures between the supplier and Danish industry partners.
Christensen underlined the need for caution in reaching a final conclusion regarding the eventual spin-off value for the Danish economy at this point.
"There are a number of uncertainties, and the industrial value for the Danish economy may change," Christensen said.
Ironically, the element of uncertainty is higher for Lockheed Martin's F-35. Unlike Boeing's F-18 Super Hornet and the Eurofighter Typhoon consortium, the F-35 was not subject to an industrial cooperation requirement given Denmark membership of the Joint Strike Fighter development program.
The spin-off for Denmark's defense and technology industries would therefore, according to Christensen, be conditional on the ability of Danish companies to secure contracts from Lockheed Martin based on the "best value" principle.
The basis for the government F-35 recommendation is both "comprehensive" and "thoroughly worked through," according to Jens Maaløe, president and CEO of Terma, Denmark's biggest defense group.
"It is pleasing to see how unambiguous the government's recommendation is," Maaløe said. "We now await the result of the political debate, and a final decision on which aircraft will be selected.
Terma has had a constructive dialogue with all candidates in the FPP throughout the course of the competition, he said.
"We very much look forward to engaging in a deeper collaboration with Lockheed Martin. Industrial cooperation in relation to the fighter acquisition will have an immensely positive effect on the Danish defense industry for years to come in terms of transfer of technology, increased activity and creation of new jobs."