COPENHAGEN, Denmark ― Denmark’s government announced its intent to buy 27 F-35A joint strike fighters in June 2016. The aircraft were meant to become the backbone of the Danish Air Force for years to come. But standing up the jets with a relatively small force, while taking part in operations around the globe, has created a headache for planners in Copenhagen.
Maj. Gen. Anders Rex, Denmark’s chief of the air staff, is in charge of making that transition work. During a recent visit to Copenhagen, Rex sat down with Defense News to explain how that transition will happen and describe the country’s interaction with Russia in recent years.
As Denmark stands up the F-35 and stands down the F-16, the government has a plan for a three-year window, during which it will not take part in foreign operations. What is the thinking there? Does that impact your ability to take part in exercises?
The political decision is that there is a three-year gap in international operations, meaning deployments to actual events. There is no decision as to whether or not we can take part in exercises or whatnot. I’m sure that would be part of our modus operandi. We’ll do some international exercises during those three years. We all want to be efficient and effective and be doing our part, but I think it’s very understandable to anyone that you can’t do both. You can’t do a transition from one jet to another just like this ― just like a blink of the eye.
So I think the good thing is there’s a long outlook, and then we can potentially do more before that and more after that. We’ve just said in this period, “please help us,“ right? So I think it’s a good ― to be honest, it’s a good statement, and it’s a short period of time. Three years is not a lot. I think it will work for us.
What years are you looking at?
So right now it’s 2022 to 2024. That may change with a few months, depending on a potential delay because we’ve changed where we will station [the F-35]. Not what base we will station our jets at, but what facilities. So we’ve gone form basing them in existing facilities that needed to be rebuilt, and now we’ve shifted that to a new building complex. So we suspect that will mean about a six-month delay.
You just signed a memorandum of understanding with the Netherlands and Norway on F-35 training. Has there been talk of expanding that agreement for other countries, and what are your hopes for that agreement?
It’s an umbrella under which we can manage our cooperation. We have, under the European Participating Air Forces, the multinational fighter buy, we have since ’77, ’78, a 40-year track record of working together and doing things together. So, it’s a great umbrella for us when we identify areas where it makes sense to work together.
Then we have the agreement, or the MOU, in place. So the main reason it’s the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark now is we are the only three northern European countries that have signed up to the F-35. If you look at the experiences with the F-16s, as I recall it, Portugal came on board later. [Portugal entered European Participating Air Forces in July 1994.] So I think there is definitely a precedence.
Our aim is not to keep anyone out. Our aim is to just get the most out of the F-35 and the capabilities and the competencies that we have in our countries.
Given the anti-access, area-denial bubble from Kaliningrad, is there one aspect of the F-35 you’re most excited about or feel is most important for Denmark?
I think for Denmark, and for the operational advantages we will get from the F-35 or upgrading our frigates to area defense, it’s probably too early for me to say anything valid about the whole Baltic region. So I’ll probably leave it at that.
There is a potential issue for your service, with both pilots and maintainers getting older. You expect the average pilot age to be 45 by the time the F-35 is up and running. How do you plan to handle that?
We will try to work the demography issue to the best of our ability within the resources we have. That’s hard work because we need to recruit, we need to train ― and especially for the pilots, it’s a lot more expensive to train young, inexperienced, non-fast-jet pilots on the F-35 than it is to train an experienced fast-jet pilot on the F-35. And so we are working hard to make the best of the resources that we have and try to make it work to our advantage.
It’s not a disadvantage to have experienced pilots. It’s never a disadvantage to have pilots. Not that I know the exact ratio or whatnot, [but] I would say about half my pilots have more than 2,000 hours in the F-16. That is extraordinary. And so they still have a lot to give as far as the F-35. So we will have to make that work to our advantage. Same for the maintainers. A lot of, let’s say experienced, maintainers ― but they’ve worked 20, 30, some up to 40 years on fast jets. So they know a lot about the culture, they know a lot about the flight safety, the technical issues. And I think we can get a lot by having them being there, teaching the young guys some of the virtues of handling fast jets.
Is there a way to slow down retirement of F-16s and keep them around in case of an emergency?
I feel comfortable that we have a plan that we can adapt if we need to. It’s not an exact science. It’s not like if an F-16 has flown ― if you say the life of an F-16 is X hours, the engine doesn’t shut off. The wings, they don’t stop providing lift when you reach X plus one. So I think we still have a lot of wiggling room. So I’m still confident that we will have a successful transition from the F-16 to the F-35, and the entire defense force, from the minister of defense all the way down through the ministry and the chief of defense and the Air Force, of course we’re all working in the same direction. And also with great help from the Navy and the Army, actually. So we’re in a good place, we think.
NATO’s BALTOPS exercise is ongoing. Have you seen any increased aggressiveness from Russia?
I think generally there are two times when we see increased activities ― when the Russians are conducting exercises or when we’re conducting exercises. In general, it’s been conducted in a professional manner. That’s my impression of what’s going on.
With BALTOPS particularly, or in general?
In general. It’s professional. There’s always perceptions, but in general, I think it’s ― what we see is predictable, I think.
This interview was conducted during a trip organized and funded by the Atlantic Council. Defense News, like other outlets, accepted travel and accommodations during the trip.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.