Danish Artillery: Is Now the Right Time to Change Direction?

Denmark’s decision to enter into negotiations with the Israeli arms developer Elbit Systems for a delivery of ATMOS artillery pieces and PULS rocket launcher systems to replace the French-made CAESAR may look good on paper, but there are concerns about the viability of this new approach.  

The Danish government recently declared that it was sending its entire stock of newly acquired French CAESAR 8×8 self-propelled howitzers to Ukraine, to help it in its continued struggle against Russian aggression. Denmark’s laudable geopolitical altruism will certainly win it friends in Kyiv, but it has left a critical gap in the Nordic country’s own defence capabilities, one which it is eager to fill in the near future.  

We have been in constant contact with the Ukrainians about the CAESAR artillery, and I am pleased that we have now received broad support from parliament to donate it to Ukraines freedom struggle,” said Danish Defence Minister Jakob Ellemann-Jensen. This statement hides the fact that the Danish government has been generally unsatisfied with the timing involved in the delivery of the CAESARs, in spite of the financial attractiveness of the offer and proven effectiveness of the gun in the battlefield, and has turned to Israel for a solution, some might say surprisingly. But will the Danish government’s haste to replace the CAESARs with a new artillery system really be beneficial in the long run? 

NATO commitments 

Denmark’s eagerness to replace the CAESARs capability with a battle-ready alternative is understandable when considered in the context of its commitments to NATO as a founding member. Part of this commitment is its promise to create an elite infantry brigade (1st Brigade) by 2023, the slow development of which has led to it being lambasted by its NATO allies. “We must find a balance between helping Ukraine and continuing to strengthen the Danish defence so that we can safeguard Denmark’s security and live up to our obligations in NATO,” said the defence minister. 

Indeed, the procurement agency of the Danish armed forces has been quick to enter into negotiations with Elbit Systems, which has assured the Danish MoD that the first ATMOS artillery systems can be delivered in 2023, or early 2024 at the latest. This has, for the time being, led the Danish MoD to favour the acquisition of the Israeli-developed systems, in spite of the fact that the French offer remains much cheaper than the ATMOS.  

The Danish government’s statement on January 27th 2023 underlining its commitment to send 19 8×8 CAESAR self-propelled howitzers to Ukraine was followed by a declaration that negotiations were underway with Elbit Systems, the Israel arms manufacturer, for its ATMOS and PULS systems. According to the Danish media channel Altinget, there are plans to buy 19 ATMOS howitzers for 105 million euros [DKK 805.2 million] and eight PULS systems for 127 million euros [DKK 942.7 million]. According to the same source, the terms offered by Nexter were more advantageous as it would have cost Copenhagen 89 million euros to procure nineteen 8×8 CAESARs. 

The proposed version of the ATMOS is new and similar to the CAESAR in terms of loading automation. This is a key point, as it is the one that had caused the delays, due to the development issues inherent in this kind of sophisticated programme. While the Israeli firm has promised to send a first unit to allow early familiarisation with the system by Danish artillerymen, there is no reason to rule out the same problems of initial dissatisfaction within the Danish Artillery Regiment, especially if the first unit was not exactly of the same model as the subsequent models.  

It is therefore quite likely that, whereas the delivery problems encountered with the French were about to be resolved, integrating the ATMOS means starting from scratch. At this stage, we do not know if the Defence Acquisition and Logistics Organisation, led by Lieutenant-General Kim Jesper Jørgensen, has fully taken this dimension into account, or if the haste in choosing Elbit was not primarily due to the desire to reassure the politicians about NATO’s commitments… A hypothesis that would be somewhat audacious if the delivery delays were to further set back the initial operational capability (IOC) of the famous 1st Brigade. 

Denmark turns to Israel? 

Denmark’s intention to proceed with negotiations with Elbit Systems, a company widely known for its aggressive or even illegal commercial practices, in spite of its dubious record of corruption, links to the increasingly far-right Israeli government and the use of its products in the persecution of Palestinians raises many questions. The official stance of the Danish government, led by Mette Frederiksen, with regards to the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that of a two-state solution based on human rights, democratic accountability and sustainable economic development.  

Denmark is traditionally a state particularly attentive to compliance, whether in ethical or commercial matters, with multiple financial institutions refusing to finance defence purchases, notably with regards to SRI commitments. Its negotiations with Elbit Systems is therefore all the more surprising given the current criticism being levelled at Israel for the actions of its government and the resumption of the illegal colonisation of the West Bank. Denmark’s two biggest pension funds, FA Pension and Danica Pension, have refused to invest in Elbit due to its involvement in the supply of surveillance equipment in the West Bank.  

This is precisely why Det Radikale Venstre opposed a first contract with Elbit in late 2014 and early 2015. This incoherence was already apparent in 2017, when Danish artillery acquired mortars from Elbit, much to the dismay of Nikolaj Villumsen, then the Red-Green Alliance spokesman for foreign affairs. ”It is totally incomprehensible that Elbit has received this order. I am surprised that the radicals can support him,” he said. This position that is apparently being repeated, as the Danish press recently noted, deploring the great elasticity of political convictions in this matter.