“The Last Submarine”: War On Ukraine May Pave The Road For Resurrecting Undersea Arm Of Royal Danish Navy

Two decades after its last submarine, S323 Saelen was decommissioned, Denmark has refrained from resurrecting its submarine arm. However, the war in Ukraine might force it to reconsider the decision as the submarines could help counter Russia’s Baltic Sea expeditions.

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A visit to the S323 Saelen of the Royal Danish Navy, which has been turned into a museum after its decommissioning, does give a peep into the sub-sea prowess of the Scandinavian country. It was the only submarine in Denmark to have participated in hostilities.

Saelen was commissioned in 1990 and is a small diesel-electric submarine well suited for operation in shallow waters near the coast. It is armed with eight torpedo tubes and can deploy navy seals.

In 2002, the submarine participated in NATO counterterrorism operations in the Mediterranean. Shortly before its return to Denmark, it was sent to the Arabian Gulf, where, along with the Corvette Olfert Fischer, it conducted crucial operations during the second war in Iraq. It was decommissioned in 2004.

During the Cold War, the Royal Danish Navy’s submarines did give tough competition to the Soviet submarines due to their “low detectability” and the fact that Denmark controlled all approaches to the Baltic. Denmark’s first line of defense has been its navy.

After the disintegration of the Soviet Union ended the Cold War, the Danish armed forces set to cut expenditures and manpower. Since 1989, Danish spending has dropped from 2.1 percent of the gross domestic product to 1.7 percent. From 1990 to 1999, a long-term reduction plan was laid out to cut manpower by 14.3 percent.

According to the Danish Armed Forces Act passed by the Parliament in December 1993, the Danish Navy has two broad missions. One is to maintain control of Danish territorial waters surrounding Greenland and the Faroe Islands, which will be its number one priority in case of war. The second responsibility is to execute whatever mission is assigned to Danish warships within NATO’s ambit.

With Russia’s aggression against Ukraine bringing the war to Europe’s doorstep, Denmark is contemplating procurement of new submarines. So far, the country relied on ‘close cooperation’ with allies.

In 2022, Copenhagen pledged an investment of 40 billion Kroner ($5.8 billion) for building new naval ships to be built “within the coming years” and at the same time committed to developing a stronger “security of supply” with national maritime suppliers.

The move to regenerate the submarine arm after two decades is difficult but imperative, considering the leap in Russian submarine technology. Moscow’s submarines are becoming quieter, with a verified streamlined shape and special hydro-acoustic coating of the hull to help reduce the acoustic signature. The Russian subs have earned the nickname the ‘Black Hole’ in the West for their stealth.

The Russian navy will have 50 submarines in 2030, while the American fleet will shrink to 57 by the same year.

Denmark To Boost Defense Capability

Michael Aastrup Jensen, chair of Denmark’s foreign policy committee, announced in 2023 that the Royal Danish Navy has been discussing acquiring a submarine. There have been murmurs about Denmark leasing the subsurface boats.

Copenhagen has passed a landmark Defense Agreement in 2023 documenting a list of capabilities to be acquired over 10 years. In January 2024, following up on the agreement, the government allocated approximately 16 billion DKK (approx. $2.33 billion) to procure more equipment and strengthen recruitment and retain people.

Under the allocation, roughly 9.7 billion DKK will be spent on acquisitions. Priority is given to very short-range air defense for the Army brigade, long-range drones for surveillance and intelligence gathering in the Arctic and North Atlantic, close-in air defense missiles for the Navy’s ships, Torpedoes for use on the Navy’s ships and the Air Force’s Sea Hawk helicopters, and building logistical capacity to support deployments in and outside the immediate area.

On April 30, 2024, the Government and the parties behind the Danish Defence Agreement 2024-2033 agreed on the second partial agreement under the Defence Agreement. The second partial agreement “reflected the worsened security situation in Europe and the need to build up the Danish Defence quicker than previously expected’.

The agreement increases the Defence Agreement’s financial framework by DKK 35.2 billion in the years 2024-2028, bringing the total financial framework to approximately DKK 190 billion in the agreement period.

The new funds allow for fast-tracking investments in key military capabilities. Investments include building up the Danish Army’s 1st Brigade, acquiring land-based air defense systems, finishing the build-up of the Navy’s anti-submarine warfare capability, and advancing the acquisition of naval short-range air defense. The agreement also contains a new conscription model that expands the conscription period to 11 months of service with up to 5,000 conscripts yearly and full gender equality.

The last submarine of Denmark. S323 Saelen was decommissioned in 2004 and turned into a museum.

Baltic Sea – A Crowded Pond For Submarines?

Even as Denmark is dithering in its plans to reacquire a submarine, Sweden has sought to tighten NATO’s grip in the Baltic Sea with 2 new submarines. Norway and the Netherlands have also placed an order for four submarines each.

Sweden’s first new submarine in decades, the A26, will have advanced weapons, stealthy propulsion, and sonar-evading hulls to counter Russia in the Baltic Sea. It has been on the drawing board for over a decade and will be launched in 2027 and 2028.

They are designed to patrol NATO’s eastern reaches under the Baltic Sea, tracking and countering Moscow’s maritime moves amid ever-worsening relations between Russia and Europe.

Sub-sea forces have been resurgent in Northern Europe. The Norwegian Navy has already ordered four new submarines from Germany’s ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS). The author witnessed the construction of the submarines meant for Norway at the TKMS shipyard in Kiel, Germany.

The outgoing Netherland government awarded the French Naval Group and its Dutch partner, Royal IHC, a contract to construct four Barracuda-class diesel-electric submarines. These new submarines will replace the Royal Navy’s three aging Walrus-class boats.

The German Navy will add two more Type 212 submarines to its existing fleet of six. These new submarines will make the Baltic Sea crowded while bridging the gap between the European and Russian submarine fleets. Denmark will have to decide if it will take its earlier mantle of defending the Baltic Sea’s entry points with its submarines.

  • Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
  • The author can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
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