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Winter Skies, Frozen Seas and Northern Shores III: Greenland and Denmark

The Viking Saga I: When Erik the Red went to Greenland…

It was the year 982 a.d., a strong snow falls under a grey sky and a drakkar – a Viking longship – appears on the horizon. As it reaches the shore, a figure can be made out standing at the helm: Erik the Red arriving from the Viking colonies in Iceland, sets his feet for the first time in Greenland. That moment not only marked the Viking relation with Greenland but also the later European connection. Ultimately Denmark became the nation that controlled Greenland, although there is a special provision for its autonomy.

Just as Greenland was an opportunity for Erik it is also an opportunity for Denmark, given the current changes taking place in the Arctic and the resources that are now being discovered in Greenland, among other economic issues. According to Degeorges (2013) the island is now a key strategic location with valuable resources that will have several implications, some of which are already being seen. Indeed, Greenland is in the middle of a new geopolitical hot-spot in which the interest of Great and Middle powers will meet and collide and many of these powers are already being attracted to the island. Additionally, those same resources can boost Greenland’s desire for independence, which, following Degeoirges (2013) ideas, is being perceived as a potential source of risks that may turn into a threat, because of the fact that a small, weak nation immersed within such a hot-spot would be exposed to influences from outsiders.

These resources however also present opportunities for Denmark in the shape of resources that can benefit the Kingdom of Denmark (Greenland, Faroe Islands and Denmark itself). They can also go some way to the maintenance of the harmonic relations between Greenland and Copenhagen, in which the former has autonomy in deciding domestic issues while the latter is in charge of foreign policy; defence; the needed increase of Denmark in Greenlander resources and the foreign investments to develop them; and projects related to resources and infrastructure[i].

Regarding the Great and Middle powers’ interests, it is worthwhile to highlight the interests of China and South Korea, although it is the Chinese interests that are the most “worrisome” ones. China, according to Degeorges (2013), is pursuing an access to strategic resources that are placed in Greenland[ii]. Currently it is looking at the extended coast of Greenland close to Iceland for a location that may be used as a potential hub for shipping for a number of supposed reasons. The main reason is most likely China looking for access to the Arctic Council and a vote so it can promote its interests in the Arctic. Other reasons included the fresh water present there that could become a value resource in the future, and the ice caps which are useful to measure the effects of climate change and thus understand adaptation to it [iii].

Furthermore, and as Degeorges (2013) points out, there have already been some diplomatic contacts and visits between Greenland/Danish authorities and Chinese Representatives and President Hu Jintao between 2011 and 2012, in which Greenland and Arctic interests were the main topic on the Chinese agenda.

According to Degeorges (2013), South Korea on the contrary, mainly has interests in education and research exchange programs, some mineral natural resources, the issue of climate change and environment, and trade[iv].

According to Wezeman (2012), to fulfil its task of protecting Greenland, currently the Danish government is using 3 unarmed maritime patrol aircraft, and there are plans for F -16 deployment in the area (taking into consideration that those were deployed once at Kangerlussuaq in Western Greenland) with the potential reutilization of the Thule Air Base. Also, as Wezeman notes, the Kingdom has two military units operating in the area: the frømanskorps (Frogman Corps) special forces unit, and the slædepratrulje (Sledge Patrol) Sirius. It also has 3 frigates reinforced by 4 Thetis class frigates, two OPV patrol vessels class Knud Rasmussen, and a larger patrol vessel capable of operating in ice waters. The Danish navy has a base at south Greenland, in Grønnedal.

Although Denmark mentions that the main reasons for an increased presence in the area is for environmental protection, enhancing international cooperation, promotion of sustainable development, and security, the real reasons and steps taken go in a very different direction, as Huebert, Exner – Pirot, Lajeneusse, & Gulledge (2012) all point out. As a matter of fact, the increased activity following the diminishing of the ice is forcing the Kingdom to increase its policing and security actions, as well as to increase the military assets for the protection of the national Arctic interests[v]. The fact that Denmark, for example, is increasing its presence with its navy and still develops strong ties with NATO sends the message that it will be prepared for the worst and that will use force if needed (Huebert, Exner – Pirot, Lajeneusse, & Gulledge; 2012).

The Danish Defence Agreement recognizes the importance that the Arctic and Greenland are having for the Kingdom, mainly because of the rights that the Kingdom has for extracting the natural resources present there following the mentioned effect of climate change in the area. The defence then, will be adapted to the new situation as well as of the resources issue, but the defence of Greenland aside, it is also intended to perform task both natural and civilian, and to support other authorities. This means that civilians are to be involved in the defence of the island. Replacement for the older patrol cutter is intended, and the replacement vessel will have marine environmental and research support capabilities. Nine new MH – 60 Seahawks will also be incorporated within the Danish Forces’ ranks and will reinforce the navy’s tasks in the Arctic, as well as the search and rescue services’.

A new command, called the Arctic Command, emerged after the union of the North Atlantic Command with the Greenland and Faroe Island Command, proving again the importance that Greenland has for Denmark[vi]. An Arctic Response Force has been established too, having of course the tasks of defending and preparing the troops to execute defence in the Danish Arctic. Surveillances with UAV are intended to be executed in order to make a risk analysis near Greenland’s waters [vii].

Secondly, and furthering on what the Defence Agreement mentioned, Denmark is currently executing a program of naval modernization. In other words, a modernization of those assets that will be used in the Arctic/Greenland scenario. The Kingdom for instance has 11 Flyvefisken Class patrol ship with a modular design thus being able to be prepared to missions such as patrol, anti-ship or anti-air[viii]. Also, it has 4 Thetis class light-frigates capable to sail on ice-waters and used frequently in Greenland. Two communication and control vessels Absalon class will be incorporated, capable for anti-ship and anti-air missions and capable also to have helicopters and to transport battle tanks and other heavy equipment where needed. Three light Ivar Huttfeldt OPVs will follow too equipped with Harpoon and Tomahawk missiles thus being optimized for Anti-ship and surface-surface deep strikes. The already mentioned Knud Rasmussen ice patrol ships were incorporated in 2008 – 2009. All of the previously mentioned assets show that Denmark intends to have a strong and multi-role Arctic navy in order to protect its national interest, exert sovereignty and secure resources in Greenland (Huebert, Exner – Pirot, Lajeneusse, & Gulledge; 2012).

The steps taken by Denmark are, beyond any doubt, much more defined and focused than the ones taken by Canada. Both may have the similarity of mentioning the environment as one of the main reasons for their interest in the arctic along with the furthering of cooperation and working under International Law, but Denmark is moving in reality for the sake of protecting its national interests. And it is increasing its military assets and presence in the area in a stronger way than Canada. Put simply, Denmark is following the right path with the aim of securing its Arctic interests, having Greenland – no matter the type or relationship between the Metropolitan Denmark and Greenland – as a focal point for doing so. The risks and challenges are as high as the opportunities for the economy of the Kingdom as a whole.

As Huebert, Exner – Pirot, Lajeneusse, & Gulledge (2012) remark, an important point to consider is the relations between NATO (remember that Denmark is part of the Alliance) and Russia in a potential future conflict may involve the region. Additionally they point out another scenario in which tensions between the West and Russia will be felt and lead to the West, not only Denmark, to increase its presence in the area. Additionally, cooperation might be a wish but not a materialized one, given the recently unilateral steps taken by Russia in other scenarios like the Arctic, the Middle East with Syria and now Ukraine. 

Another potential conflict might come from a dispute between the EU and Russia and may also have the Arctic as the main, or one of the scenarios, if escalation follows. And Denmark is, for instance, one of the 5 littoral states that will be on the front line. In the same way and as Huebert, Exner – Pirot, Lajeneusse, & Gulledge (2012) point out, there is the issue of the extension of the Exclusive Economic Zone and the UNCLOS: will the Russians and other parties stick to the rule of law or will they try to gain and meet their objectives by the use of force? And will there be place for a military cooperation or will the dynamic be of facing a common threat? The latter seems to be more likely in the Russian case. But it happens that Russia is not the only thing the Danish sailors and pilots will have to be worried about. The Chinese are jumping into the scenario and, as has been mentioned throughout this current series, the Chinese navy will increase its presence not only for protecting the Chinese civilian shipping, but also to use the Arctic as a strategic playground against the United States if a conflict arose with South East Asia and the West Pacific. And with the recent events with the Air Zone area over Japanese islands, the Chinese attitude will be more of “command and control” rather than of making business only. A possible “String of Pearls” involving Iceland and Greenland could take place which could be directed against the United States and even the European Union and Arctic states, if they wanted to push for the winds in their favour.

And finally, as was said with the Canadian case, the environment might be a noble objective to be protected, but military assets are still needed to do so, especially if the opening of new shipping routes brings with them the presence of vessels that might infringe environmental laws and pollute waters. Denmark, it seems, has understood this well and the increasing presence of a refurbished navy is a good sign and an example that other Westerncountries in the area should be following. Not only for protecting their Arctic environments, but also to face together any possible threat coming from the other side of the world and the other shores of the Arctic. The absence of submarines is, however, a worrisome gap on the Danish defence assets and no increase of air assets, save the SAR helicopters, is strongly felt. Denmark will need more new air assets than just the F – 16 to effectively secure Greenland and provide a support to its navy. The solution might lie in a stronger cooperation with the airforces of Canada and the US under the NATO frameworks, while Denmark looks for a replacement for the current F – 16 fleet,  a replacement that it is in dire need.

The Vikings may have abandoned the island 500 years after the shoring of Erik the Red on that day of 982 a.d., but this is something that Denmark, if it wishes to secure and benefit from the resources discovered in the island, will not do. A good sign of this is that this time there are frigates flying the Danish flag sailing around the island, and not drakkars abandoning it.

*Cover image ‘Hvidbjørnen dockside in Grønnedal‘ by Boegh

[i] Even in a case of independence, Degeoirges (2013) mentions the possible and beneficial idea of reaching a mutual defence agreement between Denmark and Greenland. That would keep at a certain way the things in a similar way as they are currently.

[ii] Those resources are: Rare Earth Elements, Iron ore, Uranium, oil, and gas.

[iii] See the First Article of this Series: Winter Skies, Frozen Seas and Northern Shores (I). Part 1: On the Frozen Seas of the North a Red Dragon’s flight is worth to note.

[iv] The United States also had and still have in a little sense an interest in the Danish Arctic territories, mainly for the defence of North American airspace.

[v] Diplomacy and cooperation for conflict resolution are being mentioned also as important pillars for Danish actions in the area, as well as the International Law, according to the Denmark Artic Strategy 2011 – 2020.

[vi] Its headquarters are in Nuuk.

[vii] Interestingly, the Agreement mentions along with surveillance the need of combating piracy in the Arctic for the home guard and navy. See: Danish Defence Agreement 2013 – 2017, p. 17.

[viii] “Modular Design” means that the ships can change their weapons to execute the mission they are intended to do, instead of having a fixed ones. This results in a very flexible and versatile platform.


Degeorges, D (2013). Denmark, Greenland and the Arctic: Challenges and opportunities of becoming the meeting place of global powers. The Royal Danish Defence College. Copenhagen, Denmark.

Government of Denmark (August 2011). Denmark, Greenland and the Faroe Islands: Kingdom of Denmark Strategy for the Arctic 2011 – 2020. Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Copenhagen, Denmark.

Huebert, R., Exner – Pirot, H., Lajeneusse, A., & Gulledge, J. (2012). Climate Change and International Security: the Arctic as a Bellwelther. Center for Climate and Energy Solutions. Arlington, Virginia, USA.

Danish Defence Agreement 2013 – 2017 (November 2012).  Copenhagen, Denmark.

Wezeman, S. T (2012). Military Capabilities in the Arctic. SIPRI Background Paper. SIPRI. Stockholm, Sweden.


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