Democratic Control of the Armed Forces: The Case of Denmark
The article first presents four major areas of the Danish civil-military relations: The personnel composition of the Danish defence, its expenditures pr. capita, its organizational structure, and its participation in Defence Commissions. Changes in all four areas are pursued over the last-half century in order to find shifts in the civil-military balance. After having analysed the four trends a specific case of top military disobedience from 2001 is described. Both the trends and the case support the proposition that the civil-military balance has moved in favour of increased military influence. Their implication for the present democratic control of the armed forces in Denmark seen from an actor perspective is finally discussed finding no winner.
Long Term Trends of Civil-Military Relations
The size and personal profile of Danish armed forces from 1945 till today has substantially changed, even if the exact force structure from 1945 to 1949 is somewhat uncertain[i] for several reasons: Secrecy, the Defence Acts of that time were framework laws,[ii] many military institutions pursued their own individual personnel policy, different statistical categories were used, and official and de facto personnel statistics did often differ. Consequently, no exact official figures from 1945 and 1950 do exist. Nevertheless, the probable size and profile of the Danish armed forces of that period is soundly based on the calculation of personnel data from Laws, announcements, etc., see table 1.
Table 1. Personnel Composition of the Danish Armed Forces. 1945 - 2002[iii]
3,533 ( 9)
All AF Personnel
Table 1 shows that the Danish armed forces grew from 1945 to 1965 and hereafter decreased for all four personnel groups: Officers, NCOs/Regulars, conscripts, and civilians. However, two groups have remained relatively stable: The officer corps and civilian employees. Throughout the whole period, the officers have amounted between 10 to 14 % of all armed forces personnel and the civilians between 21 % in 1950 to 27 % today. In absolute figures, however, the officer corps quadrupled from 1,500 in 1945 to 7,100 in 1970 and then gradually shrank to 4,700 in 1990 and today counts 3,800. The present proportion of civilians of around 8,000 people is almost the same as in 1950. The NCOs/Regulars-group has grown from 12 % in 1950 to 40 % in 2002. The conscript group has undergone the greatest reduction of all four categories both in absolute and in relative numbers: From 10,000 in 1945 via 31,500 in 1965 to its all time lowest of 5,700 persons of today or from two thirds (65 %) in 1945 to its present one fifth (20 %).
In other words, the number of Danish soldiers pr. 1 mill. citizens has dropped from 12,600 in 1965 to 5,400 in 2002. But from a civil-military relation-point of view it is decisive to note that since 1950 the two full-time soldier groups of officers and NCOs/Regulars have grown from one fifth (21 %) in 1950 to over ½ (53 %) in 2002 while the civilian input of conscripts and civilian employees have been reduced from ¾ (76 %) in 1945 to less than ½ (47 %). This change is even more significant for the two minor services, the Navy and the Air Force as the Army has around 80 % of all conscripts and 50 % of civilian workers or they are deployed in joint staffs.
Another aspect of the personnel composition is the recruitment of women for the Danish armed forces. Officially “…the aim is to achieve a balanced proportion of women...”[iv] which may mean a successive expansion of the number of female soldiers, as has been the case for most other NATO countries. In 1962, legislation established the legal basis for employment of women in the armed forces. It was renewed in 1969 but not implemented until 1971. In 1972, women accounted for 1.4 % of all personnel in the Danish armed forces; in 1981, 1.9 %. For the last 15 years around 5 % of all volunteer soldiers in Denmark have been women[v] which is disappointing as it has been politically decided to increase their number by accepting women as fighter pilots, for combat units, in submarines since 1994, as enlisted soldiers for the Danish Reaction Brigade, DIB, since 1995, and as conscripts on a contract equal to the demands of Danish male conscripts since 1998 . The position of women for the last decade is presented in table 2.
Table 1. Women in the Danish Armed and Military Forces.* 1991 - 2001[vi]
Armed Forces Military Forces
total Women % Total Women %
Armed Forces Military Forces
total Women % Total Women %
5.228 196 3
4.234 89 2
542 6 1
345 3[vii] 1
MJ – CN, ledere
4.741 351 7
3.556 98 3
6.450 460 7
5.566 158 3
5.057 953 19
4.447 191 4
16.692 3.717 22
9.728 820 8
10.186 2.945 22
6.932 571 8
28.370 4.373 15
19.528 1.067 6
20.526 4.255 21
15.409 862 6
*) Conscripts, cadets, physicians/dentists, and musicians are excluded.
Table 1 shows the reduction of all Armed Forces personnel from 28.370 in 1991 to 20.526 in 2001 or by 31 % and of military personnel from 19.528 in 1991 to 15.409 in 2001 or by 21 %. The number of women employed in the armed forces has remained stable around 4.300, whereas the number of female soldiers in the military forces has dropped from 1.067 in 1991 to 862 in 2001 or by 19 %. So even if women have 21 % of all jobs of the Danish armed forces only 6 % of them serve as soldiers in the military forces.
In short, relatively more professional soldiers at the cost of conscripts and civilians reduce contacts between society and military and - contrary to the political will and the official policy of the Danish armed forces - they have reduced the number of female soldiers.
Throughout the last half-century Danish defence expenditures have fluctuated less than it is the case for most Western countries. The growth rate in absolute figures and in current prices in DKK doubled in five years period 1945/46 – 1950/51 from 0.160 mill. to 0.360 mill., tripled over the next three decades to respectively 1,000 in 1960/61, 2,900 in 1970/71, and 8,800 in 1980, then almost doubled to 16,400 in 1990, but increased “only” by 25 % in the last decade to 20,100[viii] in 2002, cfr. table 3.
Table 3. Military Expenditures to Danish Gross Domestic Product and per Capita.1945-1999[ix]
Defence expenditures (DKK, bill.,)
Gross Domestic Product, GDP
Def.Exp. per capita (US$)[x]
Denmark´s rating in NATO
Table 3 moreover shows the relative change of Danish defence expenditures to Gross Domestic Product, GDP in factor prices. They gradually rose from 1.1 % in 1945 to 2.8 % in 1980, dropped to 2.3 % in 1990, and to 1.6 % in 2002. So, Danish defence expenditures have increased for the first 35 years - due to the US Marshall Plan military assistance of the 1950s[xi] and the Cold War period tensions among other things - and have then dropped over the last quarter of the century from 2,8 % of GDP in 1980 to 1,6 % of today. However, defence expenditures per capita reveals that Denmark has increased its relative military spending compared to other NATO countries so that only the US, Norway, France and Greece are ahead of Denmark moving Denmark from an 8th position in 1980 to a 5th in 2002. So, Danish military receives relatively more money than do most other armed forces in NATO. The positive political attitude behind the military spending is further supported by other economic favors for the Danish armed forces: In 2001, the new government decided to reduce public spending in all other ministries except the DOD; over the last decade, the Danish Army in particular has been granted equipment for use in international missions in a large scale; several times in the last decade, Danish armed forces agencies have been criticized for their over-spending/poor economic management without any political consequences or sanctions.[xii]
In short, Danish armed forces are courteously treated and never financial sanctioned in spite of poor economic management by politicians after the end of the Cold War period, which probably has to do with the popular prestige of Danish soldiers serving in international military missions.
The major organizational changes of the Danish armed forces took place in the beginning of the 1950s. Up till then, the Danish armed forces consisted of the Army, headed by the war ministry, and the Navy, headed by the marine ministry, while each of the two services had its own air force. In 1950, the “Lov om Forsvarets ordning” (“the Act on the Organization of the Armed Forces”) combined the two military ministries into a single Department of Defence, DOD, and established an independent Air Force. In addition, it was decided that the DOD should have a civil servant as chief executive, that an integrated Defence Command, named Forsvarskommandoen, FKO, should be established, and that officers should head each of the three services. In 1952, a new position of chief of military operations in war was established to fit the cooperative structure of NATO and new international military agencies were established such as Commander Baltic Approaches (COMBALTAP), Standing Naval Forces Atlantic (STANAVFORLANT), and NATO Air Defence Ground Environment (NADGE). In 1966, the DOD was further reduced and more functions delegated to FKO.[xiii] In 1990s, more military organizations have been established such as the Danish Reaction Brigade, DIB, for use in UN-, OSCE-, NATO- or national missions finalized by January 1997, a special UN standby force maintained in cooperation with other Nordic countries, and SHIRBRIG, the multinational UN Stand-by Forces High Readiness Brigade located in Denmark and operational by 1999. This development signals two major organizational changes: Increased delegation in Denmark from the political to the military area and more new career positions in international agencies for Danish top officers to qualify for. Therefore, “the minister of Defence…and (his) Department are weak in contrast to a resourceful Defence Command”[xiv] and more Danish officers make a career in international military organizations.
On top of that two more characteristics shall be mentioned almost without precedence in any other NATO country: The DOD and the Defence Command are geographically separated and the position as Chief of Defence is in fact decided by senior officers in the three services and only formally appointed by the Danish Minister of Defence or by Danish politicians. The tradition is that the position of Chief of Defence circulates between the three services so that an admiral will replace the present Army officer and an Air Force officer - in turn - will succeed him. In other words, the defence minister has accepted not to choose the better candidate in his opinion, but let the senior officers themselves select one of their peers on a regular basis.
In short, over time, Danish armed forces have obtained increased functional and promotional independence.
Over the last half century Denmark has experienced four defence commissions of 1946-1950, 1969, 1988 and 1997.[xv] The first and the last had international causes, the end of WWII and the Cold War, while the second and third were initiated due to a shift in government, both times when liberal-conservative parties took over office from the social-democratic party.
In all four commissions Danish officers have become members, while civil and more independent scholars did not start to participate until the second commission of 1969. This could be seen as a decreased military and increased civilian influence in defence commissions but the civilian scholars were security experts and not military sociologists and therefore less able to debate internal military issues. Another reason for the proposition of increased and not decreased military influence is that the defence policy is framed by Denmark’s security situation as defined by the Danish foreign ministry and therefore outside the realm of the military establishment. The first, second, and third commission had representatives from the Foreign Office to do so, but in the fourth commission of 1997 Forsvarets Efterretningstjeneste, FE, (the Danish military intelligence Service) did it. So, one agency of the Danish military system defined the foundation for the rest of the military establishment without any protest/complaints/comments from either the experts or the politicians.
The 1988 Defence Commission ended its work in December 1989. Obviously, the international security situation had changed since 1988. Therefore, a new committee was established to “evaluate the future structure and size of the armed forces, including the extension of conscription, the future defence material acquisitions and the future civil defence force.”[xvi] Here, military influence once again appeared. The Foreign Office defined - as expected - Denmark’s security position in chapter 2 of the report of the committee concluding: “The new security political situation has in other words made saving (my accentuation) on the defence budgets possible”[xvii] Nevertheless, the Defence Command argued in the following chapters for more military expenditures thereby ignoring the security experts of the Foreign Office and again without any interventions from politicians, ministry, scholars and press.
The increased and - from a democratic control point of view - unwanted military influence has here two faces, an internal military evaluation of Denmark´s security situation by the FE in the 1997 Defence Commission and not by the Foreign Office and the complete ignoring of the same Office´s evaluation of the security situation of this country in 1991.
A third aspect of military influence toward the civil community is the lack of information on significant topics such as a suggested abandonment of military conscription in Denmark. Of course, such a study of independents scholars will cost money. But they are already there as the Danish Parliament decided to grant DKK 5 mills. per year from 2002 to 2004 for security and defence studies as a result of the 1997 Defence Commission. In 2001, the Defence Committee of the Parliament wanted conference on the experiences of other countries having abandoned conscription such as Belgium and the Netherlands. An election stopped the project. Still, people, press and politicians are without solid, balanced and independent information on this vital issue and a recent proposal to the DOD to conduct such a study has been denied.
In short, in Danish defence commissions senior officers have in no military sociologists as expert opponents, they ignore and contradict security statements by the Foreign Office, and they deny people, press and politicians the right to information on essential issues such as the possible abandonment of conscription.
The Case Study
This very favourable position of the Danish armed forces may explain the case study where the former Danish Defence Commander, Christian Hvidt, acted – not for the first or last time[xviii] – contrary to legal political instructions when the EU Military Committee elected its chairman in 2001.[xix] The story goes like this:
On March 26, 2001 the EU Military Committee, MC, i.e. Chiefs of Defence from each EU country met in Brussels. Three candidates from Portugal, Italy and Finland competed for chairman. After a first round the Portuguese general Santo was defeated and in the next and final round the Finnish general Hägglund beats the Italian Arpino by a narrow 8 to 7 margin. On March 30th, Italians criticize Denmark for having voted for Hägglund and not for the Italian NATO general as Denmark has asked and obtained defence reservations in the EU for which reason the Danish general Hvidt should have either abstained or voted for his Italian NATO colleague. At first, the Danish Defence minister, Jan Trøjborg, and the Danish foreign minister, Mogens Lykketoft defended Hvidt´s voting behaviour. On April 9 at the EU Foreign Minister meeting in Luxembourg, the other EU countries asked Denmark the limits of its reservations. After that meeting sources from the Danish Foreign Office leaked to the press that both the Minister Trøjborg and general Hvidt were instructed to vote for the Italian general. Released letters from both the Foreign Office and Defence Department proved it and documented that Hvidt had been instructed to do so for the sake of the Danish defence reservation and not to vote at all if the Danish vote would turn out to be decisive. The next day back in Denmark, Trøjborg and Lykketoft told the press that no clear instructions were given general Hvidt which was contrary to the released documents. So, the Parliament asked for more information and finally the Danish statsminister, PM, Poul Nyrup Rasmussen had to admit in the Parliamentary question-time that it was incorrect of Denmark to vote in the EU Military Committee.
Later on the media did find out that Hvidt and Hägglund were hunting mates and that the instruction to Hvidt was answers given him when earlier in the process he had suggested Denmark to vote for Hägglund. Hvidt himself remained silent throughout the whole process, while the now former Danish Defence Minister, Jan Trøjborg, did place himself in awkward positions expressing contradictory statements on what he himself knew about Hvidt´s voting behaviour and what Hvidt was told to do and even whether or not Hvidt was to blame.
The most important issue with respect to the democratic control of the Danish armed forces is that the instruction letter from the Foreign Office explicitly refers to the Danish defence reservations, i.e. a decision made by referendum of the Danish people. This most democratic argument Hvidt did clearly ignore and violate and again without any political sanctions or personal consequences.
In short, Hvidt had motive, possibility, opportunity and will to act on his own and did so in contrast to the formal, written and democratic instructions. He showed no respect for the democratic will of the Danish people and if he had been instructed otherwise than the written documents tell he could just refer to them and he could never have been criticized.
The trends and the case study here pursued reveal that the balance of the civil military relations has changed. First, even if the extension of relations has been reduced due to the increased professionalization, i.e. fewer conscripts and civilian employees which normally should lead to weaker relations between armed forces and society, the opposite has been the case as the military prestige has increased. Second, even if the political world over the last decade has treated the armed forces financially benignly, i.e. supplied it with relatively increased military expenditures, military agencies have repeatedly overspent/mismanaged its resources. Third, even if the military world has increased its functional and promotional independence and have one of the highest degrees of sovereignty of all NATO countries ignoring political and departmental instructions, cfr. the Hvidt case, the political wish for more female soldiers, and the increased military influence in defence commissions, the military top echelons have on top of that increased and sometimes even exploited their political influence and always without any political sanctions. Therefore, all these trends point at increased problems of democratic control of the Danish armed forces.
From the point of view of the politicians the problem of civil control in Denmark is even more severe as “defence is undoubtedly the most controversial and most complicated issues in Denmark’s history after 1864”[xx] and as “Danish politicians (in general) lack military insight.”[xxi] However, the problem of democratic control of the armed forces it not perceived that important as “defence policy has a relative marginal position in the public debate and the political specter…”[xxii] So, even if “…defence policy generally seems to create problems for Denmark,”[xxiii] it is based on “…a heavy ballast of consensus”[xxiv] among Danish politicians. Therefore, political actions are lacking. But one may ask how come that Danish politicians do not demand sound information and independent research when discussing issues such as the possible abandonment of conscription, investment in ships and airplanes, etc.?
In the first forty years after WWII, Danish media wrote little (only about the military treatment of conscripts and the military budget) and mostly critically on these military matters. However, since the beginning of the 1990s, Danish media have become more courteous and less critical toward the military, probably due to the increased prestige stemming from the Danish participation in UN-, NATO-, EU- and OSCE-peacekeeping missions.[xxv] Accordingly, the relationship between the media and the military has moved from ambivalent treatment in the Cold War period to a more accepting and courteous treatment in the 1990s. Today, the Danish media have almost given up their role as a fourth control agency next to the legislative, the executive and the judicial power and this weakens the democratic control of the armed forces.
The Danish Armed Forces
The democratic problem of passive, uncritical and courteous politicians and media are not always profitable for the armed forces. Of course, it may be so in specific cases but in the long run lack of democratic control may jeopardize political support and consensus, military credibility and public prestige. The discomforting thing of the present situation is that the increased influential Danish armed forces do not ask for or initiate political control or ask for relevant and independent research. On the contrary, as demonstrated above they not only make use, they even sometimes abuse the lack of democratic control.
And on top of that, they seem more focused on issues on which they have no influence and responsibility such as Denmark’s security situation and the world after the September 11-terror than on military sociological matters such as more women and better financial management of the armed forces. The need for democratic control is even more important as major questions have to be dealt with in the near future:
- What are the military purposes of the Danish armed forces abroad to fight as soldiers did in WWII, to deter as they did in the Cold War period or to alienate as they do now in peace support operations?
- What are the better defence structures for Denmark in future and is it identical for the country as a NATO and an EU member?
- How far shall Denmark involve herself in the building of the defence structures for the Baltic countries ? And perhaps the question above them all:
- What type of soldier do we want to develop: Professional, citizen, ambassador, humanitarian worker, policeman?
This debate Danish society still owes its armed forces and they – in turn – owe us as citizens as a minor compensation for their increased influence in society.
[i] Nikolaj Petersen, Forsvaret i den politiske beslutningsproces (Defence in the Political Decision-Making Process) (København: Forsvarsministeriet, 1980), 2:41.
[ii] Cfr. Petersen, 1980, op.cit., 52:”1951-ordningen var...en rammelov, der kun angav forsvarets styrkemål i bred almindelighed”, (mens)”..forsvarsloven af 1960.. ..indeholdt en detaljeret angivelse af forsvarets styrkemål...”, (“the 1951 Defence arrangement was....a framework law that only published the strength of the armed forces in rough numbers” while “the Defence Act of 1960 ..gave a detailed picture of the strength of the armed forces”) and phone conversation of September 26, 1995 with MJ Kaj Hansen, Danish Defence Ministry, Second Office, confirming that the Ministry has no official data for 1945/1946.
[iii] Figures for 1945 are calculated from Forslag til lov nr 137 om Ændring i og Tilføjelse til lov nr 301 af 6 Juni 1946 om Statens Tjenestemænd (Act no. 137 on changes in and appendix to Act no. 301 of June 1946 on Public Servants), Bekendtgørelser for Hæren 1945/46 (Announcements for the Army 1945/46), Redegørelse og indstilling nr 2 vedr. forsvarets personelforhold, (Report and Suggestions No 2 on the Personnel of the Armed Forces) bilag 4-11, 82-89, and Redegørelse og indstilling nr 3 vedr. forsvarets personelforhold, bilag 11, 333ff.; for 1950 Lov nr. 278 af 18. juni 1951 (Law no. 278 of 18 June 1951), 910ff., 162 ff., Redegørelse og indstilling nr 1 vedr. forsvarets personnel,bilag 3ff, 84ff, Hærens tekniske Korps´ brev af 12.12.1950 til Forsvarsministeriet, Redegørelse og indstilling nr 2 vedr. forsvarets personelforhold, bilag 3-4 “Oversigt over uddannelse, antal, lønningsklasser” og bilag 11 (fortroligt, G 67.1950), Redegørelse og indstilling nr 3 vedr. forsvarets personelforhold, kap 3, 103-104, bilag 11, 333, Report to Bill 134 of 1950/1951, Forsvarsministerens svar på spørgsmål nr. 3 (Answer from the Defence Minister to Question no. 3) ; for 1965, 1970, and 1980, Forsvarskommandoen, Forsvarets rolle (København 1987), p 74 ff, tables 12, 12A, 12B, and 12C; for 1990, Henrik Arbo-Bähr et al (eds.), Samfundsstatistik 1992 (København: Samfundsfagsnyt 1999), p 104, table 27-1, 127pp.; for 2002, calculated from Forsvarskommandoen, Fakta om forsvaret, 2002:28
[v] BT, March 3, 1994.
[vi] 1991-figures: FOV nyhedsbrev nr. 10, March 7, 1991, p 2; 2001-figures: Forsvarskommandoens ligestillingsredegørelse 2001, 8 pp, here p 6. All figures are calculated to exclude cadets, conscripts, and physicians/dentists.
[vii] By 15 September 2001, all three services have a female LtCol/LTCom.
[viii] The defence budget for 2002 is 18,225 bill. DKK plus 1,779 bill. DKK used for Danish soldiers deployed in international military missions, see Forsvarsministeriet, Årlig Redegørelse 2001, København 2002, 90pp, p 58, table 1 and p 60, table 3
[ix] For military expenditures and Gross Domestic Product figures for 1945/1946-1970, see Hans Christian Johansen, Dansk Historisk Statistik 1814-1980 (Danish historical statistics 1814-1980) (København: Gyldendal, 1984), 358 table 9.2i, 362 table 9.2k, 393ff., and 403; for 1970, 1980, and 1990, Samfundsstatistik 1994 (Social statistics 1994) (København: Samfundsfagsnyt, 1994); for 1999, Samfundsstatistik 1999 (Societal statistics 1999) (København: Samfundsfagsnyt, 1999), 78, table 21-13.
[x] For year 1970 and 1980 The North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Facts and Figures, 1990, p 459, table V and for 1990 and 2002 Årlig Redegørelse 2001, op.cit., here p 63, table 5
[xi] Udenrigsministeriet, Marshallplanen 50 år, (København 1998), 48 pp; Denmark received 278 mill. US$, mostly as a gift.
[xii] See for instance the case of new airplanes: “…the replacement of the F 16s will be extremely more expensive than officially announced up till now,” Jyllandsposten June 21. 2001, Front page article “Strid om køb af jagerfly” and Finansministeriet, forsvarsministeriet og økonomiministeriet, Forsvarets økonomi (the Economy of the Armed Forces), (København:1994), 144 pp, here p 25: In conclusion, the greatest weakness of the financial government of the Army…is that the Ministry of Defence cannot document…that sound economic management has been demonstrated”
[xiii] Udenrigsministeriet, Dansk sikkerhedspolitik. Fremstilling. 1948-1966(Danish Security Policy.Presentation), København 1968:144
[xiv] Nikolaj Petersen, “Den forsvarspolitiske proces I Danmark” (The political defence proces in Denmark), p 149 in Henning Sørensen (ed.), Sådan skal Danmark forsvares (The Way Denmark Should Be Defended), (København: Nyt fra samfundsvidenskaberne:1987), 137-155
[xv] This section is based on Hans Chr. Bjerg, ”Forsvarskommissioner i Danmark gennem 125 år,” s 7-17, og Bertel Heurlin, ”Seks forsvarskommissioner. En vurdering,” both in Henning Sørensen (ed.), Forsvar i forandring. Debat om forsvarskommissionens beretning: Forsvaret i 90-erne, (København: Samfundslitteratur, 1991), 134 pp and Henning Sørensen, ”Forsvarskommission med særligt formål”, Udenrigs, 1997:83-89
[xvi] Forsvarskommandoen, Rapport om forsvarets fremtidige struktur og størrelse, (København, 1992), p 5
[xvii] Ibid., 36
[xviii] Jyllandsposten April 25, 2001 ”When the government in 1999 presented its defence proposal…Hvidt emailed his officers criticizing it…Several felt that Hvidt moved at the edge of what is suitable for a loyal public servant.”
[xix] The following description is from Jyllandsposten April 24, 2001
[xx] Bjerg, 1991, op. cit., 7
[xxi] Petersen, 1980, op.cit., 149
[xxii] Heurlin, 1991, op.cit., 21
[xxiii] Ibid., 22
[xxiv] Ibid., 22
[xxv] Berlingske Tidende, August 23, 1995