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Why is Denmark Turning to an Israeli Firm for Arms?

The European arms market is chaotic with emergency weapons transfers to Ukraine, frantic efforts to replenish diminished stockpiles on top of new orders, and the always lingering threat of Russian aggression. Earlier this year, Denmark announced that it would donate 19 French-made howitzers to Ukraine, and placed new orders with an Israeli defense firm. Denmark’s decision is more than a technical choice and may actually suggest an unofficial change of policy.

Denmark ordered 15 CAESAR self-propelled howitzers in 2015, with an additional four ordered in 2019. At the time, Denmark was fielding bids, and Elbit Systems, an Israeli firm, had put forward its ATMOS 2000, a system with comparable characteristics. The main factor which led to Elbit being disqualified is that it supplies the Israeli military with drones, ammunition, and other military hardware.

With concerns in the Danish parliament that the Israeli military was violating international law in the Gaza Strip, Denmark chose the French system. Martin Lidegaard, the spokesman for the Danish Social Liberal Party, or Radikale Venstre, announced at the time: “If the accusation is correct, I do not think that Elbit Systems can get the order. I have clearly told the other parties in the settlement circle that we do not want a company that breaks international law – or contributes to it – to supply the Danish [military].”

This time around, it is unclear what motivated Lieutenant General Kim Jesper Jørgensen, the head of procurement for Denmark’s military, to choose the Israeli system, as both the French and Israeli systems have similar designs.

Denmark invoked French delays with delivery. The French system is being modernized, moving to a larger chassis, and other upgrades. Coincidentally, Elbit is modernizing its howitzer in much the same way. The argument that switching to the Israeli system will enable Denmark to more quickly refill its stockpiles, therefore, sounds dubious. Switching to the Israeli system will provide the same capabilities, and the system will presumably not be delivered anytime sooner than the French system.

The argument that switching will save on costs raises questions. Defense reporter Andreas Krog reports that Denmark purchased 19 of the ATMOS for a total of $115 million. Purchasing roughly the same number of CAESARs would have cost Denmark $95 million.

Until recently, Israeli defense firms have been off limits in Denmark, known for their aggressive and sometimes questionable business practices. Israeli businesses, defense-related or otherwise, are regularly embroiled in corruption scandals and accused of bribery, so ethics have previously influenced whether to purchase arms from Israeli defense firms.

If anything, one can wonder how Jakob Elleman-Jensen, Denmark’s defense minister, or his government, may be less sensitive to ethical questions than their predecessors from Denmark’s Liberal Party – especially when no military or financial advantage is to be gained. This silent trend started a few years ago when Denmark placed a small order for artillery shells from Elbit.

It is hard to imagine that, in a country as virtuous as Denmark, Elbit Systems’ pocket-lining habits could have fallen on receptive ears. Denmark has stringent anti-corruption laws, with barely 1% of public officials found to have taken bribes. Israel firms, including Elbit, have numerous times been targeted for such illegal business practices, but no evidence has ever turned up involving Danish officials, at least on Danish soil. Many claims of corruption involving Danish nationals in international dealings have been reported, but overall, instances of corruption are negligible.

Denmark has the first bipartisan government in decades. If ethical questions were dropped in an attempt to smooth over internal dissensions, it is a skillful move – but also an appalling departure from moral standards and a sharp drop in leadership quality.

Ethical considerations seem to have lowered in recent years in Denmark. In 2015, Denmark’s government had stated its clear opposition to the acquisition of weapons from Elbit, suspected to have been “tested on Palestinians.” In contrast, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has now overridden this moral barrier, despite Elbit still being banned from several investment firms, including Danske Bank. But assuming that Elbit’s unpalatable business methods got to decision-makers in Denmark, a traditionally reputable nation and leader in ethical leadership is a long leap. The trouble is, Denmark provides no alternative explanations for this sudden change of heart.