War dividend

By Arctic Business Journal - January 16, 2023

BRIEFING | Denmark’s military is investing heavily in drones that can keep an eye on Greenland. Businesses spy an opportunity

Going with the floe (📸: Nasa)

■ Despite their ‘civilianisation’, drones continue to perform “dull, dirty and dangerous” tasks for militaries
■ In the Arctic, drones can fill in where human and materiel capacity fall short
■ As a business opportunity, military drones can provide civilian jobs, training and spur the development of a civilian drone industry
■ Co-hosting military drone centres could help the Danish military defray the cost of refurbishing a key Arctic base

IN THE DAYS before we all checked our smartphones whenever we wanted to know what time it was, our wrists were the first places many of us looked. Though around since the 16th century, wristwatches did not become an everyday item until they were introduced to the military in the 19th century as a way to synchronise movements. Countless other items, from T-shirts to the computer network that is allowing you to read this article — and the businesses that push them — can trace their lineage back to the military.

This is also the case for drones. A type of aircraft the industry prefers us to call unmanned aerial vehicles in order to distance them from their past as a tool of war, today they are just as thoroughly civilianised as sunglasses, and their range of uses off the battlefield is far more widespread than the “dull, dirty and dangerous” tasks they were once assigned by military commanders. Today, drones help all walks of professionals, be they scientists, farmers, firefighters and even insurance adjusters, do their jobs better. Kids of all ages have turned to them as a diversion.

All of this development on the civilian front does not mean drones have lost their significance for militaries. Indeed, as more technology makes its way to the battlefields, they are being employed for more than just killing enemies or keeping an eye on them. The most obvious example of this is Russia’s on-going war against Ukraine, where both sides of the conflict are deploying drones in a number of often innovative capacities.

SEE RELATED: Canada and Russia are looking to deploy surveillance drones in the Arctic

Many of the missions drones are tasked with would be the same in the Arctic as they are anyplace else, and other militaries, such as Denmark’s, are indeed taking a more traditional approach to drone use there by asking them to fill in the gap where it’s human and materiel capacity fall short. As part of its military commitment to Greenland, for example, Copenhagen will spend kr 810 million kroner (€109 million) this year on surveillance drones that will keep an eye on a part of the world its Nato allies — and their adversaries — are increasingly factoring into their strategy-making. That is a drop in the Danish military’s 27.1 billion kroner budget bucket, but, given that it currently only can commit a surveillance aircraft 185 days a year, each additional krone is significant. And four drone-makers are said to be interested in being selected to supply the aircraft and the kit needed to keep them aloft.

Spending that money on relatively cheap unmanned flying hours, the thinking goes, is the most cost-effective way to conduct surveillance in the Arctic. Businesspeople, however, are focused on its multiplier effect: increased military spending spells opportunity for the civilian economy, and, tomorrow, Esbees, a defence and security recruitment firm, will gather lawmakers, military brass and representatives from the industry for a drone conference in the hopes that it will be the first step in establishing an “Arctic drone centre” in Greenland that could provide employment and educational opportunities.

Placing such a centre in Kangerlussuaq airport makes good sense. Ostensibly, this is because the conditions there, according to Esbees, are advantageous for developing and deploying drones.

SEE RELATED: In Swedish Lapland, drone deliveries may soon expand rural health services

Kangerlussuaq, however, will soon be an airport without a commercial reason for being after it loses its status as Greenland’s international gateway once runway extensions in Nuuk and Ilulissat make direct flights from abroad possible, due to happen next year.

The Danish military will continue to operate from Kangerlussuaq, and there are a handful of science outfits that also have activities there, but, without the 500 or so commercial flights that land each year, there will be plenty of unused space that could be used to help pay the 30 million kroner it costs to keep the airport running each year.

Copenhagen, has, for all intents and purposes, promised Washington that it will keep Kangerlussuaq’s runway and hangars fully operational, as part of a commitment to allow American military planes to land there as necessary, something they do on average once a day.

Keeping that promise will not be cheap. In addition to the annual operational costs, it will need to pay to repair the runway and taxiways that have been badly damaged by thawing permafrost which will cost an estimated 1.5 billion kroner. A partial fix would cost half as much but leave a narrower runway.

By letting ambitious businesses harness drones, they could simultaneously prevent war and help Greenland prepare for its future.

A two-edged rotor (The Rasmussen)
Drones in the Arctic (Teknologirådet)
Orion UAV can perform ice reconnaissance in the Arctic — CEO (TASS)
There’s a Race for Arctic-Capable Drones Going On, and the United States is Losing (United States Military Academy)
How can Norwegian drones master the Arctic as well as the Danish drones? (Norce)
The Arctic Eats Helicopters, So Russia Is Sending Drones Instead (Forbes)

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This article has been fact-checked by Arctic Business Journal and Polar Research and Policy Initiative, with the support of the EMIF managed by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

Disclaimer: The sole responsibility for any content supported by the European Media and Information Fund lies with the author(s) and it may not necessarily reflect the positions of the EMIF and the Fund Partners, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation and the European University Institute.