The Central Blue sat down with Chief of Air Staff – Defence Command Denmark, Major General Anders Rex, on the sidelines of the March Williams Foundation seminar, to talk about high intensity warfare, adaptation and training, and recruiting and retention. Major General Rex joined the Danish Air Force in 1994 and has an extensive history flying the F-16 – including as the detachment commander for the Royal Danish Air Force F-16 Libya Force in 2011 – as well as performing staff roles in planning, acquisition and logistics.
Central Blue (CB): What do you think high intensity warfare is? Is it possible to define? Does it depend on the capability of the adversary?
Major General Rex (MG Rex): Coming to a seminar like this, you end up with more questions than answers. If you had asked me before, I may have had an idea what high intensity warfare was, but now I don’t. Actually, I think, what is going to be interesting about the times we live in is how do we know we are in a conflict for instance. We have the Russians using the chemical substances. And we have cyber attacks continuously. I don’t know what conflicts we will have in the future. I don’t know what how to define what the threshold is [for high intensity]. For the guy being shot at, that is high intensity. If we are flying and dropping bombs in Iraq, that’s a different intensity than dropping bombs in Syria, because of the perceived threat of the pilot.
(CB): To follow on from that, are you able to define high intensity warfare from just an air perspective? Is it possible to do that? And from the Danish perspective, are the space and cyber domain built into that domain?
(MG Rex): I think it will be multi-domain. Say we are practicing soccer to use an analogy. We know the rules, number of players each time. But I think the problem is, our adversaries aren’t telling us what players they are bringing, how many, or what game they are playing. They could be practicing golf for all I know. That is what I think will be the big challenge.
(CB): How do you feel your organisation has adapted to preparing for a HIW? Do you think that you have to? Do you war game potential scenarios you could find yourself in?
(MG Rex) We aim to train to the highest standard possible, with the resources we are given of course. We aim to have good equipment, and that is our way of training to high intensity. In the game we think we are going to play, we want to be the best we can be. We don’t do, yet, big joint exercises in Denmark with a set scenario. We have not done that yet, and not in the last few years. It is difficult with the op tempo we have sustained. We always have our capabilities out somewhere. So as an example, in two or three weeks we will have our QRA Quick Reaction Alert over five countries: Denmark, three Baltic States and Iceland.
(CB): In all defence forces you have to work around training requirements and operational tempo. You don’t necessarily train for a high-end conflict but you do in a way with operations.
(MG Rex): Yes, and take for instance our C-130s. They have so many missions, that they find it very hard to get the time to train. So, they have to do the training on the fly. Its low percentage numbers that are dedicated training sorties. On the F-16, we have better opportunities to train high end. We have actually not been training for the high event or scenarios for short periods of time because we have been focusing on converting pilots onto the F16. We still need a lot of pilots on the F-16 before we go to the F-35. So aside the from the air related debate, the debate we are also missing out on is the personnel-related debate.
(CB): Are you finding any issues with recruitment? Especially as you say, with your requirement to staff the high-end capabilities you are bringing into service soon?
(MG Rex): This year we have seen the lowest number of applicants for pilot, I think forever. We are down to 350 applications. That is not enough, we think, to achieve what we need. We know that some of the young kids, they don’t want the 12 years obligation to serve, there are so many other options. Right now, we recruit everyone out of a set of standards that are laid out for fighter pilots. But that may limit us, so we are trying to change that.
(CB): Do you think Air Force personnel of the future will need a different skill set than what they do today?
(MG Rex): I think we need to recruit all kinds of people, I don’t think we can limit ourselves, and put people in boxes and say they must look like this. We need the geeks, we need the straight shooter. I think we have 9% women in the air force right now. We are the best across all the forces. The Army is low, the Navy is low. And we don’t have a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) 25% goal; we just have a goal to get more. We don’t have a specific area of focus in the recruitment for more women. All job categories are open to women except Special Forces. We have one woman that flies the F-16, we have 2 women that fly search and rescue helicopters and one on the C-130. And that is out of about 300 pilots. So that is not a lot. I don’t know whether this is an issue of culture.
(CB): Danish Defence has conscription, how does that influence your workforce?
(MG Rex): It helps because it provides a base for recruitment. We have conscription for the men, and for the women it’s a volunteer service. But everyone called up for service are volunteers, because we have an intake of around 4 500 a year and there are more than 4 500 who want to join. But we keep some of them. In order to join the officer scheme, you have to leave after the conscription and get a Bachelor degree. Then you can come back. Most people until about six years ago, we hired for life. It gives protection, a good pension. But then we changed our whole human resources construct and now we want people to be able to switch in and out of military and civilian employment. In theory, we want people to be able to leave, but we don’t encourage that. At least I don’t hear of people encouraging people to go out and have a civilian job for a while and then come back as active duty. The cost of training is so high in a lot of what we do.
(CB): When you are talking about issues regarding retention and recruitment, it’s important to understand what is keeping people in.
(MG Rex): We are struggling with that, because we are all saying that retention and recruitment are important, and so I asked my staff to analyse this and tell me what the problem is. Who do we need to retain and who do we need to recruit? Because if a member is 55 and will retire in five years with a good pension, we don’t have to retain him or her because they will stay on regardless. I don’t need to work on keeping the young pilot who still has 11 years of service obligation left; I can wait a few years. Right? But maybe air crew chiefs, technicians, the people in control and reporting, we have a hard time keeping them in.
That is an easy question to answer? No its not. Because at least in Denmark, we jump right past the analysis phase, right to solving the problem. So, we are solving problems, solving problems, but we don’t know if it’s the right problems we are solving. It’s like your car makes a squeaky noise, and you take it to the mechanic, and he changes the engine and everything. And you get it back, and it no longer makes the squeaky noise, but you don’t know why.
(CB): These problems do take time to work out, and change, especially if there are cultural issues. And people’s motivations are complex; it’s not just about money. There are other reasons that people serve.
(MG Rex): We have a hashtag. And one that I heard of was #worthfightingfor but apparently the younger generation don’t care for it. They want #makingadifference They don’t necessarily want to fight for something, they just want to make a difference.
(CB): Do think the missions you currently conducting give that to them? How would you weight up the missions that you do? Do you do a lot of humanitarian work?
(MG Rex): Mostly operations, and its low end of the conflict scale. We have done two tours in Iraq/Syria, in 2014 and 2016. So that is high end. But the rest is transport – Mali, Iraq, Afghanistan. It is a funny thing – I’m not sure if it is the same here – going to war is actually good for retention. People have something to look forward to. They want to #makeadifference. But there is also a tipping point. If you are away too much, then you leave. We had that problem in the Army. They spent a long time in Afghanistan. They lived for it. But then they got back to a normal routine, and it was boring, so they left.
(CB): The Central Blue is a forum to generate discussion about defence policy and air power. Do you have something similar in Denmark?
(MG Rex): Yes, it’s called, (rough translation) Danish Society of Military Science. It’s joint, we don’t have anything just for air power. People learn about it if they meet one of the people who are engaged in it. It is mostly officers – those who are officers by heart. Not only the old ones, but those who are by heart. We don’t have a big debate culture with regard to the armed forces. I think it’s because we are so small and people are afraid they will be singled out. There is no formalised process to feed that debate back into the organisation. But we all notice, and if we see something that is a good idea, or if there is a perception that we have made a mistake, then we can look at how to fix it.