44 American military helicopters arrive in the Port Esbjerg

AH-64 Apache helicopter (Spc. William R. Thompson)

Aircraft and equipment from the United States (US) Army arrived in the Danish Port Esbjerg last week. This arrival closely follows the signing of an agreement bestowing upon Esbjerg the position of key transit port for North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) equipment, and the redistribution of American troops in the Baltic Sea area.

The six months mark since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24th, 2022 has come and gone last week, as the conflict rages on. Ukrainian forces have been receiving aid from allies, including NATO and its member states. Specifically, NATO is coordinating Ukraine’s requests for assistance and is supporting Allies in the delivery of humanitarian and non-lethal aid, while individual member-states are sending various types of military equipment.

The Port of Esbjerg, on the west coast of the Jutland peninsula in south-western Denmark, will be playing an increasingly important role as a strategic hub in the coming year, due to its capacities and the fact that it is “strategically placed in the Northern European region.” as stated by Captain William Stroud, public affairs officer in the 1st Armoured Division, Combat Aviation Brigade. This collaboration between the US and Denmark, both founding NATO members, is in fact the third such joint operation, in the last 14 months, demonstrating a strong partnership.

Port of Esbjerg (MEDVIND/Bent Sørensen/ Port of Esbjerg Press Kit)

‘Iron Eagle’ Cargo

Most recently, the US army has deployed the 1st Armoured Division, Combat Aviation “Iron Eagle” Brigade (1AD CAB), based in Fort Bliss, Texas, to Europe, along with 44 helicopters and 1,700 equipment items weighing 1500 tonnes, in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve (OAR). The lion’s share of this equipment includes CH-47 Chinooks, AH-64 Apaches, UH-60 and HH-60 Black Hawk helicopters. This amounts to half of the 1AD CAB’s 90 helicopters. It is the first instance of aviation units being brought through the port, demonstrating the US army’s ability to import armoured, aviation and sustainment units into Europe via Esbjerg, moving forward.

The cargo crossed the Atlantic Ocean aboard the ‘ARC Endurance’ commercial vehicle carrier vessel, which has a gross tonnage of 72708 tonnes, a length of 264 metres and a beam of 32 metres. The ship, which sails under the US flag, was in the port of Esbjerg from approximately 9 AM on August 22nd, to 1 PM on August 25th. The successful unloading of the equipment marks the beginning of a Reception, Staging and Onward Movement (RSOM) mission, during which the 21st Theatre Sustainment Command of the US military will transport the aircraft and gear to follow-on locations all across the theatre, between August 22nd and September 7th. “During this time, U.S. Army helicopters are scheduled to depart from the port of Esbjerg and fly to the nearby Esbjerg Airport,” stated U.S. Army Europe and Africa Command (EUCOM) in a press release. 1 AD CAB equipment is also being deployed through the port of Alexandroupoli in Greece, which may be used to reinforce NATO positions in Bulgaria and Romania.

Danish Defence Minister and helicopter in Port of Esbjerg (Twitter @Forsvarsmin)

Logistics and Military Transport

The most recent escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict, which began in 2014, has had countless ripple effects on the shipping industry, from deviated shipping routes and reduced inland shipping capacity to major disturbances in the energy sector globally. It has however stimulated the project cargo and logistics industries, in that military equipment is being mobilised massively by various parties, and additional, necessary infrastructure is being developed accordingly. Transportation nodes with good existing infrastructure also tend to play more important roles.

From a logistical standpoint, the Port of Esbjerg was selected as a transit point for this shipment as it boasts both large-scale areas near its quays, and its surrounding areas, developed for the handling of wind turbine components. Esbjerg is the world’s largest wind energy base port, with a total area of over 4.5 million square metres, and 12.7 kilometres of quays. As such, it has sufficient capacity to temporarily store the unloaded aircraft and equipment. Additionally, the Danish government was able to act in a rapid and concerted manner, signing an agreement to expand the port by the end of 2023.

Port of Esbjerg (Red Star Photo/ Port of Esbjerg Press Kit)

Expansion of the Port of Esbjerg

The aforementioned agreement approved the necessary expansion of Port Esbjerg, to make it more suitable as a military transit port. It was signed on August 22nd 2022, by the Danish Minister of Defence Morten Bødskov, the Minister for the Environment Lea Wermelin, the Mayor of Esbjerg Jesper Frost Rasmussen, the chairman of Port Esbjerg Søren Gade, Major General in the Danish military Michael Hyldegaard, and Major General from the US Army of the 21st Theatre Sustainment Command, James Smith. Indeed, this expansion will require coordination between multiple ministries. “Denmark must be able to receive significantly more NATO forces and equipment in a shorter time,” the Danish Defence Ministry tweeted.

Construction planned for the port includes deepening the fairway to a depth of 12.5 metres in a short timeframe, an expansion of the port’s railway terminal, and the conversion of more port land space normally dedicated to wind turbines into military areas with high-security requirements, in a manner that is minimally disruptive to commercial traffic. In the short term, these adjustments will be beneficial to European security, while in the long term, when the infrastructure is no longer required for military use, it will enable the transportation of larger wind turbines for wind farms in the North Sea, boosting the production of green energy. As stated in a 2022 report by the Danish government, “Security policy and climate policy go hand in hand. When Denmark and Europe free themselves from Russia’s gas, it will weaken Putin.”

The agreement signing ceremony in Port of Esbjerg (Twitter @Forsvarsmin)

A Strategic Hub for NATO

In addition to suitable infrastructure, the Port of Esbjerg has an advantageous location and is a major intermodal hub. It is accessible by the European motorway E20, which runs through Denmark, Sweden, Estonia, and Russia. It is also connected to the rail network and a short distance from Esbjerg Airport. It is further connected to over 25 ports in Northern Europe and on the Mediterranean Sea via six regular RoRo liner services, and makes for an ideal shortsea shipping alternative to road transport, with Sweden and the Baltic countries being within easy reach. It is also close to the Oksbol Danish military training ground. But its strategic placement goes beyond logistical convenience.

A source close to the matter posits that, from a military perspective, the port of Esbjerg is an advantageous location for a NATO maritime hub. Its location at the mouth of the Skagerrak strait allows for the monitoring of flows of goods in and out of the area, and notably of Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave separated from the rest of the country by Lithuania and Latvia. From this location, NATO forces would be able to tell if Russia is massing power in the region. Additionally, Kaliningrad can only be resupplied by Saint Petersburg by air or via the North Sea. Should conflict reach this region, Baltic states and Scandinavian countries would likely deny Russian access to their airspace, and the Gulf of Finland, making the North Sea their most viable option.

Map of the Suwalki Gap (Wikimedia Creative Commons Licence user: NordNordWest https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Suwalki_Gap-de-cropped.png )

Lastly, besides Hamburg, in Germany, it is the closest substantial port to the Suwalki Gap, a 90-kilometre corridor between Kaliningrad and Belarus. Should Russian aggression threaten the Baltic republic and Poland, this is the area through which NATO troops and reinforcements are likely to be sent, making it likely that Russia would try to secure it rapidly and ruthlessly, before pushing southwest. As such, the port of Esbjerg, located in the relative safety of the North Sea, is an ideal place to send reinforcement for NATO, in its bid to curb Russian aggression.

Author: Emma Dailey

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