Alphen, Netherlands. 23 September. Last week in a “Defence Note” carefully buried in an announcement on the wider national budget The Netherlands cut some €370m (c$400m) from an already straitened defence budget. At the same time I gave a speech to senior NATO commanders in Riga, Latvia during Exercise Steadfast Pyramid and Pinnacle designed to test the credibility of the Alliance’s twenty-first century collective defence. My core message was blunt; the true test of NATO was that the good people of Riga could sleep soundly in their beds. However, to pass such a test NATO would need a twenty-first century defence built on twenty-first century forces. Even as I spoke I could feel the rug being pulled from under my feet by the Dutch decision.
The cut was sweetened by an announcement that the Netherlands will purchase 37 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) worth some €4.5bn ($6bn) to replace ageing F-16s. Back in 2010 I wrote a report entitled “Between the Polder and a Hard Place” together with Col Anne Tjepkema, formerly of the Royal Netherlands Air Force, for the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London. The report charted 14 Dutch defence cuts since 1991. One of the report’s findings was that each Dutch defence cut has been sweetened by a commitment to purchase a new piece of military equipment. However, that commitment was either broken or watered down in a subsequent defence cut. Expect the same.
Since the end of the Cold War Dutch defence spending has fallen from 2.8% of gross domestic product (GDP) to 1.4% GDP and is planned to fall to 1.14% GDP by 2015. Indeed, if one removes Dutch Gendarmerie forces from the defence budget the figure is nearer 1% GDP or half of NATO’s agreed defence investment level of 2% GDP. Moreover, according to the CIA the Netherlands ranks 92nd in comparative world military expenditure out of 173 states and 15th out of NATO’s 28 members. To be fair ‘superpower’ Germany comes in at 102nd and Canada 120th, but the rest comprise mainly minnows such as Albania, Belgium, Iceland, and Luxembourg.
The Dutch Government likes to hide behind the ‘little country’ alibi. However, contrast the defence ranking of the Netherlands with its economic ranking and the extent to which the Dutch are defence free-riding becomes all too apparent. According to the CIA the Netherlands is Europe’s 6th largest economy, the world’s 24th largest by power purchase and the 7th largest trading power on the planet utterly reliant on open global sea and air lines of communication which have to be defended.
With the Americans stretched thin the world over NATO Europe must either be capable of going with the Americans or must credibly be able to act autonomously in and around Europe’s rough neighbourhood. Indeed, to keep NATO strong and America engaged Europeans must help the US to remain strong wherever and whenever. This is why the British will next year launch the first of two large aircraft carriers to project strategic power. If Europeans fail that test NATO will fade and eventually fail.
Defence Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plaeschart uttered forth the usual political platitudes whilst Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans suggested that in a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry the Americans had expressed satisfaction with the Dutch decision to buy JSF. My well-placed Washington sources tell me the Americans also expressed concerns about the defence cuts and their impact on NATO.
The only way for the Netherlands to squeeze military credibility out of their future force will be to enact radically deep synergies between the Royal Netherlands Army, Navy and Air Force. In effect they will need to become a single service. The Hague will also have to seek defence integration with other states in a similar position, most notably Belgium. This will effectively mark the end of Dutch defence sovereignty.
Furthermore, given the rise in the cost of defence equipment the continual cuts to the Dutch defence equipment budget makes the size of the force the enemy of the cost of the equipment the force needs – a capability-capacity crunch. Indeed, the Dutch are now struggling to afford any military capabilities hence only 37 JSF which is not a viable force. ‘Not a viable force’ is an accusation that can now be levelled against the entirety of the Dutch armed forces as The Hague drives them below an irreducible level.
With proliferation of strategic weapons across a world full of friction the Dutch Government seems all too happy for the American, British and French taxpayers to bear the true cost of defending the Netherlands and its interests. This is a tragedy because having worked with the Royal Netherlands Armed Forces I have witnessed first-hand the outstanding quality of Dutch personnel.
Will the people of Riga sleep sound in their bed? Yes for now but not for much longer if countries like the Netherlands think their defence is someone else’s problem. The Dutch are cutting NATO.