Never Waste a Good Crisis – The Dutch Edition

Hold the helicopters to the ground, trade away the tanks and trim down the troops, that’s roughly the gist of the Defence Ministry’s one billion euro retrenchment plan, according to The Holland Bureau.

The Minister, Hans Hillen, is positioned in the crossfire between the Cabinet’s wish to reduce government spending and the urgent need of the military to refurbish after carrying the lead in the long and winding ISAF operation in Uruzgan, Afghanistan. Such a balancing act is not impossible for Hillen, who made a public appearance at Sociëteit de Witte, a high-end place at the centre of The Hague rumuored to have nearly been shut down by the Nazis during the occupation of the Netherlands due to subversive discussions among Bourbon-drinking bureaucrats.
The Second World War is never far away from Dutch political affairs, and Hillen was enough of a politician to capitalise on it in his address to the apprehensive audience – a small majority of whom were servicemen and veterans – when announcing his agreement for increased military cooperation with the Bundeswehr, exactly 71 years after the German invasion. Does this mean the Netherlands gets a military focused on task specialisation, where one partner assumes responsibility for, say, air support, while the other possesses an amphibious capacity? The opposite is true. Even though ‘coalitions of the willing’ offers some financial relief, the Netherlands needs to remain relevant with multi-deployable, expeditionary armed forces.
A cybersecurity capacity is being built in the Army, and, more controversially, the Air Force is undertaking exercises with four Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in the United States. Ethical conflicts are often brought up in relation to drone strikes, but weighing the pros against the cons shows its a practical and cost-efficient instrument towards the future. Still, as Dutch foreign policy still rests on the promotion of international law and stability, the Cabinet needs to choose its future engagements carefully to remain credible.
The Dutch indeed need to prepare for the elusive new levels of military engagement of the twenty-first century. The Ministry of Defence is active now in Afghanistan and has been involved before with a constabulary force as a lead nation for about four years due to mission creep. Such activity has proven to be a major strain on all possible resources, be it people, materials, or finances. In the midst of much-needed downtime to recover, the Minister dropped the scale-back bomb.
“Even if the financial crisis hadn’t transpired, reforms would have been necessary” Hillen claims. In operational terms; width and not depth will be compromised, meaning the Dutch need to be able to operate in all levels of conflict intensity, but not for as long as they used to. Logically, that means drawing closer to allies, making NATO once more the anchor of the Netherlands’ security strategy.
It would be disastrous for the Minister of Defence to release much of his material and personnel and be forced to admit complete dependence on the capabilities of others in support roles. In a move to boost morale he concludes that in three years the contours of a new Defence Force will take shape. But with resistance already emanating from the military unions and the top-heavy officer structure, it will prove challenging to reform an already exhausted ministry.
The more militaries change, the more things stay the same. The Netherlands, and Europe as a whole, are struggling to not get pressed into the periphery of the world. Now that the bottom of reserves are in sight, looking to NATO and ad-hoc partnerships for a show of muscle are 20th century answers for strategic problems of the 21st century and beyond.
Hillen, then, is doing the honourable thing by defending and elaborating his cutbacks, but will need to continue deepening a strategic dialogue with partners and public to shape a Defence Force robust and prepared enough to be relevant from today onwards.
Minister Hillen has his work cut out for him, that is, if the shaky foundations of the governing coalition actually hold There’s no time like the present to put his lobby skills to good use and put a coherent plan on the table that shows intent and capability to secure a stable and prospering nation.
On the sixth of June the Parliament will debate the proposals, in a public session.

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