Budget Cuts Lower Defense Ambitions in Holland

As the dust settles on the Netherlands’ defense reform package – outlining equipment and personnel cuts – it has become clear that budgetary constraints have significantly lowered Dutch defense ambitions. Previously a loyal coalition partner in Iraq and an enthusiastic contributor to NATO, these cut-backs will severely reduce the Dutch role in future international security operations.

Faced with national debt approaching 75 percent of GDP, Defense Minister Hans Hillen has been instructed to claw back 1 billion euros of savings from a defense budget of 8.5 billion by 2014 alone. The result has been a budgetary bloodbath for the Netherlands’ military.

The most shocking loss has been in manpower. Out of a total of 61,000 personnel, some 12,000 will leave the forces.

If U.S. (or even other European) audiences are inclined to dismiss the severity of such measures due to the relatively small size of the Dutch military, it is worth imagining what losing a fifth of your personnel would do to the morale of any military establishment. It is even more difficult to contemplate what completely losing certain equipment means for your image of national defense. 

For instance, the Dutch have been forced to accept the loss of several core capabilities, with their entire fleet of Leopard 2 main battle tanks, Cougar frigate helicopters, and a third of the air force's F-16 fighter jets being scrapped. Several naval vessels will also be pensioned off to cover the rest of the savings.

As the Netherlands no longer have any battle tanks, they can no longer provide significant ground capabilities to any future NATO or E.U. military embarkment. They have lost complete sovereignty over this element of their defense policy.

That’s a bitter pill to swallow. The Dutch army has had its horizons effectively curtailed to small, supporting roles in low-intensity peacekeeping operations.

There is a silver lining to this painfully pragmatic approach. Cuts in the army have allowed other sectors to continue to receive investment. For a start, the pride of the Dutch navy, their six strong frigate squadron, remains.

The Dutch can thus continue to contribute to EUNAVFOR, the European naval anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden, on fair burden-sharing terms. In addition, Dutch investment in the Joint Strike Fighter programme will also continue, bolstering the air force in the future.

Yet ultimately, this defense review has highlighted the harsh budgetary realities facing the Dutch capital, Den Haag. To balance the books, the Netherlands has been forced to accept that the last vestiges of a full-spectrum defense policy must now be relinquished. They have also been forced to pick winners and losers between the three armed services and re-adjust defense ambitions to match.

This cut-and-adjust approach will have a ripple effect across Europe, as other defense ministers consider how they too will meet the demand for budgetary draw-downs. Indeed, as austerity sweeps Europe, the Dutch will certainly not be the first to face a radical reassessment of their military means and defense posture in the coming year. 

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons