Netherlands Prepares to Bolster Defense

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has spurred countries across Europe to re-examine their long-neglected militaries, with nation after nation formally declaring their intent to increase defense funding and bolster respective capabilities.

The latest country to roll out a new defense approach is the Netherlands, which on June 1 unveiled an updated Defense White Paper. The strategy aims to reverse the decades-long erosion of the Dutch force structure and improve the military’s resilience and logistical and medical tooth-to-tail strength. Greater cooperation and operational cohesion with European partners – particularly Germany – will be emphasized.

To fund all of the improvements, the Netherlands’ defense budget will receive an additional EUR5 billion ($5.37 billion) on a structural basis, amounting to a 40 percent increase over the current fiscal year allocation of EUR12.4 billion ($13.3 billion).

By a large margin, the Dutch Parliament – the Tweede Kamer –  pushed for this measure back on February 28, shortly after the launch of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Hence, finding broad-based political support for an increase in military funding will present little challenge for the government. In fact, in late 2021, plans were announced to top-up defense investment by EUR11.8 billion over a four-year period (just under EUR3 billion per year). Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine provided the Dutch Defense Ministry with the additional political support required to sign off on the spending increase, with further expenditure added to the total.

The aim going forward will be to reach NATO’s minimum benchmark for investment in defense of 2 percent of annual GDP in 2024 and 2025. The Dutch defense figure for 2021 amounted to 1.43 percent of GDP – a figure aided by the economic contraction of 2020 and a 4.8 percent real-term year-on-year funding increase.

The big question is, where will all the additional funding go?

Like so many dual EU-NATO members, the Netherlands was quick to cash in on the “peace dividend” resulting from the end of the Cold War. Its once strong military shrank from above 105,000 troops in 1989 to just 36,000 by 2020. Capacity and capability both atrophied, while an economic recession in 2009 and a concurrent spike in the nation’s budget deficit prompted Dutch lawmakers to seek ways to wring savings from the government checkbook.

Adding to the military’s deficiencies is that the Netherlands has shipped anti-air and anti-tank missiles, howitzers and other materiel to Ukraine to support Kiev’s war effort, leaving already-dwindling military stockpiles low.

The first step, therefore, will be to increase the inventories of ammunition, rockets, missiles, small arms and fuel while tackling equipment maintenance backlogs. The military medical chain will also be promptly addressed, as will the support and material benefits provided to the common soldier in hopes of improving recruitment and retention of personnel.

In terms of acquisition, the Defense Ministry plans to add six F-35s to the currently planned acquisition figure of 46 jet fighters. Also on tap will be the acquisition of an additional military transport aircraft to supplement the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s current air mobility capability. In addition, the Special Forces and Royal Netherlands Marines will be allocated a special helicopter unit.

Air defense in the land, sea and air domains will be strengthened, with the Royal Netherlands Navy receiving Tomahawk cruise missiles. For aerial strike purposes, four additional MQ-9 Reapers will be ordered and armed. In the land domain, reports indicate that an order for an unspecified number of HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) multiple rocket launchers will be pursued.

Funding will also go toward improving and hardening the government’s IT infrastructure, reinforcing national intelligence capability, purchasing new sensors, and expanding offensive and defensive cyber warfare capabilities. Finally, expansion of fire support and ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) effectiveness is being prioritized.

Should the latest plans unfold as intended, the future Dutch armed forces will be made more agile, more deployable, and more sustainable in the field. The latter aspect in particular represents a major shortcoming across the armies of Europe.

More fundamentally, the goal is to increase collective firepower through tighter cooperation within current structures, which for the Royal Netherlands Army means the joint 1st German Netherlands Corps (1GNC) and various integrative measures previously undertaken such as a tank battalion and mechanized and air mobile brigades. The Royal Netherlands Navy, meanwhile, will continue integration with its counterpart in Belgium through the Admiral Benelux arrangement.

The latest initiative may not return the Dutch armed forces to their Cold War-era strength, but if supported and seen through should go far in reversing the hollowing out of a once capable military.

About Daniel Darling

Dan Darling is a senior analyst covering both the Europe and Asia-Pacific regions for Forecast International's International Military Markets group.

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