The Dutch armed forces are facing drastic budget cuts which will not only seriously limit the country’s ability to take part in international missions, but which also threaten the army’s traditional role of providing assistance in case of a national disaster. Can the Dutch army still be relied upon in times of crisis?
The army is facing a serious shortage of spare parts and ammunition. Out of a total of 87 Dutch F-16s, only 25 are still operational. Live firing and training exercises are being scrapped. The navy can no longer afford to buy uniforms for its cadets.
This is the state of the Dutch armed forces in the year 2010. And the defence ministry has to cut another 200 million euros from its budget next year. A first step toward a structural cut of 635 million euros in 2018.
Cuts of this magnitude are bound to have consequences. Defence Minister Hans Hillen has warned that, if no action is taken, combat readiness of the armoured infantry can no longer be guaranteed from the end of 2011. Jean Debie, chair of one of the nation’s unions of defence personnel, also paints a gloomy picture: "There will be less training at the unit level, less firing practice and training courses will be scrapped. Army readiness is rapidly going downhill.”
However, MP Han ten Broeke of the conservative VVD (one of the parties in the coalition government) says there is plenty of scope for cuts to the defence budget. He suggests finding an "interesting lease construction" for the thousands of non-military vehicles owned by the defence ministry. Mr Ten Broeke also criticises the use of chauffeur-driven cars by army generals.
“What really gets me is that more than 30 cars and their drivers are permanently at the ready for, I think, 16 generals. Given the fact that there is no money to buy boots for new recruits, I really believe the army needs to reconsider its priorities.”
The international role of the Dutch army will also be affected. Mr Debie says some difficult choices must be made:
"The Netherlands can no longer do everything at once. Each request for military deployment will have to be carefully evaluated to see whether the necessary military resources are available. This means that when, in the future, the Netherlands is asked to take part in EU, UN or NATO missions, it will not be in a position to do so because of the financial position of its armed forces and the extent of the shortages.”
Further reductions to the Dutch armed forces will also have consequences for the country’s international standing. Retired Major General Frank van Kappen, a former advisor to the United Nations, says it will be difficult to explain to the United Nations why a rich country like the Netherlands is implementing such radical defence cuts.
The NATO alliance requires its members to spend 2 percent of their Gross Domestic Product on defence. The Netherlands does not meet that standard even today (1.65 percent of GDP in 2009), let alone after the planned cuts.
“This means we’ll get slapped on the wrist by NATO for not meeting our obligations. After all, the Netherlands still ranks 16th on the list of the world’s largest economies, 9th on the list of major exporting nations and is the world’s third largest investor. Given the forces we will be left with, would they still be appropriate for a country like the Netherlands? Our allies are bound to ask us that question.”
However, a reduced state of military readiness will also have domestic consequences. Army standards call for the deployment of 3,600 soldiers within 48 hours after a national disaster such as a major flood as a result of a burst dyke. However, union chair Mr Debie says the army will no longer be able to meet that standard when much of its equipment is either broken or otherwise unavailable.