Dutch hard power: Choosing decline

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A Dutch Marine giving directions during an amphibious assault demo during the Dutch Navy Days on July 7, 2012 in Den Helder, The Netherlands.

Article Highlights

  • Perhaps because the Cold War ended not with a bang but a whimper, many Europeans, including the Dutch, have become convinced that war is simply a thing of the past.

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  • Europeans generally do not see the necessity of a well-funded military.

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  • The “peace dividend” taken by the Netherlands over the past two decades has gone well beyond what is reasonable and now jeopardizes the country’s ability to address its own security interests and fulfill its NATO member obligations.

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Since the end of the Cold War, member states of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization have cut defense budgets to historic lows. The Netherlands is no exception. Though the Netherlands has increased spending on domestic welfare, its defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product has—since the Cold War’s end—declined by approximately half to 1.40 percent, with the prospect of it declining to 1.15 percent by mid-decade. Though the Dutch government’s 2000 Defence White Paper outlined plans to increase overall combat readiness and improve the ability of Dutch forces to project power abroad in cooperation with allies, reductions in defense spending have resulted in substantial cuts in the country’s conventional military capabilities and the size of its active-duty force. As a nation that requires peace and stability in the international order for its own peace and prosperity, and as a smaller state that must depend on NATO to ensure that peace and stability, the Netherlands has both an interest and an obligation to maintain a modern and capable military that can work effectively with its alliance partners in various contingencies. Absent a reversal in Dutch attitudes about defense issues, however, the Netherlands will increasingly be judged as being a “free rider” when it comes to European and transatlantic security.

Key points in this Outlook:

  • Since the end of the Cold War, the Netherlands' defense spending as a percentage of gross domestic product has decreased by approximately half.
  • Although the Netherlands laid out a plan in 1999 for reshaping its military to fit the security requirements of the post–Cold War era, continuing cuts to Dutch force structure and modernization efforts have undermined efforts to carry out that plan.
  • The Netherlands is reluctant to increase its defense spending, instead spending more on domestic welfare programs, which jeopardizes the country’s ability to address its security interests and fulfill its North Atlantic Treaty Organization obligations.


This is the third National Security Outlook in a series about the defense capabilities of America’s allies and security partners.[1]

The end of the Cold War has not only challenged the role of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the level of commitment its own member states feel toward it but has also caused many member states to doubt the very necessity of having a military capable of any significance. With the most obvious threats of the Cold War relegated to the history books, many European democracies are choosing to cut defense resources to the bone while expending ever-increasing amounts on domestic welfare, especially in the area of health care. This not only affects their capacity to safeguard their national sovereignty and vital interests but also undermines their capacity to fulfill treaty obligations, deter possible foes, or act in concert with their traditional allies to face current and rising threats to peace and security. This Outlook will examine the budgetary and political choices made by the Netherlands, which are telling examples of this problematic trend.

Rich Country, Impoverished Military

The Netherlands can hardly be considered a poor country or one without global interests. Its gross domestic product (GDP) is the world’s 17th largest and, using purchasing-power parities, it ranks fourth in per capita GDP globally.[2] The Netherlands is also the world’s eighth-largest exporting nation and ranks fifth in out-of-country investments.[3]

So how much does the Netherlands spend on defense? In 2011, the total government budget was € 270 billion. Of this amount, 26.8 percent was allocated to health care, 26.3 percent to social services, and only 2.90 percent to defense.[4] While defense spending in absolute numbers has increased from € 6.647 billion in 2000 to € 7.900 billion in 2011, in real (inflation-adjusted) numbers, the defense budget has remained essentially flat and, with 2012 cuts, is set to decline (figure 1).[5]

On a per capita basis, the Netherlands is not an outlier when it comes to defense expenditures. For example, it is more or less on par with France and sits well above Germany and Italy (figure 2).

However, this “good news” is less optimistic than it appears because virtually all of NATO’s European members have been slashing their defense budgets. A clearer picture of the defense priorities is exhibited in the percentage of the Netherlands’ GDP spent on defense—a country’s real defense burden. Here, the story is one of marked decline. Since the Cold War’s end, the country’s defense spending as a percentage of GDP has declined by approximately half and now sits at the unprecedented low level of 1.40 percent (see figure 3), with the prospect of it declining to 1.15 percent by mid-decade.[6]

And this decline occurs at a time when the GDP per capita level for the Netherlands has skyrocketed from € 19.746 in 1995 to € 34.551 in 2009.[7]  Put differently, the wealthier the Dutch people have become, the less they have been willing to spend on defense.

The Dutch Military: Then and Now

What have 20 years of budgetary cuts meant for the state of the Dutch military? In sheer numbers, the decline in conventional military platforms has been significant. To take just a few examples, the Royal Netherlands Army no longer has a single tank in its inventory: it had 913 vehicles in 1990 and none in 2011. Moreover, the number of Royal Netherlands Air Force F-16s Fighting Falcons has shrunk from 181 in 1990 to 68 in 2011, while the number of frigates and destroyers in the Royal Netherlands Navy has declined from 15 in 1990 to a mere 6 in 2011.[8]

The size of the active-duty forces has shrunk as well. In 1990, the army numbered over 64,000, but, in 2011, was less than a third that size at just below 21,000. Navy personnel have been cut nearly in half over the same period, with 8,500 in the navy’s ranks in 2011 compared with 16,600 in 1990. Similarly, the air force has been reduced from 16,000 to just over 8,000 in 2011.

Of course, all Western militaries have seen reductions since the end of the Cold War. Nevertheless, cuts to the Netherlands’ military force structure have been sharp and continuous. At a certain point, the quality of a force cannot make up for its lack of quantity.

However, like many other NATO allies in the late 1990s (especially in the wake of Balkan conflicts and the chaos surrounding Somalia in that decade), the Netherlands laid out a plan for reshaping its military to fit what it took to be the security requirements of the post–Cold War era. In late November 1999, the Dutch government published its Defence White Paper 2000 under the signature of the minister of defense.

The goals, according to the paper, were to increase overall combat readiness and improve the ability of Dutch forces to conduct expeditionary missions and sustain them for prolonged periods of time. These particular reforms were driven by the general “unpredictability” of the security environment: “Where, when, with whom, under what circumstances and for what tasks the units of our armed forces are deployed in the future is uncertain.”[9]

But, that said, “[s]ignificant trends can be identified. Operations are being conducted further from home. . . . Units must be prepared for operations in the entire spectrum of force . . . [and] . . . rapid deployment is vitally important.”[10] And, finally, operations may “last for years.” According to the white paper, in a “world without frontiers,” Dutch forces must “be deployable across the entire spectrum of tasks: from combat tasks and military assistance to contributing to civil government tasks.”[11] More broadly, and in connection with the country’s membership in the democratic West, “[t]he Netherlands is expected to make its contribution to the common effort and not sponge off the efforts of other countries.”[12]

To meet this broader obligation, the white paper states that Dutch forces would require the ability to, if necessary, participate in four peacekeeping operations simultaneously with battalion-sized units for a period of three years and to engage in one “peace-enforcement” operation with a brigade-sized force for a more limited (but not specified) duration. But because the security problems the Dutch might face do not always fall neatly into these categories or timelines, the white paper notes that the future Dutch force structure must build in “some margin” to account for different circumstances and contingencies.[13]

More specifically, to fulfill these requirements, the Dutch force structure would, according to the white paper, need to consist of six mechanized army battalions with one tank squadron, three airmobile battalions, and three marine battalions. Among platforms, the force structure would require 2 amphibious transport ships, 14 frigates, 12 minesweepers, 10 upgraded maritime surveillance aircraft (P-3 Orions), 20 new medium-sized, multirole helicopters (NH-20s), and upgraded Apache attack helicopters.

However, with the exception of the bump in the Dutch base defense budget in 2001, the increase in defense expenditures has largely gone to Dutch operational needs connected with the Netherlands’ deployment to Afghanistan. With the base defense budget (in inflation-adjusted terms) remaining essentially flat until 2011 and with the government’s spring 2011 announcement to cut planned defense spending substantially, the result is a Dutch military that falls well short of the 2000 white paper’s goals. In 2011, for example, there were only four mechanized army battalions instead of six. And, as noted above, the Dutch removed from service its remaining Leopard tanks. Nor were there the planned three battalions of Dutch marines, but only two. Indeed, between planned increases in land forces and the cuts that actually occurred, there was a decline of some 17 percent in expected land-force numbers. (The one spot of good news is that, in 2003, the army did meet its goal of having its proposed airmobile brigade up and running.)

"Since the Cold War’s end, the Netherlands' defense spending as a percentage of GDP has declined by approximately half and now sits at the unprecedented low level of 1.40 percent (see figure 3), with the prospect of it declining to 1.15 percent by mid-decade."

On the materiel side of the ledger, the number of frigates dropped from the planned 14 to 6; the hoped-for 12 minesweepers were cut in half; the P-3 Orions—after being modernized—were eliminated altogether; and the fleet of medium-lift helicopters was radically reduced (and will only be replaced as resources allow). One of the four MIM-104 Patriot air-defense batteries has been deactivated; one of two Dutch navy combat support ships has been decommissioned, with the second set to be retired in 2014; the order of patrol vessels have been cut in half; a quarter of the Dutch army’s front-line, self-propelled howitzers have been cut; and plans for adding Tomahawk cruise missiles to Dutch frigates have been shelved.[14]

With the decline in the Netherlands’ defense budget—from an expected 2012 budget of € 8.20 billion to an actual budget of € 7.87 billion, and further cuts in the future—there is no expectation that the Dutch government will reverse course and meet its once lofty goal of fielding a full-spectrum, modernized, deployable, and sustainable ­military force. Although it retains some equipment for projecting power overseas—such as modern amphibious ships, heavy-lift helicopters, and F-16s—the numbers are no longer sufficient for keeping an operation going for a length of time. In terms of its operational abilities, the Netherlands’ participation in long-term peacekeeping operations dropped from four in 1993 to barely two short-term peace missions today. (For an overview of the Dutch expeditionary operations since 1991, see text box “Major Dutch Military Operations since 1991.”) And it is doubtful that, given reduced numbers and shortages of equipment, the Dutch would in the future even consider engaging in a peace enforcement mission like the one the Netherlands undertook in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan, from 2006 to 2010.[15]

The defense budget cuts have also had an impact on the country’s ability to maintain the readiness of its existing force, leading to postponement of upgrades to various systems, slowed delivery of spare parts, maintenance delays, and even suggestions from the Dutch government’s own internal auditor that the budget is not sufficient to sustain training levels for F-16 pilots.[16] And the money being “saved” on deferred operations and maintenance is not leading to substantial new investments in military hardware.

As a rule of thumb, between 20 and 25 percent of a defense budget should be used for investments in new equipment. In the case of the current Dutch military budget, that would amount to about € 1.58 to € 1.97 billion. Only € 1 billion is currently going toward investments in new hardware—that is, only 12 percent. In 2011, when the cuts were being put forward by the government and even more cuts were being bandied about by the various Dutch political parties, then-defense minister Hans Hillen was blunt in his assessment of the consequences of further cuts to the military, saying they would be tantamount to “cutting off limbs and will cripple the armed forces. We have already been bled dry as it is.”[17]

Lost Opportunities?

F-35 Lightning II. In 2002, the parliament of the Netherlands decided to invest € 800 million into the development of the F-35—the stealthy, American-designed, multirole fighter that is intended to replace the F-16 not only in the tactical air fleet of the US Air Force, but in many allied air forces as well. The initial expectation was that the Dutch would purchase 85 F-35s. However, with the cuts to the defense budget, that number has been significantly reduced, and, with an eye to further defense reductions, in July 2012 the Dutch parliament voted 77 to 71 to stop funding the project altogether.[18] Although the vote was not binding on the government, it does signal the possibility that the Dutch government might decide to withdraw from the program at a later date.

A sum of € 7.4 billion was initially reserved in the Dutch budget for the replacement of the F-16. While this budget has been lowered to € 4.5 billion, the budget itself is nonnegotiable. In other words, that money will be spent and the existing F-16s will be replaced. To date, the Dutch government has invested € 1.15 billion in the F-35 program and bought two planes for testing.[19] Since the F-16 will be replaced, all the costs incurred in the development of the F-35 thus far would essentially be wasted should the Netherlands choose a different aircraft. This would also be wasted money considering that, given the alternative aircrafts available, it would mean acquiring a fighter that, while still expensive, would be far less capable against modern and emerging air defenses. It is useful to remember that any F-16 replacement would likely be in the Dutch air force inventory for several decades. Also significant is the fact that the F-35 is being developed in conjunction with the United States, giving the Netherlands the opportunity to work closely on an important project with its most important ally.

"With the exception of the bump in the Dutch base defense budget in 2001, the increase in defense expenditures has largely gone to Dutch operational needs connected with the Netherlands’ deployment to Afghanistan."

The Netherlands’ discontinuation of the F-35 program is also a poor decision in terms of sheer economics. As a member of the international consortium that is involved not only in the plane’s development phase but also the ensuing production and sustainment phase, the Netherlands has a stake in the health of the F-35 program over the long term. According to former defense minister Hillen, the profits of co-producing the F-35 could amount to € 9 billion for the Netherlands. Whilst a little more than € 1 billion has been invested thus far, royalties from sales of the plane to nonconsortium countries such as Japan and Singapore are expected to cover the plane’s development costs and more.

The development of the F-35 in the Netherlands alone employs over a 1,000 people, and this number is only expected to rise. Projects of this magnitude also create an entire line of logistical, transport, production, and service industries that generate their own employment and financial benefits. There is also the added value tied to the fact that the program will help Dutch companies maintain cutting-edge engineering and technological skills and, in turn, will help support advanced research at Dutch technological universities. PricewaterhouseCoopers has calculated that the economic benefits of the F-35 would amount to € 16 billion over the life of the program, which would not only cover the Netherlands’ cost for procuring the fighter, but could also offset the cost to operate and maintain the fleet itself.[20]

In sum, backing out of the F-35 program now would leave the Dutch air force with a second-tier aircraft; would undercut the longer-term economic, industrial, and technological benefits associated with the program; and, finally, would put at risk the Netherlands’ credibility as a reliable and trusted NATO partner.

Maritime Ballistic-Missile Defense. The Netherlands has a long history of involvement of allied efforts in the area of missile and air defense—including the country’s 1950s decision to acquire the Nike high- and medium-altitude air-defense system; procurement of the MIM-23 Hawk medium-altitude air-defense system in the early 1960s; and the acquisition of the MIM-104 Patriot long-range, high-altitude air defense in the 1980s. Indeed, in 2004, the Netherlands was the first country after the United States to order the PAC-3 missile (the upgraded Patriot system), giving the Dutch air force a capability not only against aircraft but also against tactical ballistic missiles and cruise missiles.

Nor has the Netherlands been reluctant to deploy its capabilities as allied needs arise. During the First Gulf War, the Dutch provided Patriot batteries to both Turkey and Israel as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq launched dozens of Scud missiles at Israel and surrounding Gulf states. And today, Dutch Patriots were deployed in Turkey after Ankara asked its NATO partners for help defending Turkey’s air space along its border with Syria.

In light of global ballistic-missile proliferation, at the Lisbon NATO Summit in 2010, the alliance decided to develop an expanded ballistic-missile capability—one that could address the missile threat to not only deployed NATO forces, but also to Europe’s population and territory. As part of this effort, the United States will contribute its own ballistic-missile assets to the NATO mission, with the deployment of Aegis destroyers based out of Rota, Spain, and, in the future, ground-based interceptors and radars to be sited in Poland, Romania, and Turkey.

In the same vein, the Netherlands will contribute its existing PAC-3 batteries and planned upgrades to four of its air-defense frigates. After the Smart-L long-range surveillance radar system is modernized, the frigates will be able to detect the launch of missiles from a distance of over 1,000 kilometers, track multiple threats simultaneously, and predict points of impact. The upgrade to the frigates’ capabilities is expected to reach initial operational capability sometime in 2017.

As with the F-35 program, however, the continued development of the Netherlands’ radar program is threatened by continuing cuts to the defense budget—cuts in this case that are bolstered by a segment of the Dutch public and political elite that view missile defenses as unnecessary or provocative in light of Russian criticism of the NATO program altogether.

Such views are shortsighted given existing missile threats and the proliferation of ballistic-missile technology globally. It is also shortsighted in that the program would involve a Dutch company developing a unique and advanced radar technology, which would not only put the Netherlands on the map as an interesting partner for future systems, but could also generate sales from other countries seeking to upgrade their air and missile defense capabilities.[21] The Smart-L radar is already in use in the Italian, German, French, Danish, and British navies. The research and development associated with this project could make the Netherlands a supplier of much needed but costly niche capacity.

The reality is that projects like the F-35 and maritime ballistic-missile defenses cannot be researched, developed, or deployed efficiently by a single nation. If countries such as the Netherlands are to sustain essential, high-end capabilities, they will require a joint effort—what NATO calls “smart defence”—among allies to acquire and maintain those capabilities. However, “smart defence” is no cure-all for not spending enough on defense; even here, there is no escaping the fact that sustained investments are still necessary.

"PricewaterhouseCoopers has calculated that the economic benefits of the F-35 would amount to € 16 billion over the life of the program, which would not only cover the Netherlands’ cost for procuring the fighter, but could also offset the cost to operate and maintain the fleet itself."

Why the Dutch Do Not Spend More on Defense

Two main causes underlie the political reluctance to invest in the military. One is ideological in nature, while the second is related to domestic budgetary politics. Perhaps because the Cold War ended not with a bang but a whimper, many Europeans, including the Dutch, have become convinced that war is simply a thing of the past. The only wars to reach European shores after World War II were the wars in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and even those are seen by many Europeans as having little bearing on their own situation. As for the wars in Kuwait, Iraq, and Afghanistan, those were wars of choice, not necessity—intended mostly, Europeans think, to placate the United States.

Not surprisingly, then, Europeans generally do not see the necessity of a well-funded military. For example, in a 2012 German Marshall Fund poll, only 8 percent of Dutch citizens thought the Netherlands should spend more on defense in light of the expected American drawdown in Europe and “pivot” to Asia.[22] For many people in the Netherlands, if the Dutch has an enemy, they believe it is because the Dutch did something wrong, did not explain themselves correctly, or caused offense to someone else. The mere thought that terrorists, for example, might wish to harm the Netherlands or its allies for reasons that are entirely their own does not appear viable in their mind. They will argue that it makes no sense to invest in the military if the aim of politics is to avoid war. This type of thinking ignores the fact that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics collapsed in part because it could not keep up with US military spending. The lesson these idealistic pacifists refuse to acknowledge is that peace cannot be kept through peaceful measures alone.

A more mendacious version of pacifism argues that the Netherlands should disengage altogether from the Middle East, stop the country’s complicity with the “imperialistic” meddling in the affairs of Islamic states, and stop supporting allies—such as the United States and Israel—who have incurred the wrath of these nations and peoples. Unlike the more idealistic pacifist who believes that the problem lies with Dutch and allied statecraft, this second kind of pacifist sees the problem as the very nature of the West itself. Needless to say, both kinds view defense budgets as a target for cutting.

No less important are the changing budget priorities of the Dutch government. As one can see from figure 4, while government spending has increased substantially over the past decade and a half, the relative increase in domestic spending versus national security is striking. Especially striking is the jump in health care costs. Health care costs now represent approximately 28 percent of the government’s total budget, and that percentage is expected to rise appreciably over the course of the next few decades. If the entire defense apparatus were abolished, the resulting additional resources would, it is estimated, only accommodate the rise of health care costs for the next two years.

Why the Dutch Should Spend More on Defense

Obviously, no one expects the Netherlands to sustain a military the size or character of the one it had during the height of the Cold War. Neither the Netherlands nor any of its allies face the kind of overwhelming threat once posed by Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces. But the “peace dividend” taken by the Netherlands over the past two decades has gone well beyond what is reasonable and now jeopardizes the country’s ability to address its own security interests and fulfill its obligations as a NATO member.

While the Soviet Union threat no longer exists, Vladimir Putin’s Russia does combine revanchist rhetoric with plans to triple defense spending over the next eight years—this over and above the fact that Russia already spends more on its military than all but the United States and China. There is no guarantee that Russia will not use its still considerable military might to threaten its neighbors or provoke a crisis that would require a NATO response.

And if a crisis with Russia seems out of the realm of possibility, consider this question: who predicted that Russia would invade Georgia in 2008? And, indeed, with the United States drawing down its forces in Europe to the bare minimum and the Netherlands and its European allies cutting their own defenses to the bone, is Europe really up to defending its borders? And is Europe’s weakness actually encouraging even more truculent behavior on the part of Moscow? It seems irresponsible for Europe in general and the Netherlands in particular to starve their militaries because of faith in Russia’s good intentions.

But Dutch interests are not limited to the Netherlands’ immediate neighborhood. The Netherlands’ wealth is to a large degree the result of its international trade. The port of Rotterdam, which is the fourth largest—and the largest non-Asian—port in the world, does most of its trade with regions outside of Europe.[23] For example, of all the oil that leaves the Persian Gulf, 25 percent is offloaded at the port of Rotterdam. Of all the commercial transports that pass through the pirate-infested waters off the Somali coast in the Gulf of Aden, 8 percent are destined for the Dutch economy.

It is therefore safe to say that the security of the international trade routes is of vital importance to the Dutch economy. Similarly, many of the resources that are essential for the continued prosperity of the Dutch economy (and the West in ­general) are acquired from either politically unstable countries and regions or those not inherently friendly to Western liberal democracies. Of all current global oil production, almost a third comes from the Middle East, over 12 percent from Russia, and approximately 10 percent from both Latin America and Africa. And while there is some expectation that the “revolution” in unconventional natural gas and oil reserves might mitigate Western dependence, Europe in particular will still hugely depend on imports of foreign oil for some time to come.

All of these interests have demanded an American military presence, yet none of these interests are exclusively—or even in some cases, primarily—beneficial to them. Whereas common interests demand common responsibilities, it is quite strange (even embarrassing) that the costs of protecting these common vital interests are carried overwhelmingly by the United States. But is this situation sustainable with America’s own military resources set to shrink? One would not think so, but the European reaction has not been to reverse the sharp reduction in its own capabilities. Instead, there is considerable rhetoric among Europe’s leaders about “pooling and sharing” military resources. But absent decisions to reverse the decline in defense budgets, at its best, pooling and sharing will amount to little more than putting a band aid over a bleeding artery.

The Netherlands has, as noted above, a vital interest in international stability. However, being a relatively small nation both in terms of population and geographic size, this Dutch interest is best served by working under the umbrella of a larger alliance: NATO. Yet, the Netherlands—as with virtually all of America’s allies—is failing to hold up its end of the bargain, slipping below the 2 percent floor of GDP expended on defense that the NATO members agreed to a decade ago in Prague. The result, as former US defense secretary Robert Gates stated in 2011 in the midst of the Libyan campaign, is that “many of those allies sitting on the sidelines do so not because they do not want to participate, but simply because they can’t. The military capabilities simply aren't there.”[24]

Instead of reacting positively to this challenge, the Dutch government has put its military on a path of even less allied relevance with new budget cuts in 2012. As former Dutch defense minister Hillen pointedly noted:

The NATO alliance [is] based on the principle of a proportional contribution by all participating countries. . . . New cuts will inevitably result in the decrease of operational capabilities and again the Dutch contribution to the alliance will be limited. . . . Our country will continue to underperform NATO-standards, which other countries will perceive as a further decline of the Dutch willingness to supply a proportionate share towards the common safety. This will reduce the enthusiasm of other member states for international cooperation.[25]

Budget cuts, he concluded, “will prevent the Netherlands from participating in international cooperation in any meaningful form; it will harm the international reputation and diplomatic influence of the Netherlands.”[26]

“Free riding” is not a term that the vast majority of the Dutch population would be comfortable with as a description of their country’s current defense policy. Many Dutch, perhaps even the majority, would argue that the Netherlands’ security interests are far less a priority than the country’s domestic and fiscal problems. However, as I have argued, domestic prosperity and security are not so easily separated.

Inevitably, a cost will be associated with Europe’s precipitous decline in defense capabilities; it will lessen the alliance’s ability to assist the Netherlands in dealing with current and future security threats and, in turn, decrease Washington’s willingness to give Europe’s own concerns a sympathetic ear. It is a dynamic already in play and, unless reversed, will create the conditions for a less stable and potentially less peaceful future for both Europe and the United States.

Major Dutch Military Operations since 1991

    First Gulf War, August 1990–February 1991.
    Operation Haven (Operation Provide Comfort),
    April 1991–January 1992.
    Iraq War, May 2003–March 2005.

The Balkans
    United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR),
    February 1992–December 1995.
    Operation Deny Flight, April 1993–December 1995.
    Implementation Force (IFOR), Stabilization Force (SFOR),
     and European Force (EUFOR),  December 1995–Present.
    Operation Allied Force, March–June 1999.
    Kosovo Force (KFOR), March 1999–June 2000. 

    Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), October 2001–April 2006.
    International Security Assistance Force (ISAF),
     January 2002–August 2010.

Somalia and Antipiracy
    Operation Atalanta, Operation Ocean Shield, Operation Allied
     Protector, December 2008–Present.

    Operation Unified Protector, March–November 2011.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Dutch military has contributed thousands of personnel to operations that have ranged from election monitoring and providing humanitarian relief to ground combat and aerial bombing. At times, those missions have involved Dutch frigates, submarines, amphibious ships, fighter bombers, aerial tankers, fixed- and rotary-transport aircraft, Special Forces, marines, airborne and mechanized infantry battalions, medical teams, signals and communication specialists, reconnaissance planes, minesweepers, and attack helicopters. 

The Netherlands’ most sustained operation has been in the Balkans, which is also where Dutch forces received their most stinging criticism in the wake of the Bosnian Serb massacre of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) at Srebrenica in July 1995. Given responsibility for protecting the city and surrounding area as a United Nations-declared safe area, the Dutch “peacekeeping” force of less than 400 lightly armed airborne infantry faced a Serb force of well over 1,000 who were equipped with armored vehicles and heavy weaponry. Lacking air support from Dutch or allied planes to stop the Serb advance, the Dutch forces surrendered the town without a fight and, with it, the 25,000 Bosniaks residing there.[1]

The political resonance of the Srebrenica massacre in part accounts for the Netherlands’ more aggressive posture in the NATO air campaign against Serbia (Operation Allied Force) in 1999, which included the deployment of 18 F-16s, an aerial refueling tanker, and air strikes against targets inside Yugoslavia. And it also probably accounts for why the Dutch military contingent that was deployed to Muthanna Province in Southern Iraq in 2003 was given a more defined mission, was larger and better equipped, and included its own air-support element of Dutch Apache attack helicopters. 

However, it was not until 2006 when the Dutch parliament authorized a deployment to the province of Uruzgan, Afghanistan, that the Dutch military was tasked with a sustained operation as difficult as any it had faced since its involvement in the Korean War. With nearly 2,000 Dutch military personnel ultimately involved, Task Force Uruzgan consisted of a Dutch-led Provincial Reconstruction Team, an air detachment of F-16s, heavy- and medium-lift helicopters, Apache attack helicopters, and a battle group consisting of infantry, armored vehicles, and howitzers. Adopting a traditional “ink-spot” and “comprehensive” counterinsurgency strategy, the Dutch-led effort in Uruzgan resulted in a significantly improved, if still fragile, security situation in what had been a Taliban stronghold.[2] However, the mission in Uruzgan ended in the summer of 2010 after the governing coalition in The Hague collapsed over whether to agree to a NATO request to extend the operation for another year, with the Labor Party opposed to the measure and public support for the mission declining in the polls.[3]

As for the NATO-led operation in Libya in 2011, the Dutch government did provide air and sea assets to the campaign but limited their use to patrolling the air space and coast off of Libya and, despite criticism from then-US defense secretary Robert Gates, declined using them in allied combat operations.[4]


1. A Dutch government-sponsored inquiry issued a 2002 report that was critical of the government’s decision to deploy forces to Bosnia without understanding the situation on the ground there and without adequate planning. After the report was issued, the Dutch government accepted partial responsibility for what had happened at Srebrenica, and former prime minster Wim Kok, who had been prime minister in July 1995, resigned his office. See Dutch Institute for War Documentation, Srebrenica Historical Project, March 14, 2013, www.srebrenica-project.com/.
2. As one study noted, for example, “in 2006 only five NGOs were operating in the province; in 2009, over 50 national and international organizations were active.”  See George Dimitriu and Beatrice de Graaf, “The Dutch COIN Approach: Three Years in Uruzgan, 2006–2009,” Small Wars & Insurgencies (Summer 2010), 445.
3. In 2011, the Dutch government agreed to send some 500 personnel to Afghanistan as part of a police training mission; the mission will end in 2014. In addition, the Dutch have kept a detachment of F-16s at Mazar-e-Sharif since November 2011, principally for ISAF reconnaissance missions, but also, if needed, for ground support.
4. Jorge Benitez, “Gates Criticizes Five NATO Allies Over Libya,” Atlantic Council, June 8, 2011, www.acus.org/natosource/gates-criticizes-five-nato-allies-over-libya.



1.  To read the other two Outlooks in this series, see Gary J. Schmitt, “Italian Hard Power: Ambitions and Fiscal Realities,” AEI, October 2012, www.aei.org/outlook/foreign-and-defense-policy/regional/europe/italian-hard-power-ambitions-and-fiscal-realities/; and Patrick Keller, “Challenges for European Defense Budgets after the Economic Crisis,” AEI, July 11, 2011, www.aei.org/outlook/foreign-and-defense-policy/regional/europe/challenges-for-european-defense-budgets-after-the-economic-crisis-outlook/. Also see Patrick Keller and Gary J. Schmitt, “Revitalizing the Atlantic Alliance,” Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2012; and Gary J. Schmitt, “The West’s ‘Hard Power’ Deficit,” Los Angeles Times, September 11, 2012.
2.  World Bank, “Gross Domestic Product 2011,” http://databank.worldbank.org/databank/download/GDP.pdf;
and Bureau of Labor Statistics, “International Comparisons of GDP per Capita and per Hour, 1960–2011,”  November 7, 2012, www.bls.gov/fls/intl_gdp_capita_gdp_hour.pdf
3.  Holland Financial Center, The Netherlands: The Humble Giant (Edition 2012), www.hollandfinancialcentre.com/brochures /HFC_brochure-NW-definitief.pdf.
4.  House of Representatives of the Dutch Parliament, Financieel Jaarverslag van het Rijk [Annual Financial Report] (2011), www .rijksoverheid.nl/onderwerpen/prinsjesdag-en-verantwoordingsdag /documenten-en-publicaties/jaarverslagen/2012/05/16/financieel-jaarverslag-van-het-rijk-fjr-2011.
5. The slight rise in expenditures between 2005 and 2009 is tied to the period in which Dutch forces undertook the International Security Assistance Force mission in Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan.
6. Stephen Fidler and Alistair MacDonald, “Europeans Retreat on Defense Spending,” Wall Street Journal, August 34, 2011.
7. Central Bureau of Statistics of the Netherlands, “Statline Database,” http://statline.cbs.nl/StatWeb/publication/?DM= SLNL&PA=71541ned&D1=0-&D2=0,2-5,66-67&D3=a&HDR= T,G2&STB=G1&VW=T. The US dollar is referenced according to its 2010 purchasing power.
8. See Dutch Ministry of Defense, “Kerngegevens Defensie” [Core Defense Data], April 20, 2012; and International Institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance, 2012, 138–40. Where the two diverge on the numbers, the numbers provided by the Dutch ministry have been adopted.
9. Dutch Ministry of Defense, Summary of the Defence White Paper 2000 (1999), 5, http://merln.ndu.edu/whitepapers/Netherlands-2000 .pdf.
10. Ibid.
11. Dutch Ministry of Defense, Summary of the Defence White Paper 2000, 2.
12. Dutch Ministry of Defense, Summary of the Defence White Paper 2000, 3.
13. Ibid.
14. While the Dutch defense ministry did substantially cut its medium-lift helicopter capability and is phasing out one of its fixed-wing transport aircraft (the DC-10), it has moved forward with acquiring  five more heavy-lift CH-47 Chinook helicopters, and is planning to maintain its two KDC-10 tankers and four C-130Hs. The ministry has also been able to keep in service its 29 Apache attack helicopters and has added a second amphibious warfare ship to the navy fleet. See F. Stephen Larrabee et al., NATO and the Challenges of Austerity (RAND Corporation, 2012), 54–55.
15. Larrabee et al., NATO and the Challenges of Austerity. Also see “Interview met Minister van Defensie Hans Hillen” [Interview with Defense Minister Hans Hillen], Atlantisch Perspectief, no. 5 (2012), www.atlcom.nl/media/atlantisch-perspectief/9573/.
16. Nicholas Fiorenza, “Unbalanced Ambitions,” Aviation Week, April 4, 2012, www.aviationweek.com/Blogs.aspx?plckBlogId= Blog:27ec4a53-dcc8-42d0-bd3a-01329aef79a7&plckController= Blog&plckBlogPage=BlogViewPost&newspaperUserId=27ec4a
53-dcc8-42d0-bd3a-01329aef79a7&plckPostId=Blog%253A27ec 4a53-dcc8-42d0-bd3a-01329aef79a7Post%253A925d3d08-5316-4bbc-85a7-580a899c2c48&plckScript=blogScript&plckElementId=blogDest
17. Dutch Ministry of Defense, “Hillen: Further Cuts Will Cripple the Armed Forces,” August 12, 2012, September 9, 2012, www.defensie.nl/english/latest/news/2012/08/13/48198376/hillen_further_cuts_will_cripple_the_armed_forces.
18. The Dutch government had previously reduced the number of F-35s it would procure to 58. However, in a report issued by the state auditor in late October 2012, the auditor concluded that the amount of money previously budgeted for the F-35 procurement would buy less than 40 aircraft. See Giovanni de Briganti, “Ballooning F-35 Costs Questioned in Netherlands, Italy and Canada,” Defense-Aerospace.com, October 29, 2012, www.defense-aerospace.com/article-view/feature/139745/f_35-faces-new-hurdles-in-netherlands,-italy-and-canada.html.
19. As reported by Reuters: “‘We think pulling out of the test phase is not a logical option because on balance this would only bring disadvantages for the state in terms of functions, time and money,’ the Court of Audit said on Wednesday in its report on the F-35. It added that if the Netherlands pulled out of the project and later decided to buy the plane or an alternative, it would face risks in
terms of costs and availability.” See Gilbert Kreijger, “Dutch Should Go Ahead with F-35 Test Project-Report,” Reuters, October 24, 2012, www.reuters.com/article/2012/10/24/dutch-fighter-f-idUSL5 E8LO8P320121024.
20. Nederlandse Deelname aan het JSF Programma Levert Circa $16 Miljard Omzet en Ongeveer 50.000 Arbeidsjaren Werkgelegenheid Op [Dutch Participation in the JSF Program Provides Approximately $16 Billion in Revenue and Approximately 50,000 Person-Years of Employment] (Amsterdam: PricewaterhouseCoopers, July 7, 2008).
21. For a full explanation of smart defence, see www.nato.int/cps /en/natolive/78125.htm.
22. German Marshall Fund of the United States, Transatlantic Trends 2012, http://trends.gmfus.org/files/2012/09/TT-2012-Key-Findings-Report.pdf.
23. Port of Rotterdam, Port Statistics 2009, 2010, and 2011, www.portofrotterdam.com/en/Brochures/Port-Statistics-2011.pdf.
24. Jonathan Masters, The North Atlantic Treaty Association (NATO) (Council on Foreign Relations, May 17, 2012), www.cfr.org/nato/north-atlantic-treaty-organization-nato/p28287#p4.
25. See “Bezuinigingen Staan Internationale Militaire Samenwerking in de Weg” [Cutbacks in the Way of International Military Cooperation], August 31, 2011, http://defensieweblog.blogspot.com /2012_08_01_archive.html.
26. Ibid.

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