This week the House of Representatives is debating the Defense memorandum of the Rutte IV cabinet. The war in Ukraine has given a huge boost to strengthening our defence. The budget will increase to more than 19 billion in 2024, with which the Netherlands also meets the NATO target (2 percent of the gross national product). In the Defense Memorandum, the government has set out how the money will be spent.
About the author:
Dick Zandee is a researcher at the Clingendael Institute.
Members of the Defense Committee have asked 118 questions, and it is striking that little attention is paid to the relationship between the plans and the three main tasks that the Dutch armed forces must be able to perform, namely contributing to: collective defence, strengthening the international legal order and supporting national civil actors such as the police, fire brigade and the judiciary.
The second main task in particular – more popularly known as ‘peace operations’ – is not doing well. It is difficult to find a scantily worded reference in the Defense Memorandum to the continued willingness to deploy the armed forces for ‘peace and stabilization operations in the EU, NATO and UN context on the edges of Europe’. What a difference with the previous note (2018) in which the fight against Islamic State, the UN mission in Mali and other operations outside Europe were prominently mentioned.
The lack of attention now can be explained: the interventions in Afghanistan and Mali have ended in failure. NATO’s classic task – to deter and defend – demands all our attention, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Also in the House of Representatives the feeling of ‘defending against Russia’ predominates, even now it appears that the superpower Russia is incapable of defeating a medium-sized country (Ukraine).
There is nothing wrong with strengthening the defense capability for the defense of Europe. In fact, this is an absolute necessity in view of the large backlogs that have accumulated in the past due to years of cutbacks in the armed forces. Europe will also have to muster more defense capabilities, because China’s military expansion in Asia will demand more attention from the United States.
In that sense, the Defense Memorandum indicates the right course with modernizing the navy, additional purchases of F35 fighter aircraft and drones for the air force, and strengthening the army’s striking power – although the latter is not doing well.
But the overriding commitment to strengthening combat power, however necessary, does raise questions about the availability of sufficient personnel for all three main tasks. Stabilization missions in particular are personnel intensive.
NATO’s new readiness requirements also pose additional challenges for the armed forces. The rapidly deployable NATO Response Force will be included in a new coat of arms in a much broader category of (high) readiness armed forces for which the member states must have more units at full strength ready and deployable. In addition, the government wholeheartedly supports the newly established EU Rapid Deployment Capacity to be deployable from 2025 with all required support, including logistics, intelligence, strategic transport and other enablers.
So: sufficient personnel in support units is also a requirement. It is highly questionable whether the Dutch armed forces will be able to meet all their obligations if the continuing shortage of personnel continues to exist. These occur precisely in support capacities, such as in the medical sector and for technical maintenance.
Recently, State Secretary for Defense Christophe van der Maat unveiled his plans for tackling personnel issues in the armed forces. The two most ambitious measures seem to be the more mandatory deployment of reservists and the introduction of a ‘serving year’ in which young people can temporarily gain experience in support functions, such as in technology and health care.
The Netherlands wants to use this to follow successful programs that a number of Scandinavian countries have already started. These intentions deserve support, but the question remains whether they are sufficient to recruit the required numbers of soldiers. The letter from the State Secretary even shows that the annual number of entrants will increase by more than 3,000 to 6,800 military personnel due to the increase in the number of positions to a total of 54,400 in 2024.
Defense therefore has a problem, and the question is what further measures are needed to fill the armed forces in order to continue to carry out the tasks for collective defence, peace operations and in the Netherlands itself. An earlier attempt by the CDA to discuss compulsory voting again has not received support. The current State Secretary also rejects this as ‘unrealistic’.
An alternative could be to introduce compulsory military service, whereby young people (m/f) work for a year in the armed forces, health care, education or elsewhere. In short: replacing a voluntary year of service with a mandatory year of service.
Such a duty helps to tackle the serious staff shortages in various sectors, while at the same time it has an important side effect: getting young people to know practically the ins & outs of important parts of society, working in teams and all of this gain more understanding and knowledge about the necessity and functioning of essential institutions. Regardless of whether it concerns our safety, health or education.