From bullets to cruise missiles and from submarines to drones – spurred on by the war in Ukraine, the Netherlands will invest billions of euros extra in the armed forces in the coming years. In addition, the money goes to too many different things, believes defense specialist Dick Zandee, who argues for more specialization and cooperation in Europe. Defense means are then used much more effectively, you see bang for the buck could get.”
Zandee, a researcher at the Clingendael Institute, cites the proposed procurement of missile defense systems as an example. “It is remarkable that we want to do this both on land and at sea. The navy has wanted this for years – there was never any money for it – and has already invested in radar. So it makes more sense to do it alone at sea and then agree with the Belgians and Germans that they will take care of the land-based missile systems.”
The distribution of the missiles is one of the proposals for European defense cooperation and specialization that Zandee and a colleague put forward in a recently published report. In addition to the idea of, for example, doing all the maintenance on the Reaper drones that European countries buy in Woensdrecht. And the proposal to patrol the North Sea together with the Belgians, the Germans, the Norwegians and the British.
More military cooperation and specialization has long been a political desire in Europe, which has only been strengthened by the Ukraine war. At the same time, European countries have increased their spending on the armed forces by tens of billions of euros. They are now all in line with the same defense manufacturers – from ammunition to F-35 aircraft. The political and official summit in The Hague is also in favor of ‘task specialization’.
At the same time, specialization is not yet getting started, neither in Europe nor in the Netherlands. Already in 2020, the Folketing asked the Ministry of Defense to put something on paper about specialization and cooperation. It hasn’t happened yet; According to the department, the letter will not be sent to the House of Representatives until “later this year”. That it is taking so long may be due to opposition in military circles. There is, in a German saying, the code word: when I hear “specialization”, I unlock my gun.
Why is military specialization so taboo?
“This is primarily because politicians previously used ‘job specialisation’ as a way of selling cuts in the armed forces as something acceptable. In true specialization, one country gives up a task and another country takes over, but that never happened in reality. No agreements were made for an exchange. It was often not possible either, because other countries often had to cut spending during a recession. Military personnel also find the abolition of duties painful. It costs equipment, manpower and strength. In their view, it lowers the status of the armed forces.”
Do you therefore consider alternative expressions such as excellent abilities?
“Well, we’re trying to make specialization less controversial by emphasizing the question: how can a country excel? We want to start the conversation about this with this report. We do that by showing that, in practice, many forms of specialization in recent decades. A pure example of this is what the Netherlands and Belgium are doing with the fleet, under the BeNeSam flag. They do the training of the staff and the maintenance of the ships together, whereby the Dutch to lead have with the frigates and the Belgians with the minesweepers. It is specialization, but those involved prefer to call it collaboration.”
When is ‘cooperation’ actually ‘specialisation’?
“If you become wholly or partially dependent on someone else within a collaboration. The Dutch and the Germans have a tank unit together. In principle, the Netherlands could remove its own tank squadron from that unit – although the chance of that happening is nil. Our air mobile brigade belongs to the Germans, but we can also deploy it independently. It is not specialization. BeNeSam is because the Dutch and Belgians in the navy are partly really dependent on each other.”
Are there examples of countries being completely dependent on each other?
“We haven’t found it. The most far-reaching form of specialization, where you no longer do anything at all, is also the most difficult. Suppose Holland says goodbye to combat helicopters and henceforth relies on Germany. Who guarantees that they will be available when it comes to the piece? Maybe in defense of the territory, but maybe not in broadcasting. like in Mali. That’s why we’ve delved into two other less far-reaching forms of cooperation in the report.”
“One form is collaboration on support, such as training and maintenance. The Belgian-Dutch fleet model can be used in many places in Europe. The Germans and Norwegians are now buying submarines together, which can be used in fjords and in the Baltic Sea. Those countries can, for example, agree to carry out maintenance in Norway and all training in Germany.”
We try to make specialization less controversial by emphasizing the question: how can a country excel?
And the other kind of collaboration?
“Groups of countries which together undertake a special task. Think of countries like the Netherlands and Belgium, which, because of their location and ports, are essential for the transportation of American material in continental Europe. The idea for that group came to me when I was talking to defense officials about the possibility of having the Netherlands only conduct missile defense at sea. I got the wind from the front. ‘How are we going to defend the port of Rotterdam if we don’t have our own system on land?’ That was a good point, and then I thought of the following: The Belgians protect the port cities of Antwerp and Rotterdam on land, while we give the Belgians cover at sea if necessary.”
So geography also determines where a country can excel?
“Yes, plus history. Countries close to Russia, such as Poland, emphasize land forces. Because of their colonial past, the French and British are focused on operations far away; they are strong at sea, including their aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. The Netherlands’ forces arose , because parts of the armed forces went looking for something they could excel at, like submarines and Patriot missiles. It’s time for the Netherlands to make a reasoned assessment of what we should be doing. And who are our natural partners within specialization.”
Who are they?
“It is difficult to decide. Politically, it is important to do a lot with the French, but cooperation with them is primarily aimed at peace operations in Africa. We can work well together with the Baltic countries, Poland and Germany in NATO defense, which is now back at the top of the agenda due to the Russian aggression in Ukraine. We argue that a club of countries should not be made too large. For example, the Netherlands now carries out maintenance on the F-35 in Woens-drecht, also for Italy. With many countries , buying additional F-35s, the Norwegians have also set up their own maintenance facility, and now there are two more. That’s why we say: start with two, as we did with the Belgians. Then try to expand the club.”
Why is it that cooperation also limits defense cuts?
“Because a cut in a joint task is also felt in the partner country, so the politicians are less likely to cut it. Cuts are always imminent. The defense budget is now gigantic, but if we get a recession later, the knife can be cut again. In the current situation, you are left with many mini-specials. With fewer but larger specialties, you can better maintain your military strength during a round of downsizing.”