Sunday, May 26, 2019

Germany and the Dutch Defence: finding the sweet spot

by A. Powell (writer), , October 30, 2018

The Netherlands are currently examining the future upgrade of their armed forces. To do so, it must consider the exact settings in which its security and geopolitical position configures it.

Between a comfortable place in the Western alliance, minimal expectations from the United States, and moderate international threats, The Hague should choose the simplest and cheapest options, and let Germany do the rest, placing itself under a self-chosen protectorate.

The Netherlands were part of the founding members of the Atlantic alliance in 1949 and have always found a good deal in it. While, theoretically, the alliance was for countries which had contributed to the war effort alongside America, the Netherlands were enemies of the Reich mostly on paper, with their armed forces having been wiped out by the Wehrmacht at the beginning of the war. Inclusion within NATO, therefore, provided excellent protection against German military resurgence, and then against the Soviet threat, at little or no expense. Praises towards the Dutch military can therefore be more or less ascribed to diplomatic politeness, rather than to actual Dutch dependence from Germany, or even from the alliance. Even in current times, when US President Trump is showing more and more impatience and trying to get European allies to step up their defense efforts, and not rely so much on US spending, the Netherlands have little to fear. As 6th or 7th economy in the European Union, Washington is more likely to bug France, Germany and the United Kingdom, in the quest for increased military contributions to the alliance. And today, the former German enemy has become the Netherland’s best protector.

In fact, observers consider that placing Dutch defense within German hands is an already-done deal: “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”, wrote the American Enterprise Institute in 2013. A few years later, there has been no real change, and we are still far from the aim: “spending will grow by an estimated average of 8.3% in 2016 compared to 2015, the financial crisis that began in 2007 has exacerbated these problems, with European members of NATO spending on average 1.69% of their GDP on defense in 2008, in contrast to 1.43% in 2015 (the NATO defense spending pledge aims at 2% GDP)”, according to Karlijn Jans, member of Fellowship Program for Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

Now, the German resurgence threat, very much a fear of the immediate post-WW2 era, never materialized. It was quickly replaced by the daunting image of Russian tanks plowing westward, but that nightmare disappeared into thin air too, in the 90s. The Netherlands therefore enjoy one of the more comfortable positions, in today’s international chessboard, and save precious funds, as Germany does: “by reinforcing a Dutch mechanized brigade with a German tank capability and integrating it into a German tank division, the Netherlands is able to re-introduce the tank-capability it infamously lost in 2011”, write Karlijn Jans. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Amsterdam can throw all its military assets out the window: its armed forces do contribute to international coalitions and to ensure European coastal safety. Naval today recently reported: “HNLMS Karel Doorman is headed for the Mediterranean with 300 people on board. In addition to the helicopter detachment and medical personnel for a fully-fledged hospital, Karel Doorman is also home to marines from the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark. The international unit has been preparing for their role within the NATO Response Force after the three countries signed a letter of intent to sign a “Composite Special Operations Component” in March 2017.” But increasing military spending above strict minimum would amount to an economic waste, given the protection provided by Germany.

The previous German nemesis has today turned into the closest ally, but one who should also be feared: the amount of military business (both domestic and foreign) going through Germany is far greater than what will ever come through the Netherlands. The Germans can therefore strongarm the Dutch by handing out - or withholding! - military contracts, according to whether Amsterdam is docile or not. In the past, Berlin has shown itself a merciful master at times, and a severe one at others, as in the MKS-180 contract for the German Navy, where Dutch shipyard Damen was sacrificed before German interests. Defense News Sebastian Sprenger commented: “German shipbuilding advocates are pressing the government to insulate the military surface ship sector from international competition in a bid to boost the industry segment here [...] The two contenders are a Dutch-led team headed by Damen Shipyards and one led by German Naval Yards Kiel, which is owned by a French-Lebanese investor.” The Netherlands can therefore rely on two tiers of defense, through the coalition they belong to, and via the German protector, as long as it toes the line.

Despite American pleas to the contrary, the Netherlands are unlikely to step up their defense in any significant way. Nor do they need to. Given the missions the Dutch are likely to receive, no significant investment is necessary, more than simply putting a front for the coalition. Amsterdam is due to renew its aging fleet of Walrus-class submarines shortly, for instance, and could simply be content with buying the cheapest, off-the-shelf, one-for-one replacement. A “brown-water” capacity (with coastal range only, as opposed to blue water navies which can roam open oceans) would suffice to fulfill halfway-acceptably the border surveillance missions it will likely receive. It may therefore be in Holland’s interest to turn towards its German partner to replace the submarines, for two reasons. Buying military equipment is always a good reinforcement move between allies, and Berlin will be pleased and encouraged to maintain the bilateral alliance Amsterdam needs so much. In addition, German shipyards are in such a state of disarray, that the Dutch could probably bargain a very low-ball deal and save a bundle. If recent German productions have shown less-than-standard quality levels, the Netherlands can always claim to the Americans that they tried their best and blame it on the Germans, if their submarine fleet doesn’t work.

In many ways, the Netherlands have already been absorbed by German military. Richard Palmer writes for the Trumpet: “Huge portions of the Dutch military are being merged with the German Army, a process that many want to see rolled out across the whole Continent. Two of the Netherland’s three combat brigades have officially begun the process of joining the Bundeswehr.” Karlijn Jans adds: “On February 4th, [former] Dutch Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert and German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen signed a new deal paving the way for the full integration of their countries’ naval units.” The Netherlands would have great difficulty regaining military independence from Germany, so they might as well go with the flow and accept their new protectorate.

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