At ease! The SP's views on the army

7 June 2010

At ease! The SP's views on the army

Why does the Netherlands have armed forces? Certainly to defend our own territory, yet since the end of the Cold War there has been no question of any external threat. There is no longer any need to maintain a large conventional force to keep the Warsaw Pact's tanks at bay. Yet in the globalising world of which we form part, there are certainly problems. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall many countries have been affected by the negative consequences of globalisation, aggravated in recent times by economic crisis. The unequal distribution of wealth across the world causes tensions which can escalate into war. There are political, diplomatic and economic solutions to these problems, but the disintegration of the international order cannot be quickly turned around.

For this reason armed peacekeeping missions, legitimised by the United Nations, continue to be necessary. This must not be about disguised intervention forces or invading armies sent to maintain unjust relations of wealth or power, but the tools to intervene in conflicts which would otherwise make existing catastrophes worse. Peacekeeping missions in the original sense of the term must be central to this.

Remi Poppe, Spokesman on defence issues for the SP parliamentary group
Harry van Bommel, Spokesman on foreign and European affairs for the SP parliamentary group

SP position

The end of the Cold War saw the disappearance of the stalemate between the United States and the Soviet Union in the United Nations Security Council. Henceforth the UN could act as the world's police officer, and if the Security Council so decided then the member states could take military action. In the period from 1948 to 1989 there were thirteen UN operations. Since then there have been many times that number. The aims of these peacekeeping and peace enforcement operations varied from the policing of peace agreements, to surveillance of ceasefires, from the patrolling of demilitarised zones, to providing a buffer between parties in conflict, to solutions to local conflicts which carried the risk of regional escalation. In the case of such operations the stated goals were and are often not reached, or reached only in part. Because the SP does not see the chances of success of military operations as great, we have often voted against the Netherlands' participating in them.

Peace operations are given critical support by the SP. What this means is that we examine them for both legitimacy and proportionality. The SP is in favour of UN peace operations if they fulfil these criteria, as well as the criterion of effectiveness. The party judges each request for participation according to such matters as their political and military aims, as well as the risks attached to the operation.

In practice this has meant support for missions which aimed to separate warring parties, such as EUFOR Althea in Bosnia-Herzegovina from December 2004, or offered help to a police force with the aid of civilian or military police officers, as in the case of the EU Proxima mission in Macedonia. Separating warring parties with the help of blue helmets, as has long been the case in Cyprus (UNFICYP), or sending observers and police officers to a conflict, as occurred in South Sudan (UNMIS, since 2005) can count on support from the SP. Where the SP draws the line is at cases where the words 'peace' and 'stabilisation' fail to disguise what is in reality simply a war masquerading under another name.

That happened in Kosovo in 1999 when, under a false humanitarian flag, a war of intervention was conducted against what was at the time still Yugoslavia. As part of NATO our air force participated in the bombing of Yugoslav targets in Serbia and Montenegro. Almost the entire Dutch Parliament, from the VVD on the right to the Green Left, supported the government's decision to take part in this. Only the SP opposed the NATO action, an action both illegal and irresponsible.

For the first time in its fifty-year existence, NATO took violent action outside the territory of its own member states and without any basis in international law. Foreign Minister Jozias van Aartsen announced in Parliament that UN Security Council Resolutions 1199 and 1203 provided a sufficient basis for military intervention. But UN Secretary General Kofi Annan put an immediate end to this misconception, stressing that an explicit statement from the Security Council was necessary before the use of violence and that this was acknowledged in the NATO treaty.

The SP regarded - and continues to regard - the high-handed action committed by NATO without a basis in a Security Council resolution as unlawful. The reasoning that divisions within the Security Council provide the grounds on which an arbitrary coalition can act unilaterally represents a direct attack on the foundations of the United Nations. The Security Council was created for precisely this reason, in order that in the event of serious differences arising, talks would take the place of bullets. The NATO attack on Yugoslavia was therefore at the same time an attack on the very grounds for the United Nations' existence. This action set the international rule of law back by more than fifty years, to the time when only the law of the strongest prevailed. NATO's actions therefore represented, also, as became clear later with the attack on Iraq, an extremely dangerous precedent.

Coming developments

War, such as that fought in Kosovo, is no solution to the global problems which threaten our security. Changes in the climate could, during the coming decades, lead to ecological disasters and, in some regions, to drastically adverse consequences for social life and for food production. These could then, in their turn, bring about massive population movements and flows of refugees. Major demographic changes could provoke ethnic and religious conflicts in various countries or regions, while a shortage of energy and raw materials could lead to world-wide conflicts. Endlessly recurring economic crises exacerbate these problems for a rapidly growing world population. The unjust division of economic resources makes any solution to global problems more difficult. Globalisation has brought with it a reordering of economic power and created a world in which states with a weak authority can easily fall apart.

These global problems could exacerbate existing regional conflicts. In some parts of the world such conflicts have persisted for many decades and present an ongoing threat to any neighbouring countries. Well-known confrontations include those between Israel and its neighbours, between India and Pakistan and between North- and South Korea. To these might be added long-lasting and large-scale regional conflicts in Africa and Latin America.

The Dutch armed forces during recent years have been taken up with a war without end, the war in Afghanistan. The nature of this war – an unwinnable guerrilla struggle – represents a painful illustration of the kind of conflict in which the army of the Netherlands should not become involved.

Reorganisation of the army

The SP wishes, in time, to cut more than €2 billion from defence spending, around a quarter of the current budget of approximately €8.5 billion. This will be achieved through a lowering of the armed forces' level of ambition. Military interventions such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrate that the employment of large-scale violence offers absolutely no guarantee of stability and security. Sometimes, indeed, it brings quite the reverse. This understanding cannot be without consequences for defence policy or for the deployment of the armed forces. The army must be drastically reorganised.

If it were up to the SP, the Netherlands would no longer in the future participate in wars of aggression. This means that we can cut back on the fleet of F-16s and cancel the purchase of their replacement, the JSF. The number of Apache battle helicopters would be halved.

When it comes to the army, we would get rid of tank battalions and armoured infantry. The navy would lose its undersea force, its frigates and one if its amphibious transport ships. The emphasis of the navy would lie on patrol vessels, suitable for smaller scale coastal missions and combating piracy.

Scaling down our weapons systems could save more than €1.5 billion. Structural economies, more important in the long term, would be found in the lowering of the exploitation costs and the extent of the supporting infrastructure which would result from this as well as the reduction in personnel. Our plans would involve reducing the workforce by around 20,000. The armed forces remaining could still, albeit in a more limited form, participate in international peace operations, and even provide their own air support. A contribution might continue to be made to the general defence of NATO territory.

These plans are feasible. This was recently demonstrated by the official working party on 'reconsiderations', established to see where substantial savings might be made. The working group proposed a series of different composite scenarios relating to the armed forces, depending on the intended mission. Variant 'G' resulted in a structural saving from 2016 onwards of €2.096 billion. From that year 23,500 personnel members would be redundant. Because each year 4,000 people leave the service, the necessary reduction could be implemented step-by-step.

This variant comes closest to the SP's proposals, provided that the emphasis were to be on the classic peacekeeping operation rather than the peace enforcing intervention. That means that the SP's version of variant 'G' would include no submarines or frigates, but sufficient fire-power to defend our own troops in such operations.

The reduction of personnel could not be achieved solely through natural wastage. Given the exceptional nature of the work of the armed forces, redundant personnel deserve to be given priority for placement in other state services or provided with support in finding a job in the private sector. In addition, the SP plans also foresee additional spending for aid to veterans.

The backbone of the army – its personnel

The deployment of the army demands a new sort of soldier. He or she must not only master fundamental military skills, but also be prepared for action in conflict zones. This requires a special kind of recruitment, training and follow-up.

The core of the army should consist of well-trained personnel, specialised forces well-prepared for humanitarian and peace missions. Nobody under 21 should be sent on such a foreign mission. In this central task there is no place for contracted personnel, for mercenaries. Throughout the armed forces these should be limited to non-fighting tasks, because their motivation and that of the firms for which they work – profit maximisation – is incompatible with that of the specialised personnel who will play a crucial role in peace operations.

A job as a professional soldier will in general not be a job for life. For this reason it is of great importance that people who enter the armed forces consider what they will do after they leave. When men and women are taken into service, a guarantee must be given of work following their departure.

Veterans who suffer physical or psychological problems as a result of their work in the armed forces, must be given the very best care. This must be regulated in a Veterans' Law which lays emphasis on the civil institutions' responsibility for the support of former soldiers.


At the present time there is a dangerous tendency to deploy the armed forces in an ever greater range of functions, not only military interventions but also those which mix military and civil tasks. This involves working with NGOs as part of this civil-military cooperation, as well as outsourcing military tasks to commercial firms. The mixing of civil and military aid is undesirable, as most NGOs have stated, because of the dangers it presents to their non-military missions. The privatisation of core tasks, also, should be anathema. These tasks are core functions of the Dutch state, directed by Parliament in its role as an expression of the political will of the people.

A longer version of this article first appeared, in Dutch, in Carré, the newspaper of the Dutch Officers' Union.

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