Defence Ministry ambitions are too great

5 November 2013

Defence Ministry ambitions are too great

The budget for defence has been increasingly stripped to the bare bone, and yet continues to be called upon by the government to manage all kinds of operations, an impossible and even dangerous assignment. It’s time it was given a realistic range of tasks. • Jasper van Dijk is a Member of Parliament for the SP.

The enormous spending cuts imposed on the defence budget necessitate a reduction in tasks assigned to our armed forces. Unfortunately the government refuses to countenance this. Means and ends are getting increasingly out of sync.

As spokesman on defence issues I have gained respect for the armed forces. After two visits to Afghanistan and to an anti-pirate operation in Somalia, my conclusion is that the military do difficult work in dangerous circumstances. Their efforts deserve respect and are sincerely directed towards improving the situation on the ground.

That does nothing to address the question of whether an operation is in this case politically advisable. Soldiers carry them out, but it’s politicians who decide where the army is sent. My visit to Afghanistan led me to the conclusion that, looked at narrowly, what will be seen are soldiers who are working hard to improve the local situation. But step back and take a broader view and you will see a country in which hardly any progress has been made. And however irritating it may be, it’s legitimate to ask just what the Netherlands has contributed to that country’s development.

In September Defence Minister Jeanine Hennis stated her views on the Netherlands’ interests. This included a statement that the army could continue to perform all kinds of missions, even those involving the highest level of violence. This was like trying to square a circle. With considerably fewer means, the armed forces remain ‘multilaterally deployable’. This will pinch, leading to all kinds of unsafe situations.

In my view cuts of more than €1.2bn must lead to a fundamental choice. Stop clinging on to a multifunctional armed force and go instead for an army with a specific package of tasks. The semi-official Clingendael Institute, the Dutch equivalent of the US Council on Foreign Relations or Britain’s Chatham House, argues for a similar decision. Instead of being ‘multilaterally/multifunctonally deployable’, our army could become a ‘force for stability’ or a ‘supporting force for peace’. We would then not participate in interventions at the highest level (and would therefore also have no need for the expensive Joint Strike Fighter) but would concentrate our attentions on the furthering of peace and security by means of stabilisation or peace missions.

By adopting such a – more realistic – range of tasks, the government would also be responding to criticisms from the Netherlands official state auditors. The auditors now say that ambitions and budget are out of sync, which will lead to dangerous situations, as was shown this week in a report from the military trade union AFMP. Half of the armed forces’ personnel believe that as a result of the spending cuts they will no longer be able to do their work safely. One respondent summed up the feeling: ‘We will be carrying on doing the same thing with fewer people. Quantity beats quality. This will put the quality at risk. Result – accidents.’

The government has too many ambitions and took a controversial decision, purchasing the Joint Strike Fighter for as much as €4.5bn. Because the aircraft is still in development, it’s riddled with uncertainties. The Pentagon spoke in September in terms of ‘hundreds of deficiencies’. The advice was to add an escape clause to the contract, but in answer to my parliamentary question, Hennis has been unwilling to give an undertaking to do so. In the parliamentary debate on 6th November, I will be proposing a motion on this. It’s the least we can expect if the Netherlands must buy a pig in a poke.

The purchase of the JSF means that the air force’s nuclear tasks are secured. The JSF is after all suitable for transporting atomic weapons, as various reports have confirmed. This should be reason enough to abandon this fighter-bomber. The Netherlands should remove nuclear weapons as quickly as possible. This is what a majority in parliament has called for and what Foreign Minister Frans Timmermans voted for when he was a Labour MP. The government wants to purchase thirty-seven JSFs to replace sixty-eight F16s. According to the state auditors, with thirty-seven JSFs the Defence Ministry will be unable to guarantee that there will always be four available for international operations, as the government, a coalition of Labour and the centre-right VVD, wishes. Yet another argument for adjusting the armed forces’ ambitions. A smaller armed force which does not participate in operations involving the highest level of violence is eminently achievable.

We therefore have no need of the JSF and could buy a cheaper aircraft, one which is ready to fly, off the shelf.
The Labour Party has performed a remarkable about-turn on the question of the JSF. Last year the SP and Labour were side by side in the fight against this prestige project. Together with Labour spokeswoman Angeline Eijsink I proposed a motion aimed at halting the project. The motion was carried. In its election manifesto Labour stated that ‘Prolongation of the life of the F-16 is possible and is our preference.’ Evidently Labour has given way to a VVD hobby horse.

Drones also figure on the government’s wish-list. The plan is to purchase four uncrewed aircraft with a long reach, drones which can later be armed as desired. In view of their controversial use by the United States, which has resulted in countless innocent victims, my view is that we should be extremely cautious in relation to drones. First and foremost I would advocate crystal –clear agreements at international level on the deployment of these weapons which have caused so much suffering.

Following the controversial operation in Afghanistan a new mission is now being prepared for Mali. If reports are correct, commandos and Apache helicopters are to be deployed in the country’s inhospitable north to hunt down terrorists.

Why must the Netherlands take part in this? In the media we are reading about all sorts of dubious motives: damage to reputation, cuts in defence spending, a seat on the Security Council. Those sorts of argument are irrelevant to the issue, which should be decided on grounds of whether it makes sense for the Netherlands to contribute to the operation. This raises many further still unanswered questions: what are the risks of fighting jihadists? Under whose command will the Dutch commandos come? Has sufficient account been taken of the interests of the various population groups, including the Tuaregs? And above all, will this mission really contribute to peace and security in the region?

Without a clear answer, there exists a real chance that the Netherlands will become entangled in a hopeless struggle.

On 6th November Parliament will discuss the Defence Minister’s view of her portfolio. It is up to Parliament to bring her back down to earth. A smaller army directed towards peace-keeping would be fine within the present budget. A successor to the F-16 can be bought off the shelf. In this way we would avoid the risk of the JSF becoming a fiasco and the army, in an irresponsible fashion, being asked to do too much.

This opinion article appeared on 2nd November in the original Dutch in the regional newspaper De Stentor.

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