Defense is ringing the alarm: billions needed for security

Whether it concerns repelling a cyber attack, a campaign to encourage the local population of a mission area to report roadside bombs or the processing of mountains of data from a satellite, so-called information-driven operations are an increasingly important weapon for the Dutch armed forces. . Defense Vision 2035, presented on Thursday, can also be seen as an information maneuver. And then the question arises: what is its purpose?

The short answer is: the report is an alarm bell. In some fifty pages, a pitch-black world is sketched, full of (cyber) terrorism, uncontrollable migration flows, and increasingly hostile superpowers, in which the small Netherlands is extremely vulnerable. Because, said Minister Ank Bijleveld (Defense, CDA) at the presentation of the report: “We are now unable to adequately deal with all threats.”

That in itself is not a new observation. The annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014 violently put an end to the idea that Europe could continue to build on its prosperity in peace and quiet. NATO countries again agreed to increase their defense spending to 2 percent of GDP. The Russian threat became part of the ministerial foreword in the annual defense budget, followed by threats as diverse as China’s increasingly assertive and growing US indifference to the NATO alliance.

Satellite for military communications, to be launched next year.

Price tag: 13 to 17 billion

What is new is that Bijleveld has put a price on countering the threats. According to her, the Netherlands will have to spend an additional 13 to 17 billion euros annually on defense, on top of the more than 11 billion euros in the current budget. This money is needed, among other things, for the development of ‘information-driven action’ and for the fulfillment of international obligations. The latter includes achieving the NATO standard; with just 1.5 percent, the Netherlands is now in the European rearguard.

As emphatically asking for money for defense is a turning point. When, after the end of the Cold War, Western societies started to collect the ‘peace dividend’ thirty years ago, the Dutch armed forces accepted this rather resignedly. Soldiers loyally carried out austerity orders, even though, for example, the disappearance of the tanks hurt the army a lot. After the annexation of Crimea the political wind has turned; the consensus is that more money should go to the armed forces. The current cabinet has allocated 1.7 billion euros extra for the armed forces. Yet still no general punches the table for – say – the return of the tanks.

The Defense Vision may not be a fist on the table, but a slap with the flat hand it is. “In one way or another we think it is quite natural that we feel safe in the Netherlands, but of course it is not,” said Bijleveld on Thursday in all kinds of variations. Bijleveld and her military adviser Rob Bauer, commander of the armed forces, want to make it very clear in their report that safeguarding national security costs money.

Premium money

The Dutch armed forces are struggling with an old problem, which is also common to insurance sellers. As the document states, “Defense is the insurance policy for a large number of risks that we do not know if they ever materialize, but which have a disruptive effect when they do occur.” And which, if they don’t materialize, can make you feel like you’ve spent the premium money for nothing. That is why it is in principle less attractive for politicians to spend money on warding off future threats than on solving current problems.

In order to stir up the sense of urgency, the Defense organization presents not only billions in amounts, but also a much more penetrating threat assessment than usual. Familiar observations such as: “An outbreak of a new and aggressive virus in Asia could bring our economy to a standstill.” More extensive are the five scenarios for 2035, including a civil war in a North African country and a conflict around the North Pole. In one scenario a military conflict arises in the Caribbean after oil discoveries, Curaçao and Aruba are inundated with refugees and riots break out on these islands.

To counter such threats, the armed forces must be thoroughly renovated. Dutch military action must comply with ten ‘design principles’, such as ‘flexible action’ and ‘unique people’ and three characteristics: ‘high technology’, ‘information-driven’ and ‘reliable partner and protector’. The prominent place of the information-driven performance shows how quickly this young shoot has grown into a full-fledged tree.

Read here a plea for more European cooperation

Not a European army

As a ‘reliable partner’, the Netherlands is focusing more than ever on a ‘stronger, more self-reliant Europe’. That does not mean a European army, Bijleveld said when asked: “But we don’t have a NATO army either, only cooperation within NATO. We can also collaborate more in Europe, for example by purchasing equipment with a number of countries. And this spring, the French, British and we each sent a ship to the Caribbean in consultation. ”

With this vision, Bijleveld claims to provide the ‘building blocks’ for the defense policy of the following cabinets. It is highly questionable whether the new cabinet, which will take office next year after the parliamentary elections, will immediately want to put billions on the table. The corona crisis is making deep craters in public finances. On the other hand, the threats are so serious and technological developments are going so fast that substantial investments in the Dutch armed forces seem inevitable.

A version of this article also appeared in nrc.next on October 16, 2020

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