Changes in Dutch defence budget

Edition 26 April 2018, by Hendrik Ike

The Dutch coalition government has agreed to inject an extra 1.5 billion euros into the national defence budget, rising from 8 to 9.5 billion by the end of the government’s term in 2021. The funding might relieve the pressure of material shortages, the challenges of rapid deployment and rising costs for the procurement of weapons and equipment. It may also help relieve pressure from the international community for the Netherlands to honour its NATO obligation of spending 2% GDP on national defence. But will it also translate into a more satisfied workforce?

The slimming of the Dutch defence budget has produced a negative cycle in the readiness of the Dutch military. Not only has the competence of a regular standing force been reduced to the absolute minimum, but the reduction in spending has also risen during a time when global military technology is transforming swiftly. As a result, a constrained conventional defence force is not only ineffective, but bordering on the obsolete. Luckily, the Dutch cabinet has now recognised this threat, and wishes for a sizeable investment in order to strengthen the nation’s capacity for digital warfare. The global rise in unmanned weapons systems oblige the government to take this step. The pressure has built on this issue also because of previous mistakes; the planned purchase of four ‘Reaper’ drones was cancelled in 2015 due to insufficient funds. Investments in border surveillance technology and cyber-security is also being prioritised for the future. Such an investment has been welcomed by many members of the Tweede Kamer. Speaking to Trouw, CDA Member of Parliament Raymond Knops stated, “This coalition agreement offers perspective: it is the real break in the defence budget that was needed.” Knops also acknowledges however that this is the first step in resuscitating the Dutch defence budget, and more coherent planning must be carried out, “The coalition agreement is deliberately not about details, and a new minister must make a plan for the precise distribution of the money.” Other individuals in the defence community have also noticed that a strategic, longterm goal must be consolidated. Marc de Natris, chairman of the Royal Association of Naval Officers, has observed that the ability to actually spend the money itself may become an issue. “Defence had been accustomed to cutbacks for twenty-five years, and the department that buys materials is considerably reduced.”

The purchasing of weapons, ammunition, and material is just one challenged area of the Dutch defence sector. The armed forces are currently not seen as an attractive employer and the number of serviceman leaving the forces early is rising, resulting in a constant shortage of personnel and a struggle to fill vacancies. In an attempt to counter this problem early, the government increased the rate of pay in the Defence collective labour agreement by 4% in October last year. However, a rise in pay may only solve one part of the problem.

One large disincentive for young people joining the armed forces is the lack of any official qualifications to come with the experience. If a person decides that they are not suited to serve, they still have little to show for it. André Bosman (VVD) from the Tweede Kamer has proposed that it would be useful to certify military training. As such it would give young people the qualifications they need in order to follow different walks of life after their military service, such as being an official security-guard or electrical engineer. The anticipated result is that this will attract more people to join the armed forces who struggled at school, whilst also slowing down the number of people who feel that they have to leave quickly.

The perception of the military in the Netherlands is also not necessarily positive. Former soldier Erik Rutten has also observed that the prospect of joining the military is becoming increasingly unpopular with younger generations. For Rutten, it is the image which puts many young people off. “Defence is not that attractive to young people, people in America are proud to serve for their country, it is not like that here. I sometimes think that young people are lazy here, they think: why should I run?”. Some politicians are suggesting that perceptions can be changed. CDA member of the Tweede Kamer Bruins Slot believes this can be done by relaxing the rules concerning the wearing of uniform in public places whilst also sending more soldiers into public institutions, such as schools, to educate the greater public on the role the armed forces play. “We have to be proud of our soldiers again,” says Bruins Slot. “Who can grow that pride better than a soldier or corporal for the class?”

Whereas the labour market in some vocations is becoming increasingly flexible, serviceman are often required to remain ‘on base’. Wouter Oord recently left the Dutch military, citing that sleeping at the barracks was not giving him the balanced life he wanted. Speaking to NOS, Wouter stated that sleeping at barracks, “makes you lose your entire private life. I really had a great time, but at a certain point I realised that I could not give my friends and family any more attention. I just want to be with my girlfriend and get married and have a family.” Oord has also noted that horizontal and vertical mobility in the armed forces can also be very restricted in comparison to other vocations. When talking about his colleague’s preferences for future positions, “They had to hand in their top three choices of which positions they wanted to do, and then they were simply assigned something else and they had to do something they did not want at all.” Not taking into account the wishes of personnel can bear severe ramifications. An example of this is the discontent growing in the Dutch marines due to an unpopular barracks move from Doorn to Vlissingen in 2022. With the military objecting, 73 soldiers, non-commissioned officers and commissioned officers have already quit the marine force. This poses a significant problem as the Dutch marines, in combination with the commando’s, form the elite wing of the Dutch military which has the capability to operate in crisis areas oversees in international missions.

One potential solution for filling vacancies is for the armed forces to cooperate more with the public and private sectors at the local level. Brigadier General Ron Smits, in command of the air-corps in Gelderland, believes that closer cooperation with the local municipalities and local industry is needed to recruit sufficient staff. Speaking to omroepgelderland.nl, he stated that their organisation, along with local police and fire services “all fish in the same market of young people around the age of eighteen.” He also believes that it becomes harder to recruit new people when the economy is functioning well as younger people can find better paying work in places elsewhere. It is obvious that the military will have to think deeply about how to make the armed forces a more attractive employer. It is vital to remember therefore that increasing the military budget is a start but not an end. A lack of smart decision-making and creative thinking from the Defence Ministry will ensure the continuation of wasted money.