Lieuwe de Vries and Ruben Veenstra for Veenstra & de Vries Aviation Publishing
When the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov passed through the English Channel earlier this week, the Royal Netherlands Navy had no ships available for escort duties. It painfully shows how years of budget cuts undermine the Netherlands’ ability to protect it’s own waters.
Just like it’s a common practice for NATO air forces to intercept intruding aircraft, navies escort non-NATO vessels as they pass close to their respective countries shores. The Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, with a task force of three tankers, an ocean-going tug and the Landing Support Ship Minsk, sailed through the Channel on international waters on 8 May 2014.
An unusual move because the Russians usually prefer to go around Ireland on the North Atlantic Ocean to avoid other maritime traffic. The journey plotted through the narrow waters can be seen as a typical show of force on behalf of the Russians. The Royal Navy responded by sending the HMS Dragon, a modern air-defense destroyer commissioned in 2012. A fitting response to Russia’s only aircraft carrier in service.
As the taskforce moved up towards the North Sea, it was the Royal Netherlands Navy time to escort the Russians. The Royal Netherlands Navy already had made public its spotting of the Russians a few days earlier, when the HNLMS De Zeven Provinciën (English: The Seven Provinces) had picked it up on radar. But by the time the Kuznetsov arrived in the Dutch Exclusive Economic Zone the Seven Provinces had gone on it’s way for duties in Somali waters and no other ships were at hand for escort duties.
While the Dutch Navy Air Arm, the Militaire Luchtvaart Dienst (MLD), had a long tradition of operating Maritime Patrol aircraft such as the P-3C Orion (perfectly suited to intercept a carrier taskforce and gather photographic and ELINT information) these aircraft were axed in a 2002 budget cut being sold to Germany. The MLD further saw its rotary wing assets such as Westland Lynxes transferred to a shared command called the Defense Helicopter Command (DHC). The MLD ceased to exist. NH-90 helicopters recently replaced the Lynx’s in DHC service although not on a one-for-one basis. The DHC retired 24 Lynx helicopters but replaced them with only 10 NH-90’s.
To further exacerbate the problem the new NH-90’s have been slow coming in to service, which has dramatically impacted operational availability. To top it off the NH-90 suffers from numerous problems such as excessive corrosion when deployed on ships and excessive vibrations in general. All these factors left the Royal Netherlands Navy without a proper response to the Russian test of preparedness. Instead of deploying a suitable response the Netherlands Coastguard was asked to deploy one of its Dornier 228 aircraft. Though capable in its intended role the aircraft lacks any equipment to gather worthwhile electronic or photographic intelligence.
It’s typical for a navy that has seen cut after cut in its budget for the past couple of decades. Where it had a total of 56 ships in the ’80s, nowadays it has only 23 in service (including supply ships). Thirty years ago it flew 43 aircraft; today it flies none. Cheaper solutions for its frigates are found in OPV’s (Oceangoing Patrol Vessels): patrol ships with light armament. Four of these patrol ships can be bought for the price of one frigate and the operational costs are lower too. However, even if the Netherlands had one of these available for escorting the Kuznetsov, the 30-year-old carrier could’ve easily outrun the Dutch due to the OPV’s slow cruising speed.
This recent incident only spurs discussions in Dutch political circles about the current level of defense spending. Within NATO members have agreed to spend 2% of their GDP on defense spending, a level the Dutch fall short of dramatically with a defense budget that makes up only a meager 1,3% of GDP. Add to that that The Netherlands is one of the few countries that charges VAT on defense purchases (yes, really!) and the real percentage is probably closer to 1,1%. A few politicians from the center-right ruling coalition party VVD have made comments about raising the defense budget recently. Their coalition partner however, the center-left labour-party PvdA, has responded in a lukewarm manner.
Much of this discussion is spurred on by US President Barack Obama’s speech in Brussels, Belgium, where he warned other NATO members that “Freedom isn’t free” and that other NATO members then the US would have to chip in more to defend their own security. The recent situation in the Ukraine and a reappearance of Russian navy and aviation asset in or near NATO territory has added a sense of urgency. It remains to be seen how, if ever, any worthwhile reinvestment in defense can be expected in the future for The Netherlands has a weak economy and high costs in other sectors.