Dutch helicopter woes spark for closer cooperation?

Lieuwe de Vries for Veenstra & de Vries Aviation Publishing. 

In a agreement signed today The Netherlands’ Air Mobile Brigade will become a part of the German Army “Division Schnelle Kräfte”. The resulting unit will be commanded by a German Army general who’s second in command will be Dutch, the Dutch component will continue to be based at it’s current base in The Netherlands. It is hoped that this far reaching cooperation will lead to economy-of-scale benefits and will increased capacity through the sharing of scarce and expensive resources. The force created would be some 11.000 strong with The Netherlands contributing about 2000 troops.

A RNLAF CH-47 Chinook carries a Wolf light skinned vehicle as a underslung load. Image copyright Lieuwe de Vries - 2014

Cooperative advantage

From the Dutch perspective the most scarce resource at the moment is rotary wing transport capacity. The Dutch Defence Helicopter Command (DHC) has recently suffered cuts in it’s budget and thus in the amount of available flight time. As a result the Air Mobile Brigade has reduced training with actual helicopters quite extensively. Though the Dutch operate a perhaps more modern force with Chinooks and Cougar’s compared to the German’s Huey’s and CH-53’s the German force is larger. Both countries have a respectable force of attack helicopters with the Dutch operated AH-64D Apache’s and Germany fielding the Eurocopter Tiger.

Another area where the German-Dutch cooperation might benefit the Dutch is armour, the Dutch Army recently lost all of its Leopard 2 tanks with 100 tanks being sold to Finland. The tanks were to be replaced with Swedish built APC’s but a large number of those have been sold on even before they entered service. Germany still operates large number of main battle tanks and these could be used in both training and operational deployments.

Todays’ merging of these two formations is part of a larger trend of Dutch – German cooperation. The two nations have been cooperating in the 1st Dutch – German Army Corps based at Munster since 1995. In a letter of intent published in march of last year Dutch Defence minister Ms. Hennis – Plasschaert declared her desire for even further cooperation. Area’s of interest, besides rapid response ground forces, are ground based air defence where both nations operate the MIM-104 Patriot missile system and submarine forces. Both countries missile defence units currently cooperate on a mission to protect Turkey’s southern borders from air incursions from Syria.

 Rotary wing woes

The Defence Helicopter Command’s problems are unlikely to be resolved in the foreseeable future. The recent purchase of more modern Chinooks has added some capacity but this is overshadowed by reductions in the availability of Cougar medium transport helicopters.

A further thorn in the DHC’s side is the NH-90, intended to replace the Westland Lynx used by the Royal Netherlands Navy on it’s frigates, the Italian built helicopters have been slow into service. Problems with excessive corrosion and premature wear have plagued the helicopter with inquiries blaming manufacturing errors and incomplete maintenance manuals. Crew complaints about noise and vibration levels have further reduced it’s operational availability. Parliamentarians from the centrist D66 party have drawn comparisons with the recent disastrous high speed rail project “Fyra” by a company also from the Finmeccanica Group where the producer might be forced to buy back many of the trains already delivered.

Another system up for the axe is the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s Agusta Westland AB-412SP Search and Rescue helicopters based at Leeuwarden Airbase. 303 Squadron operates these machines for both civilian and military tasks. Aside from providing SAR coverage for aircraft using the target range on the Frisian Island of Vlieland these aircraft also provided emergency medical evacuation of civilian from all islands in the Frisian Island’s chain as well as support for civilian SAR efforts. The Dutch ministry of defence no longer feels that civilian medical evacuation and civilian SAR support is a task for the air force and that using the NH-90 would be too costly a solution. A suitable alternative is currently being sought with the yellow AB-412’s, lovingly nicknamed “Tweety” by pilot’s and civilians alike, expected to soldier on until a satisfactory replacement is found. It seems most likely that this replacement will be a civilian contractor. The addition of SAR duties for the northern bombing range to the tasks of the remainder of the Defence Helicopter Command will probably add more pressure to the already under equipped service.