Policies of Scale: Efficient Global Policy

The Future of Defense: The US Wants to Spend $526 billion. What About the Dutch?

With the Pentagon releasing its proposed budget for fiscal 2014, we can anticipate opposition from the right and guarded support from the left for a plan that is still $52 billion above federal spending caps. The same talking points that have been recycled for over a year now should be anticipated, so out of boredom I went in search of a fresh perspective on the issue of building a modern national defense and sat down with Commodore Ralph Reefman, The Netherlands’ Defense Attaché in Washington to discuss the Dutch approach to national defense. Please note that Commodore Reefman spoke only to the Dutch perspective, and neither he nor I intend for the contents of that discussion or this post to be applied to the U.S. debate. Consider this an exploration outside the confines of the US national debate.

The Netherlands is a major proponent of international cooperation in the national defense realm. Reefman summed up the Dutch perspective as “1+1=3,” meaning that cooperation creates outcomes that are better than when countries go it alone. Further, 1+1=3 makes individual countries stronger (3/2=1.5). This perspective is not totally new for the Dutch; in 2011 then Defense Minister Hans Hillen said that “We must break the taboo that every country must be able to and even has to do everything themselves.” Further, Reefman believes that cooperating with other nations advances national interests by creating stronger relationships with more countries. The other reason for cooperation, unfortunately, is financial, though Reefman emphasized that this should never be the sole or most important reason to cooperate militarily.

Reefman pointed out that the opportunities for military cooperation go well beyond the traditional battlefield, extending to disaster relief, transnational terrorism, organized crime, and the most international of all, cyber security.

The process of establishing partnerships in this realm is as important as the partnerships themselves to the Dutch. Cooperation is based on the essential ingredient of trust. Each participating country must be able to trust their partners to deliver on their promises – empty promises kill this kind of cooperation. In order to build this trust, relations between partners must start as soon as possible, even if all the ingredients are not yet in place. Reefman pointed to the American approach to partnership building as the gold standard. The US will identify countries it wants to partner with, and will then help them develop the capabilities necessary to enter into an eventual partnership with America. Throughout this process US and foreign forces train, learn, and fight together, building the kinds of bonds that establish trust.

The Dutch have experienced this American approach to military partnerships first-hand. Pilots from The Netherlands train in the U.S. while Marines from both countries train together. Highly ranked Dutch officers get advanced education in America while the countries have an exchange program that sends military personnel back and forth between the two nations. This partnership, says Reefman, is the most important international relationship for the Dutch military.

In addition to trust, the other crucial ingredients to good international military cooperation are shared values, common interests, interoperability of forces and equipment, and sufficient political will from each participant. The Dutch approach to building these relationships is to start small and over time bring in additional participants.

This list of Dutch partnerships includes more than those with the United States and their role as a NATO member. Reefman rattled off a long list of these partnerships, including:

  1. A project with 10 NATO countries plus Finland and Sweden to jointly buy and operate three C17 military transport aircraft. For many participating countries, this is a significant strategic airlift asset that they could not afford on their own. The planes operate out of Hungary, and each participating nation gets 500 flight hours each year. The Dutch have used some of their hours for Afghanistan operations.
  2. The European Air Transport Command, which established a single control center for airlift operations that pools equipment and tasks missions based on which participating country has the required capabilities. It includes The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, France, and Germany, and Reefman credits it with streamlining equipment management and maintenance.
  3. A combined Dutch-Belgian Admiralty, which began in the 1990s. It prepares and coordinates the readiness of the country’s respective navies, but because the navies deploy only for their own country’s missions the sovereignty concerns often associate with these kinds of arrangements are eased. Reefman holds this cooperation as a prime example of trust-driven partnership.
  4. The F16 program called the European Participating Air Force, which includes Belgium, Denmark, The Netherlands, Norway and Portugal. Each nation coordinates F16 operations and trains together. They have also deployed together in Afghanistan, and their first tour there was actually lead by Reefman himself.

Cooperation has its challenges, too, and Reefman did not shy from talking about them. The sovereignty concern is always significant, and Reefman called out particularly the outsourcing of national airspace defense to other countries as one of the biggest challenges for military cooperation, which also makes inherently military decisions far more political in nature as well.

Shaping a partnership framework that is equitable is also quite challenging. For projects that require the sharing of assets, arrangements can be particularly sticky when discussing scenarios where one participant might not approve of the mission. There is of course also the free rider issue, and the challenge of getting partners to deploy their assets for you when the time comes. Further, while cooperative projects may save money, they do not do so initially. Such cooperation requires initial financial investments, and savings only come later.

Scope matters, too. The bigger cooperation gets – the more participants that are included, or the wider the scope of the project – the more challenging it is. Such partnerships benefit from not only military to military relations, but also relations at the political level between participating nations regarding specifically the military cooperation. The larger the project, the more complicated these relationships become.

Reefman listed the factors for successful military cooperation as trust, respect, harmony (especially at the leadership level), interoperability, taskings that fit participants’ abilities, and crucially, commanders who understand the abilities, limitations and political considerations of participating countries. So long as these factors are met, Reefman sees a bright future for European military cooperation that will include additional commitments to niches as countries become more comfortable outsourcing some responsibility for protecting themselves to other countries.

While Reefman emphasized several times that financial considerations should not be the primary driver of military cooperation, the bottom line for The Netherlands recently has been that as a country with limited resources they understand the need and benefit of 1+1=3. Just as in the United States, there has been a serious debate over the future of their military’s budget: does the country’s defense needs justify current military expenditure? Dutch defense spending as a percentage of GDP has declined for over twelve years, and in 2011 (the most recent year reported by the World Bank) sat at 1.4%, well below the NATO target of 2%.

Reefman and I talked about the challenge of informing the Dutch public about the importance of having a capable military. He explained that civil-military relations are an integral part of the Dutch military’s leadership’s job, as they are for other small nations with limited budgets. Reefman’s job becomes much easier, he says, when he can demonstrate the benefit of the military to Dutch people on Dutch soil – it is far easier to demonstrate that benefit while the military is engaged abroad if the military is also active in helping the country at home.

The Netherlands uses its military domestically thousands of time each year. It supports the police. It deploys helicopters to help put out forest fires. It uses unmanned aerial vehicles for monitoring The Netherlands’ all-important dikes and uses them to assist the Justice Department in locating illicit drug crops. The military is used for crowd control, and to clear ammunition from World War II. It also assists the country’s National Crisis Center in operations planning for large-scale crisis. Reefman was quick to point out that the U.S. employs this approach as well.

The Dutch perspective is decidedly pro-cooperation, pro-partnership. The 1+1=3 concept was particularly striking because while it wholeheartedly embraces the popular notion that countries with allies are better off than countries without, it emphasizes trust and equitability as ways to make the concept successful in providing real national defense. This last part is what is required to ensure 1+1=3 is a reality.


3 Responses to “The Future of Defense: The US Wants to Spend $526 billion. What About the Dutch?”

benleetApril 12th, 2013 at 5:21 pm

U.S. defense spending totaled $1.030 trillion to $1.415 trillion, not the reported $711 billion. This amounts to or 29% to 40% of total federal spending in 2012, see the Wikipedia page:… —-
This is also between 6.8% and 9.4% of GDP, not the reported 4.7%.

As a per capita expense, inflation adjusted, total defense spending has risen from $2,750 in 1962 to $4,000 in 2010, (see graph at same Wikipedia page). As a percentage of total global military spending, U.S. spending is 46% of total (PPP dollars). As a per capita expense comparison, only the United Arab Emirates exceeds the U.S., and a few other dictatorships in the Middle East come close. India spends $30 per capita, China $74, the U.S. $2,141 (using the smaller figure of 4.7% of GDP). Using the 2 greater estimates the US spends $3,097 or $4,282 per capita. We spend either 29 times or 58 times more than China, per capita, depending on which total figure one uses. Compared to France and Britain we spend 2.4 times or 4.8 times per capita, again depending on which total figures one uses. Why do we choose to excel in such a costly exercise? This is normal, we also spend about 2.5 times more per capita on health care than the other OECD countries. In Dutch and European case 1 plus 1 = 3, but in our case 1 plus 0 = 0.3, or a negative number. Actually, in the Middle East at least, most civilians feel the greatest threat to their security is the U.S.A., so not 0.3, but a negative number. I think the country has an absolutely horrible record in its use of military power. I wish we would come to our sane minds about it. My English cousin tells me that most people in the UK and Europe think the U.S. is a aberrant, unruly, selfish, and dangerous nation — i.e., not civil. Invading Iraq on bad information, repudiating international law about wars of aggression, creating about 1 million unnecessary civilian violent deaths and making orphans out of 5% of the Iraqi children — all this has not helped the U.S. go it alone strategy. Maybe the budget problem will change things a little.

GuestSeptember 5th, 2013 at 10:17 am

Over 95% of humanity does not live in the US. For most of these people, the US is not a country; the US is a problem.

We are blind to it at our own peril.

Another guestSeptember 17th, 2013 at 8:49 am

"blind to it"
As a U.S. expat I'm maybe not quite so blind. Looking back in, the U.S. internal situation looks frightening. Am I blind in that perspective? Why is the domestic situation so well tolerated? Does the citizenry believe they are sacrificing for some great international good?

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