Dutch defense minister Hans Hillen warned on Tuesday that further cuts to defense spending will imperil the security of the Netherlands. “You cannot say that the world is safe,” he told the Nieuwsuur television program. “If we reduce [spending] further, we won’t be safe anymore.”
Hillen responded to an opinion poll which found 60 percent of Dutch voters in favor of deeper defense spending cuts. Specifically, respondents agreed with left-wing opposition parties that the Netherlands should pull out of the Joint Strike Fighter program which produces the F-35 fighter jet that is slated to replace the aging F-16.
A slim parliamentary majority voted to end the Netherlands’ participation in the project in July. Hillen, who is the member of a caretaker government, refused to carry out the motion. The next government will have to decide whether or not to continue acquisition of the F-35. Elections are scheduled to take place in three weeks.
The NATO country originally committed to invest $800 million in the development of the fifth-generation fighter aircraft and buy 85 planes. However, as the aircraft’s costs have mounted, the number of total acquisitions could drop to as few as 42.
The Royal Netherlands Air Force operated 87 F-16 fighters until 2011 when, as a result of defense cuts, nineteen jets were retired.
Because of the Dutch involvement in Afghanistan, defense spending rose from €7.7 billion in 2007 to a high of €8.5 billion in 2009. The 2012 budget allocates €7.8 billion to defense, 4 percent of total government spending.
A fifth of the now caretaker government’s planned defense spending reductions was thwarted last month when parliament voted to delay the sale of eighty redundant Leopard tanks to Indonesia. Opposition parties, otherwise eager to reduce defense spending by another €1 billion, cited sectarian tension in the former Dutch colony’s outlying Maluku and Papua islands as reason to block the sale — even if the vehicles could hardly be deployed to the Moluccas and Papua given the mountainous terrain and dense forestation there. Indonesia has since announced its intention to buy tanks from Germany instead.
Dutch security may not be directly threatened if there are further reductions in defense but already, it is doubtful whether the country could field another military operation on the scale it did in the Afghan province of Uruzgan between 2006 and 2010. Its present commitment in Afghanistan involves a police training mission in northern Kunduz. More than five hundred Dutch armed forces personnel is deployed to the area.
The country’s ability to mount maritime efforts in the future is unlikely to suffer as four highly advanced De Zeven Provinciën class frigates joined the fleet in the last decade but the prospect for air missions could be undermined if the Netherlands withdraw from the F-35.
Three Royal Netherlands Navy ships are currently involved in anti-piracy operations off the coast of Somalia. In recent years, the Dutch military has participated in European peacekeeping efforts in Bosnia, Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as well as last year’s NATO mission to Libya.
Correction: An earlier version of this article erroneously claimed that 75 percent of Dutch voters favor deeper defense spending cuts, but that is the percentage of Dutchmen who favor cuts to procurement. 60 percent agree that defense in general should be cut.