Garage sale for new drones

In a paper with the hilarious title “How to stop the demilitarisation of Europe” former European Defence Agency chief Nick Witney expresses his worries about the cuts in the  defence budgets of EU member states. Quoting outgoing US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, he warns for the “very real possibility of collective military irrelevance” of NATO, when Europeans continue to “put their beliefs in soft power” such as peace keeping and diplomacy. The worries of militaristic die-hards like Witney and Gates are bizarre. With a combined military spending of nearly €200 billion, more than China and Russia combined, Europe is far from demilitarising. True, there are budget cuts in many EU countries, but other countries (Sweden, Poland) are increasing their defence budgets. And do we really want to mirror US military spending levels? The US military budget has gone up 81% since 2001. Obama’s recently presented defence budget for fiscal year 2013 will end the unrestrained growth in baseline military spending but does little to bring it down from its current excessively high level. Procurement of the F-35 for example, the most expensive weapon system in American history, is slowed but not cancelled or reduced in number. Who profits from the unproductive investment in war equipment in the middle of an economic crisis?  Probably not the 1.6 million homeless American children.

For the military in the Netherlands the budget cuts mean saying goodbye to quite a lot of equipment. The Dutch forces have now for sale more than one hundred Leopard-2 tanks, several dozens of different military helicopters, several hundreds armoured vehicles, some warships as well as 18 F-16 fighter jets. Still one can hardly say that the Netherlands is demilitarising, when at the same time it is participating in NATO’s most aggressive Missile Defence program. To the joy, pride and profit of the Dutch arms industry, notably Thales Netherlands, our government plans to buy a Maritime Ballistic Missile Defence system for the navy’s frigates, as part of NATO’s missile defence efforts. Instead of becoming military irrelevant we join a new arms race against Russia and China, although we are made to believe that we need it against Iran – which by the way has no missiles that can reach the Netherlands.

Another trendy item on the military’s wish list is a MALE UAV system – short for Medium Altitude Long Endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, also known as ‘drones’Most likely candidates are Israel Aerospace Industries’ Heron II and the US Predator B, built by General Atomics. The latter was already discussed between Dutch military staff an the US ambassador in 2007, according to Wiki-leaked cables. Both systems fit the ministry’s requirements. Both can also be armed, although officially there is no intention to arm the new drones – yet.

According to the Wiki cables “Dutch MOD leadership is searching for “creative ways” to preserve some 2007 defence investment projects, including unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV).” The creative way found is to finance the procurement of UAV’s out of the returns of surplus military sales.

This scenario is becoming increasingly difficult. The market for second hand weapons is flooding as many EU countries are offering the same kind of surplus equipment. Another problem is that the Dutch public and a parliamentary majority is actively opposing arms exports to human rights violating countries. And in the case of surplus sales the parliament has a say in the exports. A potential sale of Leopard tanks to Indonesia has already become highly controversial.

A Dutch newspaper recently headlined: “Weapons for sale. But none is allowed to buy”. As long as the Netherlands does not sell its surplus weapons it will not be able to buy its much wanted new MALE  drones. Let’s hope that the eagerness to buy new toys will not lead to the lowering of human rights standards.

WdV Februari 16 2012