Optimising Dutch Air and Space Power: Policy Recommendations

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Dutch Ministry of Defence

This report provides an assessment of the current strengths and weaknesses of Dutch air and space power, and recommendations for how to optimise its contribution to the Dutch Joint Force and to wider NATO deterrence and warfighting capabilities.

The Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) currently performs a broad range of mission sets, with well-trained personnel who perform well when part of coalition operations. However, resources and personnel are spread very thinly across multiple small fleets with almost no capacity to absorb combat losses. Fleets also lack sufficient spares or ammunition stockpiles for sustained high-intensity operations.

Since February 2022, collective defence and deterrence through NATO has become a more urgent planning concern than overseas crisis management and support to national civilian authorities. This is because the Netherlands faces a dangerous European security environment. Russian military output has increased rapidly, the situation on the ground in Ukraine is deteriorating, and the US is increasingly militarily overstretched and politically fractured. Presidential candidate Donald Trump has also openly questioned US resolve to defend Europe against future Russian aggression.

For conventional deterrence, NATO depends on winning air superiority quickly. This enables relatively small but well-trained armies with close air support to conduct decisive manoeuvre warfare against Russian forces, while air forces conduct strikes on logistics, bases, command and control facilities, and other critical targets in depth. It is necessary because Russia’s ground forces can field far more land-based firepower and politically sustain much higher numbers of casualties for longer than European armies.

However, Russia’s highly capable ground-based air defence system would deny air superiority unless NATO can rapidly locate, suppress and destroy Russian surface-to-air missile systems and radars at scale in the early weeks of any conflict. This task, known as suppression/destruction of enemy air defences (SEAD/DEAD), is the highest priority shortfall identified by NATO Air Command.

Currently, only the US could carry out effective SEAD/DEAD operations against Russian air defences in Europe. Other NATO air forces lack suitable munitions, aircraft and training in the specialised tactics required. Thus, Europe is dangerously exposed if the US is unable (or unwilling) to come to its defence at scale – a real risk if Russian aggression coincides with a US–China standoff or conflict.

The RNLAF should prioritise investment in its fighter force to help close this gap. The fighter force is the strongest comparative advantage that the Netherlands currently has. It is closer to being able to field credible SEAD/DEAD capabilities than any other European NATO air force, apart from potentially the Norwegian Air Force. The F-35A has the sensors and stealth capabilities required to conduct SEAD/DEAD effectively. The RNLAF also has excellent tactical DNA in terms of pilot training culture, aggressive operational mindset, familiarity with US tactics and a large fighter weapons instructor cadre.

Investment is needed to realise this potential. The RNLAF currently struggles to fly the F-35 enough to maintain the good tactical fundamentals inherited from the F-16 fighter force. It also lacks sufficient stocks of weapons, especially missiles suitable for conducting SEAD/DEAD against Russian forces. Therefore, the Netherlands should allocate additional personnel and funding towards improving RNLAF fighter force maintenance capacity, flying hours for training, and weapons acquisition, even if this requires significant cuts elsewhere.

Weapons acquisitions and training for the F-35 should be prioritised around SEAD/DEAD to enable RNLAF aircrew to become specialists in this critical role. Investment here could provide an outsized contribution to NATO and do more to improve European security through deterrence against Russia than any other comparable uplift across other parts of the Dutch armed forces.

As a force with a strong culture of interoperability with allies, the RNLAF should be well placed to coordinate with close European allies to identify mission sets where multinational specialisation can be pursued in a complementary way. 

If significant additional funding were made available, the RNLAF could also afford to uplift other areas such as missile defence for both national and NATO tasks. The main long-range threat to the Netherlands from Russia is cruise missiles due to range constraints on Russian ballistic systems. The NASAMS air defence system is highly effective against cruise missiles and significantly cheaper than Patriot, so is likely a more efficient way to protect key national assets than Patriot, which should be allocated to NATO missions where possible.

Another potentially very useful and efficient investment in the medium term would be to seek to acquire a small number of stealthy uncrewed ISR assets from the US in place of MQ-9 Reaper airframes, which are not suitable for operations in contested airspace. Penetrating ISR is one of the other key NATO bottlenecks where the only existing capability is American, and one where a small number of relatively efficient airframes could have an outsized effect.

Alternatively, the Netherlands may choose to look to space assets for critical ISR in heavily contested airspace. Here again, however, the US provides the overwhelming bulk of NATO capabilities.


Professor Justin Bronk

Senior Research Fellow, Airpower & Technology

Military Sciences

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