While NATO is working to establish a "credible deterrent" on its eastern flank, swift and large-scale allied troop movements across Europe currently aren't possible. The infrastructure as well as the planning capacity of the Cold War is largely gone and now needs to be rebuilt step by step, an overview presented at the Dutch Ministry of Defence showed.
Following NATO's Readiness Action Plan (RAP), adopted at the Wales Summit in 2014, the alliance's capability to move troops and military equipment eastwards was reviewed — and the result was sobering.
Numerous obstacles, ranging from permits to roads, ports
Obstacles are both legal and physical in nature. More than two and a half decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the emergence of today's Europe, a military aircraft, NATO ally or not, needs a separate permit for every country it flies over. If it carries any sort of weapon or ammunition, yet more separate permits are required. Each of these involves an application procedure and wait time.
The same goes for military supplies, convoys, and troops. And that is just the legal dimension.
Following the end of the Cold War, governments across Western Europe scaled back their defence investments as well as their military infrastructure. Airfields and military bases were closed and sold to the highest bidder, equipment mothballed and eventually phased out, and the number of military personnel reduced.
The Dutch Armed Forces are no exception, with military conscription on hiatus since 1993 and much of their Cold War infrastructure closed down and sold off.
Cold War infrastructure as well as planning experience is gone
Steps are now being taken to compensate for this, but according to Brigadier General Hans Damen, in charge of the Royal Netherlands Army's combat support and logistics, far more is gone than just the physical infrastructure built during the decades of the Cold War.
Up until the 1990s, command staffs and structures were in place dedicated to the movement of allied troops across Western Europe. Each NATO member's military had planners as well as officers and units assigned to making this as swift and easy as possible.
Seen as no longer necessary following the collapse of the Soviet Union, they were abolished. And with the command staffs, a great deal of knowledge disappeared as well.
During the Cold War, the construction of civilian infrastructure necessarily also included a military dimension. Would a new bridge be built to hold the weight of a lorry at 40 tonnes, or to military specifications at 70 tonnes? Can a new motorway section on the A1/E30 take the weight of the largest NATO tanks and artillery? Do the Dutch military constabulary and police have the kind of manpower to even clear the roads for a large-scale deployment of military equipment?
As Damen puts it, only few of the people are left who back then were among the officers tasked with this sort of planning. On top of the legal and physical dimension of the problem, there is also a knowledge gap that the militaries of NATO member states now have to compensate for.
Money and 2% GDP goal just one issue of many
All of this takes a lot of money, time and manpower. Though a NATO member may decide today to crank up its military spending, what the new funds will eventually be spent on and how this fits in with military planning across the alliance is a whole other story and a process that takes years.
New military equipment is procured with an operational window of decades, which makes it extremely sensitive to sudden policy changes at the government level.
Currently, the Armed Forces of the Netherlands have a personnel turnover of about 5,000 a year. On top of this, it currently has some 1,000 positions that need filling.
Faced with these difficulties, even the country's currently growing economy is an issue, as it has promoted part-time working models over recent years and is presenting the armed forces with the formidable challenge of finding away not only to attract people, but also to keep them and encourage them to choose a military instead of a much more flexible civilian career.
EU addresses structural issues with military mobility action plan
While the legal obstacles to rapid troop movement across Europe may be out of the way in one to two years, structural issues are for each individual EU and NATO member state to address. These include the practical availability of ports and airports as well as both the development and the weight capacity of each country's road and railway network.
The European Commission presented its own action plan on military mobility this March. The move is complementing NATO's efforts to modernise its forces across Europe, increase its member states' defence investments, and shorten reaction and deployment times.
But even if the action plan stays on schedule, there will be no complete overview of transport infrastructure suitable for military use before 2019. Logistics as well as military mobility are also part of the EU's Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), aiming at the further structural integration of the EU members' defence forces.
Armed Forces of the Netherlands among frontrunners for military integration
In terms of command structure and military units integration, the Netherlands are a frontrunner within both the EU as well as NATO. Part of the Royal Netherlands Navy is sharing tasks and duties with the Belgian Navy, and the Royal Netherlands Army has come far with the integration of its own units in joint efforts with the German Bundeswehr, among other things as part of the German-led NATO battlegroup in Lithuania.
The Armed Forces of the Netherlands are part of international operations elsewhere as well, including in Mali, Somalia, South Sudan and Libya in Africa, in Gaza, Israel, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Bahrein in the Middle East, and in Kosovo in Europe.
The Netherlands also have some 1,000 military personnel stationed in their constituent countries and special municipalities in the Caribbean.
Editor: Aili Vahtla