Russia’s only aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov recently passed through the English Channel and into The Netherlands’ exclusive economic zone. But the Dutch navy had no ships available for escort duty.
Years of budget cuts have undermined the ability of European countries to perform routine military missions, such as accompanying Russian vessels as they sail close to their territorial waters.
The Royal Netherlands Navy has been among the hardest-hit of European armed forces—and now it painfully shows, as Moscow’s warships sail unchallenged near Dutch territory.
On May 8 Admiral Kuznetsov sailed through international waters in the English Channel, heading from the Mediterranean—where she had reinforced the Kremlin’s deployments around Ukraine—to her home port in northern Russia.
As Lieuwe De Vries and Ruben Veenstra reported, Admiral Kuznetsov and her task force of a cruiser, three tankers, an ocean-going tug and the landing ship Minsk took an unusual route returning to their home port.
“The Russians usually prefer to go around Ireland on the North Atlantic Ocean to avoid other maritime traffic,” the Dutch reporters wrote. “The journey plotted through the narrow waters can be seen as a typical show of force on behalf of the Russians.”
The Royal Navy dispatched the new air-defense destroyer HMS Dragon to sail alongside Admiral Kuznetsov but, as the task force moved toward the North Sea, it was the Royal Netherlands Navy’s job to maintain the escort.
“The Royal Netherlands Navy already had made public its spotting of the Russians a few days earlier, when the HNLMS De Zeven Provinciën had picked it up on radar,” De Vries and Veenstra wrote. “But by the time the Kuznetsov arrived in the Dutch exclusive economic zone, De Zeven Provinciën had gone on its way for duties in Somali waters and no other ships were at hand for escort duties.”
Air power couldn’t help. The Dutch retired their entire fleet of P-3C Orion patrol aircraft in 2002. And in following years, the Dutch navy air arm, which once operated both maritime patrol aircraft and Lynx helicopters, totally disbanded.
Ten NH-90 helicopters, operated by the Defense Helicopter Command, replaced the 24 Lynx choppers and the eight P-3s. But helicopters are not the best assets for the long-range shadowing of enemy vessels.
“Instead of deploying a suitable response, the Netherlands Coast Guard was asked to deploy one of its Dornier-228 aircraft,” the reporters added. “Though capable in its intended role, the aircraft lacks any equipment to gather worthwhile electronic or photographic intelligence.”
The inability to provide a proper escort to the Russians is hardly surprising. Since the 1980s, the Dutch navy has drastically reduced its force from 56 to 23 ships, and 43 aircraft to none.
The embarrassing incident highlights a widespread problem in NATO, most of whose member states spend far less on their militaries than the agreed-upon two percent of GDP. The Netherlands spends around 1.3 percent. This at a time when Russia has become more aggressive in Eastern Europe.