OUT-OF-AREA OPERATIONS BY THE ROYAL NETHERLANDS NAVY, 1945-2001 ‘Showing the flag when mine hunting restores image of seafaring nation’, ‘Mine hunters can do more than we think …., ‘Ten thousand miles across the sea’, ‘Alkmaar class can operate worldwide’.1 It was under these headlines in 1984 that the national press reported the deployment of Dutch minehunters to the Middle East, with the US Navy, among others, on their side. On the one hand, these positive reports are somewhat surprising when one considers that in those days, expeditionary operations by Western armed forces in former colonies were extremely sensitive, nationally and internationally. On the other, these actions by Dutch ships were in line with the Royal Netherlands Navy's endeavours at the time of the Cold War to continue to operate Qua Patet Orbisand to showcase the Netherlands as a maritime nation. For decades, this showing of the flag, always supported by the political powers in The Hague and much valued internationally, helped to determine the face the Netherlands showed to the world. Many people know about the Dutch navy’s contribution to NATO defence in the north Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea, but are virtually unaware of this international form of maritime deployment overseas, outside the NATO treaty area: the out-of-area operations.
Most of the studies on the Netherlands’ position in the Cold War have been conducted by political scientists or relate to compilations dominated by a socio-historical approach.2 Previous studies which looked at the deployment of the Netherlands armed forces outside the North Atlantic Treaty area in the post-war period, focused mainly on the Royal Netherlands Army.3 Academic literature on the Dutch navy (and also about the Royal NL Air Force and the Royal Netherlands Military Police) in this period is scarce.4 If any publications did appear that touched on the subject of out-of-area deployment, these were mainly reference works in which scant attention was paid to post-war naval operations outside the NATO treaty area.5 Only about specific deployments, particularly those relating to overseas activities by the marines, such as the United Nations Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), were any publications6 issued, while various commemorative books devoted attention to ships and naval personnel involved in out-of-area operations, either as a squadron or individually. The question of how policy in respect of post-war out-of-area operations by military-maritime forces actually took shape and what the determining factors were, has never, just as the course of these operations, been the subject of in-depth historical research. It is for this reason that my research examines the military-political background and execution of large-scale and long-term Dutch naval operations outside the NATO treaty area during the period in question.
In existing historiography, research on out-of-area operations by the Royal NL Navy in Dutch foreign and security policy following the Second World War, concentrates mainly on unilateral power projection by means of showing the flag in the New Guinea affair around 1960 and the impossibility of conducting similar missions after that.7
After relinquishing the territory of New Guinea in the autumn of 1962, the Netherlands still had military-maritime out-of-area intentions and deployed such missions, but these were largely part of a multinational effort, usually under the auspices of the UN or sanctioned by the Western European Union (WEU). It is true that the context of the East-West controversy and the inclusion in the North Atlantic treaty made independent enforcement operations by the Royal NL Navy virtually impossible,8 but that did not apply to participation in numerous multinational overseas operations. Dutch national interests were paramount.9 Such missions can be placed within the traditional functions of the concept of sea power: diplomacy, police power and military enforcement action. Peacekeeping and peace-enforcement can also be seen as elements of the function of constabulary, as the political scientists and maritime historians M. Pugh, J. Ginifer and E. Grove state in their study entitled Maritime Security and Peacekeeping (1994). Given the approval of organisations such as the UN often associated with this, such multinational military-maritime actions had and have a high degree of legitimacy.10 This is in contrast to unilateral enforcement actions stemming from a traditional approach such as gunboat diplomacy.
The use of maritime diplomacy and (limited) application of military-maritime force as an instrument of national foreign policy occur almost exclusively in a multinational framework, according to Pugh et al. On the one hand, that was automatically linked to a decline in the importance of traditional gunboat diplomacy, but on the other, gave the use of military-maritime (enforcement) means within diplomacy a more accepted international image. This way of thinking appears to be virtually non-existent in Dutch historiography of foreign and security policy.
What little literature there is adheres broadly to the premise that the Royal NL Navy was after a while geared to operations against Soviet naval forces in the North Atlantic area.11 This popular opinion is at odds with the promotion as well as the realisation of worldwide naval operations by navy chiefs, who implemented this ambition for the purpose of maintaining a harmonious fleet operating for long periods overseas, consisting of multipurpose surface ships, aircraft, submarines and marines.12 This historiographically interesting contradiction between the RNLN's farewell to out-of-area operations post-1962 recorded in the literature and the continued naval ambition to conduct manoeuvres and enforcement outside the NATO area serves as the main theme for this study. The primary reason for this study is to fill the gap that has been identified in the historiography of the Netherlands armed forces during and shortly after the Cold War in relation to out-of-area missions by military-maritime forces. Filling this void is important for various reasons (background analysis of post-war policy making in respect of out-of-area deployment; course of these operations). During the Cold War and in subsequent years, our armed forces were the instrument with which the Netherlands shaped its security policy in respect of the outside world. As one of the main elements of this policy instrument, the Royal Netherlands Navy thus deserves more attention than it has received thus far.
The RNLN and its supporters traditionally envisaged a worldwide task for naval forces within Dutch security policy, but the realisation of this philosophy often came under budgetary pressure. The RNLN and its allies also left no stone unturned in their efforts to realise this deep-rooted aim.
For decades, there have been countless assertions regarding the advantages of naval forces for intervention all over the world and associated references to the Dutch military-maritime tradition overseas that endorse these claims.13 This concerns not only points of view of naval officers and foreign policy experts, but also remarks by authors with naval connections as well as from unexpected quarters (the army). The import of this is that those involved realised that while the navy was part of the overall, wartime-oriented deterrence force, it could easily fulfil a mobile, flexible function in peacetime, during international crises, unlike the army and air force, which formed a more static deterrent.14
To what extent did this famous readiness, worldwide deployability, flexibility and shaping of this tradition by military-maritime forces actually exist? There is no escaping the fact that from 1991, peacekeeping and peace-enforcement missions shifted the emphasis for naval forces from blue water to brown water, or in other words, from the high seas to the littorals. It was also a fact that while the navy chiefs liked to proclaim that the nation's navy was traditionally at home on all fronts anywhere in the world, most of the materiel and exercise scenarios (and the associated degree of readiness) were in reality geared to deployment in the northeastern part of the Atlantic Ocean.15 Critics within and outside the navy observed that the Royal Netherlands Navy did not appear to need any sophisticated ocean-going multipurpose frigates, submarines or long-range patrol aircraft for the new main tasks. Another comment that was made, in the same context, was that the deployment of the marine corps for inland missions, such as those in Northern Iraq (1991) and Ethiopia-Eritrea (2000-2001), had involved the non-standard use of our amphibious forces. Marines units previously played a primary role in maritime power projection ashore: the projection of military power ashore from the sea as was the case in the envisaged deployment in Norway on NATO's northern flank before 1991.16 There are also signs indicating diminished Dutch military-maritime expeditionary readiness and flexibility as a result of the (initial) lack of delivery means as well as equipment and operational shortcomings, which affected both national and allied interests.17 Together with other, similar incidents during Dutch naval missions overseas, these less than flattering observations sounded a counternote to the earlier song of praise.
These critical remarks cannot be placed directly in an analytical framework, as there are few, if any, academic-historical publications about Dutch out-of-area naval operations available. As stated earlier, this study aims to fill that void. The first of four key questions in this study is to what extent there actually was any military-maritime tradition of out-of-area operations after 1945 as an instrument in Dutch foreign policy.
Another topic in this study concerns the background and motivation of the groups that had a soft spot for that tradition and the associated aims, as well as the ensuing implications. Leaders of the Dutch navy stressed repeatedly that their goal of global deployment was based on the serving of national interests.18 The sought-after harmonious fleet, which would mean that the Dutch were not necessarily dependent on allies, was only feasible if there were to be a wide range of worldwide tasks. Furthermore, this showcasing of materiel could help to promote the export thereof and potentially reduce our own procurement costs.19 The Dutch Admiralty found other departments to be in support of its ambitions, in some cases against the will of political leaders in the Ministry of Defence. Naval officers found themselves supported by, for example, Minister of Foreign Affairs J.A.M.H. Luns, who, on the correlation between the naval forces and his ministry, stated that it was also in the interests of foreign policy for a country with so many major maritime and overseas interests as our own to have a decent war fleet.20 Out-of-area missions and showing the flag also had the support of the Ministry of Economic Affairs, more so because Dutch industry saw the RNLN, because of the structural launch of modern weapon platforms, as a “sale and purchase broker and an asset player in the defence market”.21 Given this merging of interests, the second key question in this study is to what degree were Dutch naval forces political football or (co-) player in the maritime political-strategic decision making on out-of-area missions?
“Unusually close”,22 so the British naval historian J.R. Hill describes the collaboration between the Royal Navy and the Royal Netherlands Navy. British naval forces were also "unhappy" about the fact that after 1960 they were forced by decolonisation of overseas territories, budget cuts and strategic considerations (nuclear-strategic submarine fleet under NATO versus worldwide deployability with carrier task forces) to focus on antisubmarine warfare in the northeastern Atlantic Ocean.23 As far as (multinational) out-of-area missions were concerned, the Royal Navy thus had ambitions similar to those of the RNLN. As both navies also collaborated closely, the third key question relates to the identification and elaboration of the similarities and differences between the two forces in terms of the development of their range of tasks (overseas operations in particular) and the execution of those tasks, as well as the possibly even mutual influences.
Not only the size of an armed force, but also its correspondingly refined weapon systems and the reputation of its personnel can have a political impact in international terms. In the first decades following the Second World War, the Dutch navy had a reputation among its Anglo-Saxon allies of being a reliable partner.24 The possession of or the ability to construct sophisticated weapon platforms in itself carried political influence. This is because of the power projection capabilities of such weapon systems and the fact that they are regarded as a symbol of the prosperity and technological development of a nation and its global position. Successive generations of advanced warships, military aircraft and weapon systems, including fire control systems, contributed to the image of the Netherlands as a nation at the forefront of military technology.25
In this study, the fourth and final key question centres on an analysis of the extent to which the said domestic and foreign perception of the Dutch navy played a role in the decision making in The Hague in respect of overseas deployment of the navy. The study will also look at how much the Royal Netherlands Navy, by participating in (multinational) out-of-area operations, contributed to the policy objectives envisaged by the Netherlands government for these missions.