PARIS — Dutch top military leaders have a wish list for the next government: air defense, tanks and more military police.

More air defense systems is the number one priority, “no question about it,” Chief of Defence Gen. Otto Eichelsheim said in an interview with broadcaster NPO on April 4, flanked by his top generals. NATO is also counting on the Dutch to contribute tanks and more medical capability to the alliance, the commander said.

After decades of cost cuts, the next government of the European Union’s fifth-largest economy will have to boost defense spending beyond the NATO target of 2% of GDP to bring the military up to strength, according to Eichelsheim. Talks to form a new Dutch government are ongoing following elections in November, with the Cabinet of Prime Minister Mark Rutte in a caretaker role.

The Netherlands kicked off a defense budget hike in a 2022 policy paper, which allowed the armed forces to rebuild supplies and support roles that had been whittled down to such an extent that combat power couldn’t be sustained or deployed long-term, according to Eichelsheim. “So we invested in that first.”

“The next step has to be that you strengthen your combat power, while also still further building up your support capability,” Eichelsheim said. “Even with 2% we’ll still have to make choices. NATO has been asking more and more of us, the world is demanding more and more from us; 2% is just not enough.”

The Netherlands lifted its 2024 defense budget to €21.4 billion ($ 23.2 billion), or 1.95% of GDP, from €15.4 billion in 2023 and €12.9 billion in 2022. In this year’s budget, €7.9 billion is reserved for buying and maintenance of equipment.

Russia has managed to recover quickly from initial losses following the invasion of Ukraine, and has been building up its military, the Dutch commander said. “We worry a lot about the fact that they have that recovery power, and so we really have to make sure that we are fully ready for that. And we’re just not there yet.”

The top brass in a meeting around May last year concluded that “it’s going to go wrong and we don’t have much time,” according to Eichelsheim. He said Dutch military command has identified the biggest needs and put in place plans to strengthen the armed forces, also in view of NATO demands, with the current military assets “not nearly enough.”

Tanks “are very high on the wish list, but no political decision has yet been made,” Royal Netherlands Army Commander Lt. Gen. Jan Swillens said, adding that a heavy-armor capability would be important for future deployments. Long-range precision artillery and air defense, “resources that ten or fifteen years ago we thought we’d never need again,” are also high on the wish list, based on feedback from the war in Ukraine.

The Netherlands has been considering recreating its own tank battalion, having scrapped its heavy cavalry in 2011. The current defense budget doesn’t cover the costs of setting up a tank battalion, and the next government will have to decide on how much extra money will go to defense, and whether any of that will be spent on tanks.

The big concern among the Dutch top brass is that the Netherlands won’t be able to restore its military to full strength quickly enough in the face of an aggressive Russia, according to Lt Gen André Steur, head of the Royal Netherlands Air Force.

“Russia isn’t the only threat, but if you look at how quickly they are now able to recover, to get back to full war strength, as they were on February 24, 2022, we are all moving too slowly, and you actually see that throughout the alliance,” Steur said. “All of us here at the table want to prevent war. So the most important thing is that we’re able to deter war.”

The Netherlands will exercise in Poland with 4,500 troops this month, moving columns of equipment and personnel to Eastern Europe by road for the first time in years, and it no longer has enough military police to secure the columns, according to Swillens.

The Royal Marechaussee gendarmerie force, whose tasks include military police duties, is in the process of rebuilding to undo the damage of budget cuts, according to its commander Lt. Gen. Annelore Roelofs. “We really need more military police,” Roelofs said. “As the military continues to grow, and that’s going to happen, we need even more of that.”

Should the Netherlands get involved in a war on Europe’s eastern flanks, it will need gendarmerie forces to secure and protect forward-deployed units, said Eichelsheim. “We have the task, but we don’t have the people for it. So we have to fill all that back in.”

The smaller size of the Dutch armed forces makes sustaining a conflict harder, in a threat environment made more complex by Russia’s aggression but also conflict in the Middle East and terrorism, said Vice Adm. René Tas, commander of the Royal Netherlands Navy. The increased defense budget has provided breathing space, as troops can at least be provided with sufficient ammunition and new gear, he said.

The Netherlands can’t supply additional Patriot air-defense systems to Ukraine, as it is at the minimum deployment needed to protect Dutch ports, according to Eichelsheim. Amsterdam Airport Schiphol is the fourth-busiest airport in Europe, while Rotterdam is the continent’s biggest maritime port. The Netherlands previously supplied two Patriot launchers to Ukraine, as well as training.

Eichelsheim said the allies supporting Ukraine will have to find a solution for the Patriot shortfall, by going though their stockpiles to see what systems can still be assembled. “We see how important that air defense is in the face of Russian Federation attacks.”

Rudy Ruitenberg is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. He started his career at Bloomberg News and has experience reporting on technology, commodity markets and politics.

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