For Ukraine’s fight against Russia’s invasion, the Dutch military has committed to donating Panzerhaubitze 2000 155 mm self-propelled howitzers, YPR-765 infantry vehicles, Panzerfaust 3 recoilless anti-tank weapons and Stinger anti-aircraft weapons. Last month, the U.S. and Netherlands announced they would split the cost of refurbishing 90 more Czech T-72B tanks for Ukraine.
Gen. Onno Eichelsheim, the chief of defense for the Netherlands, spoke with Defense News on the sidelines of the Halifax Security Forum last month about the challenge of reconciling his military’s plans to ramp up its own capabilities and readiness against the drive to arm Ukraine.
A run through his country’s major procurements was also part of the conversation ― plus a nudge to Canada in the case of one major investment.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Given the difficulty of ramping up defense industrial capacity and reports about dwindling stockpiles as Ukraine’s allies supply it with their own materiel, does the Netherlands feel a pinch right now? And is there a calculation in terms of balancing readiness versus aid to Ukraine?
Yes, of course there is. There are actually a couple of goals that we have to achieve. First of all, support Ukraine no matter what, with the material, the training, and the logistical support they need to sustain the fight. That’s not a responsibility of just the Netherlands, but for all the partners that want to support Ukraine. The other line is supporting the eastern flank, extra, for what is needed to deter the Russian Federation, which means that you have to ramp up immediately the operational readiness of your forces. The third one is to fulfill our [2022 defense] white paper and the course that our armed forces are going to take towards the near and long-term future. That calls for investments and even more readiness than we have in our forces at this moment. Simultaneously, we still have our efforts in Africa, the Middle East and the Caribbean. So I have to sustain that fight and those efforts as well.
You can see immediately that there will be difficulty in keeping up all four. Theoretically, you would like to have them all at the same pace, all ramping up fast and all going well, but that’s not the case. [Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, the Netherlands] started with armed forces that were not completely filled, with stocks that were not completely ready, that did not have all the materiel to support what we needed to do for NATO. So we were already behind schedule.
That means that if I support Ukraine in the tempo that we do―we have now supported Ukraine with about 800 million Euros in materiel―then I immediately have to get the stocks filled up by getting contracts with industry, which we started, luckily, already a year ago. But it also means that if I train Ukrainian forces, if we make sure that we have the logistical lines in place, if we make sure that the materiel that we sent is ready, is filled with spare parts, that means there are personnel I cannot use to train and build high readiness. You have to balance those four efforts continuously. Hence you will never be able to reach the timelines that you perhaps had set a year ago.
The Pentagon is talking about multi-year purchases of munitions in order to pump a demand signal into the defense industrial base. If there’s any pain for your supplies, where is it the most acute?
We have a multi-year contracts for munitions, but still it is one of our Achilles heels, because stocks were low. Ukraine needs, for instance, 155mm howitzer ammunition. Our stocks are not that high for air defenses and missiles, but we will give it to them. We were behind, and it will take longer for us to fulfill what we need for NATO. Industry is not able to ramp up, so our national armaments directors within the European Union are very closely coordinating with industry about what exactly the country needs for the coming five to 10 years, and what other countries need. Then industry knows what’s coming and they can ramp up the production―which will take time. It’s not overnight. But in that way we can at least join our efforts and make sure that we don’t duplicate and that we send a weapon first to the country where it’s needed most.
You coordinate procurement priorities through NATO, and that’s new?
The need for it is higher. We all understand that we cannot go to all the factories by ourselves and overload the factories without giving them a prioritization of who needs it first. Plus, we do procurements together. We’ve asked Germany to procure stuff for us and vice versa.
We all understand way better that we have to coordinate specifically within the European continent better, right? Because we have to fulfill a certain strategic autonomy in Europe as well. You cannot only rely on the U.S. or on other partners if the need is that high, because the U.S. will not be able to ramp up completely also for us. That’s the thought we had in the past, but that’s not the truth. So we have to build a stronger European industry as well.
For what areas is this coordination happening?
The air mobile vehicles we need, we procured together with Germany and other countries will hook up to that as well. It is partly that we now share better what we are going to procure in the coming years so another country can say, “Hey, I also need an armored vehicle. You are going to purchase hundreds? Okay do 100 for me as well, as long as it is the same.” I think our eyes are opened to interoperability and interchangeability needed within NATO.
Okay, so if you’re buying the same thing as your partner...
... you can drive it, you can fly it, you can maintain it, and you can use it in the same way. That’s actually the goal that we try to achieve, which is not easy within the European continent. But it is something that we try to strive for now.
For instance, if you look at the CV-90s, can we partner better with the countries that have it now, do we need more partners to build more CV-90s? What we want to strive for is that with the bulk of what is on front line, that is interchangeable. So if I die, you can drive in my vehicle, because it’s the same that you’re used to, right?
The Germans buy the same Chinook as we do, so our pilots can fly on the same aircraft they can. That’s how we try to make sure that we at least don’t overload industry too much. But they have to ramp up, right, they have almost have to double their capacity.
Where does the Walrus-class submarine replacement procurement stand and what’s the goal?
We just pushed out the request for quotation this week to three shipyards: Naval Group, Saab Kockums and ThyssenKrupp. It will take them quite some time before they get back to us. The plan is that we will have the replacement of our four submarines around 2032. It will be an expeditionary submarine that will be diesel-electric because it needs to get close to shore and to get to longer distances. We have to use it in farther away areas than the Netherlands and the European continent.
It’s actually a niche capability between the nuclear powered submarines and those that are smaller and used for coastal defense. It actually also fits the profile of what Canadian forces are looking for. I’m not saying they have to buy what we’re buying, but for interoperability and interchangeability, it would be a good idea― something for them to think about.
How significant of a procurement is this for the Netherlands?
It’s for us an important weapon system strategically but also tactically, looking at the firepower that it can produce, and of course, the reconnaissance and the special operations that it can be used for. So it’s important for our armed forces and in the alliance.
Sometimes you have a tendency to look at armed forces based on the big materiel that they purchase, but I think it is way more important to say that most of the money that we are spending will be on personnel, combat support, combat service support, stockpiles, logistical line support, on medical capability. So, way more on the supporting elements instead of the teeth.
So we are buying new anti-submarine warfare frigates, new mine countermeasure ships, which actually are built as a mothership, and it is the work is executed by drones over and above the water. It’s a new concept, and you will see in the other procurements we do that mannned-unmanned [teaming] is one of leading elements for our future forces. Our anti-submarine warfare frigate will also have an unmanned element.
We’re now in the design phase for the anti-submarine warfare frigate. It’s a co-production with Belgium, as is the mine counter-measures.
How do your procurements relate to the war in Ukraine?
We are building our ballistic missile defense up to a higher level. We will go for deep precision strike capability for land, air and navy. We will procure counter-UAV capabilities, almost double the cyber capability plus also invest a lot of in our space capability, and unmanned systems. We’re doubling our Reapers from four to eight―but the contract is not yet signed―with a maritime radar so we can use it also as a maritime patrol aircraft, rather than using manned aircraft.
We bought additional F-35s to build the third squadron that’s asked for by NATO. With rocket artillery, we are in the phase of not yet purchasing but defining what we want. It could be HIMARS or something else. [We’re looking for] 300km-range rocket artillery systems.
Other countries in the region are seeking long-range fires now as well in the wake of the war in Ukraine.
We produced our white paper actually during the Ukraine conflict. We of course were quite far along with it before the Ukraine conflict started. We didn’t make any adjustments because it fulfills the needs, if you look at that conflict, but we will require more long-range [fires], unmanned [capability] and more cyber capability―but still you have to fight on the ground as well.
We are aware of the fact that demographically the Netherlands, and actually in Europe, you will not be able to sustain forces with a large amount of personnel. You have to be prepared for a force that can do more with less personnel. So you go to artificial intelligence, you go to more technology to do the fight. It also means that we had to find a way to integrate better with our partners. So we have we are actually now going to be completely integrated with Germany for our land forces. So three of the brigades that we have―the heavy brigades, the medium brigades and the air maneuver and special forces brigades―will be fully integrated with the German divisions.
In the heavy brigades, the tanks are owned by Germany and we provide the rest of that heavy brigade. For NATO it’s still under debate how [to measure those combined units] with respect to our NATO capability targets. The [defense] minister and I are in discussions with NATO to say, “Well, if you look at the future, and demographic trends, you have to look differently at how you can combine your efforts.”
We do air defenses partly with Germany, to be able to build air defense shields, which will help NATO secure our eastern flank. So in the mindset in Europe, you’ll see that the interchangeability and interoperability actually―which brings up some sovereignty questions we have to decide upon in the near future, but that is the path that we are taking.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.