The major expansion of armed drone operations in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and across central Africa under Obama’s presidency has raised serious concerns over the implications should others enter the same game. In the last year it has been the US itself that has begun to proliferate the technology amongst its closest allies. As reported in the Dutch press last week, the strong assumption here is that at some point the Netherlands will want to join this new front rank of NATO forces.
As reported in the Guardian, since yesterday Britain has an operational unit to run long-range missions with five Reaper UAVs above Helmand province in Afghanistan, controlling them from RAF Waddington in Lincolnshire. Italy already announced in May its intention to arm its six Reapers for similar missions. Should the Netherlands choose for the Reaper as well, they will similarly have the option to arm them. Responding to parliamentary questions back in May, Minister of Defence Hans Hillen stated that weaponised drones ‘was not an issue’. For the moment, anyway.
But budgets are tight. Despite serious interest from the Ministry in a so-called MALE UAV (Medium Altitude Long Endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) since 2006, it was only decided in April this year to actually proceed with obtaining four of them, and even then such a move could only be made if the Ministry succeeds in selling off other equipment deemed superfluous (like tanks). As explained to parliament, its unlikely that this will be possible before 2014, and full operational planning is only scheduled for 2016. Such a proposed MALE UAV capability would require an initial €100m – €250m.
There are several interesting aspects of this.
Firstly, the intention is to have a mobile UAV capability as much for domestic as international usage. In June 2011 Christen-Unie MP Joel Voordewind led a parliamentary motion that requested the deployment of UAVs in Dutch air space as quickly as possible, for the purpose of “coastal reconnaissance, dike protection and crowd control.” This fits with the wish of the British police to use surveillance drones domestically, although this is yet to be implemented. While Defence obviously aims to have this new apparatus operational internationally, the civil-military combination could allow for spreading the cost across several ministries (Home Affairs, Justice), raising the chances of this actually going ahead (although, as Defence has pointed out – in doing so claiming priority – four UAVs would not allow simultaneous domestic and foreign engagements).
Secondly, the Voordewind motion called for UAVs with sensor equipment produced by Dutch manufacturers. This is a smaller version of of the multinational production process attempted with the Joint Strike Fighter – you buy into high-tech American hardware but profit from this by contributing essential components, thereby securing long-term orders for your own top-level industrial capacity. One has to say ‘attempted’ because the delay-plagued JSF has yet to produce the kinds of orders once hoped for……but the UAV plan, on a smaller scale, could work more successfully.
Thirdly, there has already been more than a hint that the deal is done despite protests from the Ministry that it will, as always, be an open competitive process to choose the ideal UAV for Dutch needs. Yet in May this year there was speculation that an agreement had been reached with manufacturer General Atomic, whereby the American company would be the eventual supplier of four Reaper UAVs. Hillen denied it, but just as with the JSF, there are several levels of agreement covering development and testing that can be agreed upon before an actual piece of hardware is officially ‘bought’. This allows the Ministry to proceed while all the time denying that it has actually made up its mind.
Most interesting of all is perhaps the intersection of the JSF and UAV stories. In this sense the arrival of the Court of Audit’s report on the costs of pulling out of JSF development last week brings this intersection into stark relief. Since all the JSF options are now financially painful (full continuation, leaving the test phase but still buying it, or buying something else), it is conceivable that the UAV option could gain more traction. The potential development of UAVs was mentioned ten years ago, in the early days of the JSF saga, as a possible game-changer in terms of what the Dutch military may eventually require as an air force. However, considering the political-military-industrial coalition that continues to back the JSF, this still looks a long way off, not least because it would demand the total transformation of the air force into a pilot-less enterprise.
And anyway, the idea of Reapers patrolling Ajax-Feyenoord games does give one a slightly eerie picture of the future……
[Photomontage: Sam Rentmeester www.samfoto.nl]