The Netherlands started its military involvement in the Afghanistan region in 2002, but its long-running commitment looks set to end late this year, following a political crisis.
In 2007, a new Dutch coalition government comprised of the Christian Democratic (CDA), Labour (PvdA) and Christian Union (CU) parties asked parliament to agree to an extended mission in Afghanistan. This was approved, on the condition that the last of the nation's troops be withdrawn at the end of 2010. CDA minister of foreign affairs Maxime Verhagen confirmed in 2008 that the Netherlands would remain a lead nation in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force until August 2010, before leaving in December.
But cracks soon began to appear in this agreement. Speaking in the lead-up to an Afghanistan summit held in The Hague in March 2009, Verhagen said it "was not impossible" that Dutch troops would remain in Afghanistan beyond the agreed deadline.
The Netherlands' F-16s have logged more than 14,000 flight hours in Afghanistan
The different opinions within the Dutch government become painfully clear last October, when the PvdA and CU supported a motion to withdraw the personnel of "Task Force Uruzgan" in 2010 as planned. The action gained a majority vote in parliament, but around same time fresh calls were made by NATO for the Netherlands to maintain its commitment to the Afghanistan mission.
The issue came to a head in early February, when the Dutch government received an official extension request from alliance secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Although the CDA had by this time secured the backing of the CU the PvdA refused, and its stance led to the cabinet collapsing on 20 February.
"The Christian Democrats and the Christian Union maintained their demand to keep the Uruzgan option open," the Labour party said. "It has become clear that there is an irreconcilable difference of opinion about our military contribution to Afghanistan." Noting that the Dutch contribution to ISAF since 2006 has ranked only behind the USA and the UK, and was at the expense of other potential international military efforts, it added: "It is now time for others to take over this arduous task".
With a majority of parliamentarians having supported the proposal to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, the Netherlands' interim cabinet has been forced to prepare for such an action. With a new parliament to be elected on 9 June, the time required to reverse the chain of events it too short, meaning that the redeployment of personnel will begin on 1 August.
By year-end, the majority of Dutch personnel will have returned home. Elements from the air force will remain until the end of the withdrawal period, to deliver continued protection for ground troops, and to provide transport capacity. Some will remain in the country into early 2011 to ensure a smooth transfer of cover, but the Netherlands' ISAF mission will have formally come to an end.
The Royal Netherlands Air Force began its involvement in the Afghanistan mission in 2002 by deploying McDonnell Douglas KDC-10 tanker/transports and Lockheed Martin C-130s. Six of its Lockheed F-16 fighters were also sent to Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan to provide close air support.
The first air force unit to be assigned to ISAF operations was a detachment of six Boeing AH-64D Apache attack helicopters, which operated for an initial one-year period from Kabul international airport. Tasks included supporting ground troops and acting as armed escorts for coalition transport helicopters.
A Dutch government decision to take a more active role in operations in the southern part of Afghanistan then led to the deployment of the Task Force Uruzgan battlegroup, which comprised around 1,200 troops. The air force increased its efforts with a permanent presence of F-16s, AH-64Ds and either Boeing CH-47D Chinook or Eurocopter AS532U2 Cougar transport helicopters. In line with the build-up, the air force also moved its assets closer to the action in Uruzgan province. Its F-16s were first deployed to Kabul, and then on to Kandahar, where they have operated since 2006. An Air Task Force at the base co-ordinates the activities of the service's detachments throughout the region, which currently total more than 400 people.
The RNLAF's F-16s have amassed over 14,000 flight hours above Afghanistan, and suffered the loss of one aircraft and its pilot. The exact cause of the August 2006 crash was not determined, but investigators concluded it could have been the result of vermin such as a camel spider having entered the cockpit.
Apaches provide support for ground troops
Apaches from the air force's 301 Sqn were also moved from Kabul to Kandahar and eventually on to Camp Holland near Tarin Kowt in 2006, and have flown more than 6,000h. One pilot was injured when his aircraft crashed in 2005 following a communication error with his fellow crew member.
Cougar transports from 300 Sqn operate during the cold winter season, typically with a detachment of five aircraft. The more powerful Chinooks of 298 Sqn are responsible for supporting ISAF operations in the summer, normally using three aircraft.
The Cougar force has suffered no major accidents in over 4,000h of duty, but one crew made a precautionary landing at a forward operating base last year after the aircraft was hit by small arms fire. A hired Mil Mi-26 carried the aircraft back to Kandahar, and it will be repaired. Dutch Chinooks have flown fewer hours, but two crashed within a short period in 2005 after their crews got into trouble in difficult terrain. Both aircraft were destroyed, prompting the defence ministry to order new six CH-47Fs, to be delivered this year.
The air force's fixed-wing transports have also been important in supporting the ISAF mission, with its C-130s and KDC-10s having logged thousands of hours in ferrying equipment and personnel between Europe and Afghanistan. The service has also since January 2009 maintained a permanent detachment of one Hercules and 55 personnel at Camp Mirage in the United Arab Emirates. The aircraft is used to move on personnel and supplies which arrive in the region by chartered airliner.
The demands of supporting the Afghanistan campaign have also seen the air force acquire two ex-US Navy C-130Hs. The first of these was accepted in March following an extensive modernisation and upgrade undertaken by Marshall Aerospace in the UK.
Operations in Afghanistan also underlined the importance of aerial reconnaissance in safeguarding troops on the ground. The Dutch deployed their Sagem Sperwer unmanned air vehicle systems, but had too few aircraft and operators to maintain a continuous presence. As a result, the defence ministry contracted Israeli company Aeronautics Defense Systems to fill this capability gap between March 2009 until late 2010 with its Aerostar tactical UAV.
The pending departure of Dutch forces from Afghanistan's southern region represents a headache for NATO and ISAF, but has also sparked a wider debate within the Netherlands about the nation's future ability - and political desire - to conduct deployed military operations. The first answers will be known in less than two months' time.
POLITICAL TURMOIL THREATENS JOINT STRIKE FIGHTER ACQUISITION
Fresh doubt has been cast on the Netherlands' planned purchase of 85 Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters following the collapse of its government.
The search for a multirole replacement for the Lockheed F-16 was launched in 1999, and the defence ministry in 2001 signed a memorandum of understanding to participate in the system development and demonstration phase of the F-35 project.
Its choice was based on six main mission requirements: both offensive and defensive counter-air; air-interdiction; the suppression/destruction of enemy air defences; close air support; and non-traditional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Further MoUs were signed in 2006 to participate in production, sustainment and follow-on development of the JSF, and to collaborate with Italy and Norway in supporting future operations of the type. The defence ministry in 2008 signed up for involvement in initial operational test and evaluation of the F-35, with its commitment to require the purchase of two test aircraft.
© US Air Force
Faced with pressure from the opposition, the government agreed to re-evaluate its choice, seeking fresh information on the Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Advanced F-16 and Saab Gripen NG. The JSF was again selected, and undersecretary of defence Jack de Vries in April 2009 signed for the first conventional take-off and landing test F-35A.
A decision on ordering a second has been postponed until after the election of a new government on 9 June, with a full production commitment not due until 2012.
Even if a right-wing government takes office, the F-35's prospects may not be as bright as before. A recent advisory board report concluded that the air force may need only 50 of the aircraft: sufficient for just two operational squadrons and one training unit.
A deal could be dropped entirely in the event of a left-wing majority, however, with the JSF having been described as too expensive and beyond the operational requirements of the Royal Netherlands Air Force. Such a move would prompt a new contest to replace the F-16.