Forces: The Dutch Defend Their World Empire

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February25, 2007: If Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez made a grab for the Dutch West Indies (specifically the islands of Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire), could the Dutch really do anything about it? The Dutch military is no slouch, having performed peacekeeping missions in the Balkans and has served alongside the U.S. military in Iraq. However, these have been relatively small contingents of land forces as opposed to a major naval-air campaign, which reclaiming those Caribbean islands would entail (see the British effort to reclaim the Falklands in 1982).

The Royal Netherlands Navy is small, but has very good ships. This force carries a lengthy tradition going back centuries, a tradition that includes beating the British at sea many times. Their new De Zeven Provincien-class destroyers are good ships armed with SM-2MR and Evolved Sea Sparrow surface-to-air missiles and Harpoon anti-ship missiles. The eight Karel Doorman-class frigates are also very good vessels as well, armed with Sea Sparrows and Harpoons. There is also a landing platform dock amphibious vessel, the Rotterdam, with a second vessel, the Johan Van Witt, being built. The Royal Netherlands Air Force is also potent, but primarily designed for a war in Europe. It consists of 108 F-16As with a mid-life upgrade, making them very capable against aerial opponents. This is the bulk of their combat power. They have 30 AH-64D Longbow Apaches being delivered, and only three KDC-10F aerial refueling aircraft (comparable to the KC-10) for their entire force. This is a force that has a lot of teeth, but very little tail.

In the event that Venezuela should seize Aruba, Curacao, and/or Bonaire, Chavez will have a lot of places in Venezuela for his Air Force to reach the Dutch islands. The nearest Dutch territory is St. Marteen, which is anywhere from 844 (to Bonaire) to 965 (to Aruba) kilometers from the combat zone. The F-16's range is 2642 kilometers, but that figure is misleading. Combat eats up fuel very rapidly (often due to the use of afterburners), and as a result, the potential combat zone, even with aerial refueling, is at the edge of the F-16's combat radius (usually a third of the aircraft's range - in this case, 880 kilometers). Drop tanks could extend the range, but that means giving up some payload. This is a situation much like what the Luftwaffe faced in 1940 in the Battle of Britain, only this time, it would be an inability to provide sustained air cover for naval vessels as opposed to the inability to properly escort strike aircraft. As Admiral Sir Thomas Phillips, commander of Force Z (HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse), found out in 1941, a naval force sailing under hostile skies has an exciting and short life.

The present Dutch deployment (a battalion of troops and a flight of F-16s over three islands) is small, and a bluff. If Venezuela calls the bluff, the Dutch are in trouble. Even if the Dutch forces were reinforced to include a battalion on each island, and a full squadron of F-16s, they are outnumbered by a potential invasion force. Venezuela has four battalions in their marine corps, plus an airborne regiment and a paratroop regiment. The local F-16s would be outnumbered by the Venezuelan Air Force, which has 15 Mirage 5s, 18 F-16As, and 18 F-5As, with 24 Su-30s on order. Reports of a Venezuelan purchase of MiG-29s appear to have fallen through. The Venezuelan Navy, with six Lupo-class frigates and two Type 209 submarines (plus nine Kilo-class submarines on order), could also create problems for any Dutch effort to recapture the islands.

The Dutch submarine force of four Walrus-class diesel-electric submarines could, in theory, try to interdict Venezuelan oil exports, but they are subject to limitations. The primary limitation is their diesel-electric powerplant, which provides a top speed of 39 kilometers per hour. These subs have a range of 18,520 kilometers, but that is at a speed of 16.7 kilometers per hour. In theory, the range is sufficient, since the distance from Rotterdam to Aruba is 7,860 kilometers. Thus while a Walrus-class sub could hang off Venezuela's major oil export centers, it would soon have to leave its station to return to base and refuel. Any blockade of Venezuela's ports would be more about making Lloyd's of London skittish enough to pull coverage from any ship entering or leaving the ports. Actual damage would be a lot less than imagined due to the strain of operating diesel-electric submarines across the Atlantic, and the very limited time on station, particularly after a speed run. Again, the major question could be whether St. Marteen would be a place where the Dutch could refuel and re-arm submarines.

The Dutch problem can best be described with the words, "not enough". Not enough forces to successfully repel an invasion of Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire; not enough naval power to carry out operations to retake the islands; their fighters do not have enough range; and not enough logistical support to support an operation. They certainly lack the ability to retake the islands on their own should the "Greater Venezuela" rhetoric from the Venezuelan dictator turn out to be for real. However, assistance from NATO allies, especially the United States and Britain, would give the Dutch an edge, and a clear shot at regaining their Caribbean islands. - Harold C. Hutchison (haroldc.hutchison@gmail.com)

 


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