In Brief: The Netherlands’ De Zeven Provinciën class frigates

N.R. Jenzen-Jones

HNLMS Evertsen on patrol off the Horn of Africa, as part of  NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield.

HNLMS Evertsen is one of four De Zeven Provinciën class air defence and command frigates in service with the Royal Netherlands Navy (Koninklijke Marine). Evertsen is the youngest of the four, having been completed in 2003 and commissioned in 2005. These ships superseded the two smaller Tromp class frigates, decommissioned in 1999 and 2001. Despite being classified by the Netherlands Navy as frigates, their displacement (6,050 tonnes), complement (202 + 30 aircrew), and role make them comparable to many destroyers. They are similar in these respects to the RAN’s planned Hobart-class Air Warfare Destroyers (AWD).  The Netherlands Navy also intends to use the De Zeven Provinciën class in a limited Ballistic Missile Defence (BMD) role, having recently awarded a contract for modification of the ships’ Thales SMART-L and APAR radars. According to an article in January’s Proceedings magazine, these modifications are expected to be complete by late 2017. It should be noted that the currently planned modifications only endow the class with the capability to detect and track ballistic missile threats, and do not provide for surface-to-air interceptor missiles.

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Will Australia go to war in Libya?

As I write this, my RSS feeds and Twitter timeline tick over with reports of fierce fighting between Libyan and rebel forces, news of the Paris summit for world leaders, and speculation on the fighting to come. Gaddafi has undeniably broken his own ceasefire. A Libyan warplane has been shot down. This will get messier still with the involvement of foreign forces, not only from enforcing a no-fly zone but also from the ground level troops required to provide tactical intelligence in support of air assets.

With Britain, the US, Canada, France, Spain, Denmark and the UAE readying their fighter jets for the Mediterranean, I can’t help but wonder when Australia’s military will be dragged into the fight for Libya.

Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd today ruled out the possibility of RAAF aircraft being used to enforce the no-fly zone, however I’m still not convinced that denies future involvement of Australian forces in other Libya-related operations. The Australian public would be forgiven for resisting the thought of sending our troops on other far-flung coalition conflicts, but best we consider the possibility now, and there are a couple.

The first and most likely of these scenarios involves Australian troops deployed as a part of an international stabilisation force after Gaddafi’s forces are pushed back swiftly. Both Foreign and Defence Ministers Rudd and Stephen Smith are correct in pointing out that this is a matter ostensibly for NATO, however, as part of a UN or coalition mission, Australia may be requested to send troops.

The second and more ominous scenario envisages a more protracted engagement with NATO and other foreign troops. President Obama will have to make good on his promise that military action will ensue if a cease-fire is not immediate; given Gaddafi is currently pushing into Benghazi, I’d say the President has few choices. While President Obama has asked for military action to exempt ground forces and be “finite”, there is still the possibility that the situation in Libya could take a turn for the worst. The UN resolution, based on Chapter 7 provisions on the responsibility to protect, mandates the protection of Libyan civilians; the door is left open for a more active intervention. In this scenario, although considerably less likely, Australian troops may contribute a small contingent for heavier fighting and more surgical tasks.

While crystal-ball gazing is an undertaking fraught with danger (and I’m happy to be wrong on these points), perhaps the Australian public, wary of political underselling of conflicts such as Afghanistan, should begin considering whether some 70 years later there might be a second coming of the Rats of Tobruk.

Photo courtesy of AFP.

NATO-ASEAN relations: let’s get serious for a moment

A few weeks ago I attended a presentation by NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Claudio Bisogniero during his recent visit to Australia. At its essence, his presentation “NATO in a Globalised World” at ANU (podcast here) was an opportunity to present NATO’s new Strategic Concept (PDF) and elaborate its components to an audience of strategic and foreign policy scholars and students.

With the next day’s headline “NATO wants closer links with Asia-Pacific”, one could be forgiven for thinking that in the course of his speech, he had heralded a new relationship with Asian states. And yet, in the course of articulating NATO’s perception of the 21st century security terrain and its response, his Excellency made only fleeting references to Southeast Asia as one of several “hotbeds for organised crime, … trafficking of people, weapons and narcotics” and also terrorist threats from groups such as al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah.

Why should this matter? Because the Ambassador’s repeated mentions of not only the interconnectedness of security threats and the related requirement for “cooperative security” but also the current context of severe constraints to NATO member states’ defence spending places it squarely within the purview of NATO’s articulated strategic interests. The dual emphasis on closer cooperation and spending pragmatism served as suitable grounds for opening greater partnerships with Southeast Asian states. The degree to which NATO engages Southeast Asia is another matter; one that should be determined by the extent to which common security issues between the groupings are of strategic priority.

If Southeast Asia is a region of fragile states and, in NATO’s assessment, susceptible to be a hotbed for terrorist threats, it follows that preventive measures such as engaging ASEAN more actively are warranted. Under article 30 of the new Strategic Concept, NATO will enhance partnerships through political dialogue, practical cooperation, and consultation on issues of common concern. Albeit an extreme example, given the quandary in which NATO has found itself  in Afghanistan on the grounds of denying international terrorists safe havens, it may be prudent to foster a framework of cooperation with ASEAN now.

While relations with NATO could potentially develop bilaterally, on transnational issues such as terrorism and piracy that concern more sensitive issues like sovereignty, it would be best to encourage a ‘softly softly’ consensus approach in line with the so-called ‘ASEAN way’. There are a number of other security issues on which NATO and ASEAN could find common ground; for one, whither the changing geo-strategic environment in light of China’s rise?

I argue that NATO-ASEAN meetings are a more appropriate forum for handling security threats than the more established Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM). ASEM is a 45-member forum that handles political matters, security and the economy, and education and culture; such a broad agenda between so many members is unlikely to reach substantial progress on more difficult questions of security cooperation. Although there were sessions on piracy at sea and counter-terrorism at the 2010 ASEM summit, it is doubtful that practical outcomes and progress on substantive issues were achieved (for interested readers, you can find the respective piracy and counter-terrorism concept papers (PDF) here and here).

Lastly, my friend Raoul Heinrichs suggested to me that perhaps historical ambivalence between NATO and SEATO (ASEAN’s de facto predecessor) could play into the reluctance of NATO to engage the grouping. However, it seems to me that, whatever the case, historical ambivalence or not, if NATO is serious not only about putting the rhetoric of cooperative security into practice but also achieving its goals in the context of fiscal restraint, it should be thinking about ASEAN in a much more explicit manner.

Readers, over to you.