From September 19 to September 21, over one hundred German and eight Dutch generals of both land forces gathered in Dresden for the annual Generalstagung des Heeres. This year’s main theme was the Zeitenwende and its implications for land forces. Lieutenant-general Martin Wijnen was invited to address the audience with the below keynote speech to reflect on this matter and how it affects the Royal Netherlands Army specifically.[1]

Lieutenant general Martijn Wijnen watches as Inspekteur des Heeres lieutenant general Alfons Mais (second from right), hands over the troop banner of the Dutch 13th Light Brigade to the commander of 10e Panzerdivision, general major Ruprecht von Butler. Photo Bundeswehr, Mario Bähr

'Over the past decades, the German and Dutch land forces have come a long way together. Although we always strive for the better, I believe it is vital sometimes to take a step back and reflect on what we have achieved together. For instance, since the last Generalstagung, Inspekteur Heer and I have signed the Common Army Vision, a true milestone. In March this year, we have seen the first concrete outcome of this Common Army Vision with the integration of the Dutch 13th Light Brigade into the 10e Panzerdivision. On this occasion I would like to address why it is crucial to continue our fruitful cooperation, especially in times of major change.

And major change there has been. Over the last ten years we have seen a negative trend in  global threat assessment. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union we have lived in a unipolar rules-based world order, led by the United States of America. However, in the past decade, roughly, several states, such as China and the Russian Federation, have been challenging the status quo. We now see a multipolar world order emerging, with more competition and distrust among states. Combined with exponential and developing technological developments and many other factors, threats have become more severe and less predictable. This all accumulated into what Bundeskanzler Scholz has called ‘a watershed moment in the history of our continent’. The Russian invasion of Ukraine of February 24, 2022, marked a historic turning point. We never thought it would happen, but the reality is that full-scale war has returned to the European continent. Less than a day’s drive away from here, Ukrainians are fighting for their lives and for their country’s very existence. The war in Ukraine has proven to be a wake-up call for Western countries. Germany is among the leading countries after the now famous Zeitenwende speech of the Bundeskanzler. With historic investments in defence, the revitalization of the Bundeswehr and a pledge for more European cooperation, Germany enters a new phase in its foreign and security policy.

Although less historic, the Netherlands, too, has seen a significant change in its foreign and security policy. Our armed forces have three main tasks. First, to defend our own territory and that of our allies, second, to protect and promote the international rule of law and stability, and third, to support the government in law enforcement, humanitarian aid and disaster relief. For us, too, the focus has shifted to the first main task of territorial defence, although we must not forget the other two tasks. That is one reason why the Dutch Parliament agreed to major investments in the Netherlands armed forces after years of budget cuts. And not only does our Parliament find it necessary to invest in our security and defence; the Dutch society feels the same. People realize the world is not as safe as it used to be. Therefore, in the coming parliamentary elections in November this year, it is important for the Royal Netherlands Army that the 2% NATO norm will be established and that the Ministry of Defence will secure funds for the necessary enhancement of our combat power. More specifically, there is a need for investing in the fire power and protection of the Heavy Infantry Brigade and Medium Infantry Brigade, as well as in deep precision strike ammunition for the Rocket Artillery – including the required combat support and combat service support to enhance combat power.

This momentum for defence investments is a turnaround from years of low societal and political support for the Netherlands armed forces. In other European countries we see similar developments. Therefore, I feel the Zeitenwende also stands for a larger paradigm shift. European and NATO countries are acknowledging that the world has become less safe, that the Russian Federation poses a serious threat to our security and that investments in the armed forces are essential. We also recognize that we should work together to take effective action. Therefore, I believe the Zeitenwende is a shift in the way we should see our collective responsibility for security.

In retrospect, Russian President Putin’s calculated move to invade Ukraine was partly based on the assumption that NATO and the EU were facing internal divisions and weakened cohesion. However, what happened was exactly the opposite. In the face of adversity, the West demonstrated unity in support of Ukraine. We joined forces to provide materiel support, offer training to Ukrainian forces, and stand shoulder-to-shoulder in defence of our common values. Finland and Sweden became NATO members. At the same time, many European countries have increased their defence budgets. The enhanced Forward Presence in Eastern Europe was expanded. Furthermore, NATO took the wake-up call seriously and responded with the new NATO Force Model: A new plan for our collective defence, including the troops to task – something we have not done since the end of the Cold War. This cohesion not only surprised the Kremlin, but it also underlined the resilience of trans-Atlantic and European cooperation.

Before elaborating on the importance of international cooperation and German-Netherlands cooperation in particular, I would like to provide more insight into the response of the Royal Netherlands Army to the pivotal geopolitical changes. This response is two-fold.

Firstly, we place a renewed emphasis on being warfighting capable. Warfighting was our main focus until its relevance waned after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Then, for years, our attention had been directed towards the so-called ‘wars of choice’ and upholding the international rule of law. But times have changed. We must adapt accordingly and very quickly as well. The new geopolitical situation forces us to be warfighting capable again, as conventional war is once more a plausible scenario. This new situation necessitates a major change in mindset. A mindset that challenges us to consider the possibility of significant losses in both personnel and materiel. A mindset that supports the mastery of terrain and the overcoming of physical obstacles. A mindset that allows leaders to navigate through uncertainty and maintain operational effectiveness. A mindset to create synergy among all branches of the military, joint forces, and combined arms to achieve victory. It is almost symbolic of our departure from our former priorities – a watershed if you will – that our 13th Light Brigade recently took the initiative to construct trenches near one of our bases for training purposes. For warfighting!

Members of the Dutch 13th Light Brigade during a mortar fire exercise: ‘We place a renewed emphasis on being warfighting capable’.  Photo MCD, Christian Schik

The ability to think and act within larger formations is critical in conventional warfighting scenarios. The Royal Netherlands Army is relatively small, however, and has no units larger than brigade size. Therefore, we are working on providing both qualitative and quantitative Brigade Combat Teams that can seamlessly integrate into the German divisions. This works both ways. The Royal Netherlands Army gains valuable experience in fighting in larger formations by participating in training and exercises at division level. And more importantly, it allows us to collectively contribute to the combat power that NATO requires, for instance, for the Regional Plans.

The second part of the response of the Royal Netherlands Army to global developments is our Transformation Programme. The changing world demands a new and more flexible approach to the way we organize our land forces. And so, our transformation is pivotal in adapting to the challenges we are facing. Fortunately, this transformation is possible due to the growth of the Dutch Defence budget and is also accounted for in the Defence White Paper 2022.

The extra investments will allow us to repair and reinforce our organization. The new investments allow us to build warfighting capable capabilities that are compact and built from the bottom up. Capabilities that are complete- and consist of the necessary combat, combat support and combat service support elementsas well as capabilities that are competitive, and up to the task. Compact, complete and competitive, that is to say:  warfighting capable.

The plans for our transformation are as follows. Firstly, we continue our efforts to resolve persistent issues, and thus to secure a solid base. We must put the foundation of our organisation in order. Our main problems include shortages of ammunition and of spare parts necessary for maintenance. Additionally, the overdue maintenance of our barracks requires attention, as does the need for modernization of the IT infrastructure. Perhaps most importantly, our land forces are plagued by personnel shortages, while at the same time  there are numerous unfilled vacancies. I have been trying to resolve these issues ever since I took over command of the Royal Netherlands Army four years ago. We are pleased to finally be able to take major steps in settling these issues. Our hard-working soldiers and civilian personnel deserve that.

While the resolution of persistent issues is going on, our organization will undergo thorough change. It will transform. Our Transformation Programme consists of six elements. Each represents a crucial facet in the process to strengthen and modernize the Royal Netherlands Army.

First and foremost, specialization is the cornerstone of our transformation. We are restructuring our units around three core capabilities: the Special Operations Forces/Rapid Reaction Command, the Medium Infantry Command, and the Heavy Infantry Command. These commands are designed to operate independently, equipped with their own combat support, logistical capacities, and even their fire support capabilities. So, we are combining training, exercises, and knowledge development into a coherent whole. This provides us with three complete and highly specialized brigades that we can make available for the German divisions.

Lieutenant general Wijnen on further cooperation with the Bundeswehr: ‘Our partnership is all the more important in the world we live in today. With the myriad of threats and distrust between states, it is essential to have a likeminded partner’.  Photo Presse- und Informationszentrum des Heeres, Stabsfeldwebel Carl Schulze

The second pillar centres on scalability. Our commands will consist of modular building blocks. These modules, such as Combined Arms Teams, Battalion Task Groups, and Brigade Combat Teams, comply with NATO standards. This ensures the interoperability with our international partners in general and with the German Army in particular, of course.

The third pillar is a layered approach to personnel management and human resources, creating a flexible workforce in which non-operational personnel can be rapidly replaced to enhance the main core of operationally deployed personnel. The employment of reservists is also set to expand, and we will call upon civilian capabilities through public-private ecosystems.      

The fourth pillar involves regional concentration and sustainability, a strategic move that aligns with our commitment to renewing our aging barracks and infrastructure. All units of each command will be geographically grouped, which will further enhance cooperation and the earlier mentioned specialization in Light, Medium and Heavy capabilities. This will also reduce the need for frequent personnel relocations.

Modernization forms the fifth pillar of our transformation. In the coming years we will replace nearly all our wheeled and tracked vehicles and perform Mid-Life Updates. We will invest in C4I infrastructure, intelligence and cyber and electronic warfare capabilities. And we will intensify our fire support with rocket artillery – earlier this year we signed the contract for the PULS system. We will also delve deeper into unmanned systems, artificial intelligence, and anti-drone capabilities. All these efforts are aimed at enabling the Royal Netherlands Army to do more with almost the same personnel complement.

Finally, the sixth pillar involves cooperation, which is a critical component of our transformation. We are emphasizing our commitment to partnerships both within and outside the military. Within the Netherlands, we are working closely with civilian authorities, the business community and knowledge institutes. Internationally, we work together with our strategic partners. Our goal is to mutually reinforce one another.

This brings us to our German-Netherlands cooperation. Our partnership is all the more important in the world we live in today. With the myriad of threats and distrust between states, it is essential to have a likeminded partner. We make each other stronger. We have therefore expanded our cooperation into integration. We move from interoperability to interchangeability, as we do, for instance, by buying the same Air Assault vehicle. We learn from our experiences and build on that. The Royal Netherlands Army deems it very important to be a reliable and trustworthy partner through all this. We feel the responsibility and we take action. Our transformation, for instance, is aimed at building full and complete brigades, integrated in the German divisions.

There is consensus in the West that furthering defence cooperation is a necessary step to reinforce NATO and to improve security on the European continent. The new NATO Force Model, too, emphasizes multinational cooperation. Member nations can improve collective defence by pooling resources and expertise in order to develop combined capabilities. Another way of furthering defence cooperation, is – by strengthening existing partnerships and cooperation formats, such as The German-Netherlands cooperation.

This partnership goes back many years. In 1995, 1st German/Netherlands Corps in Münster was founded. Thirty years on, the German-Netherlands cooperation has become a unique example of international military cooperation. To put it simply: it just works.

The integration of the Dutch lion and German eagle into a binational griffin has been a dynamic process. In 2005, we signed our first Army Vision, laying the groundwork for us to move from cooperation to integration and interoperability. Our lighthouse projects, such as Musketeer, Taurus, and Apollo in the Air Defence domain served as catalysts. We put our cooperation to the test with our bilateral troop contributions to the EUBG and the NRF. Our contributions in Afghanistan and Mali were also truly joint/combined efforts, as was the case in Iraq, including next year’s deployment for NMI led by the Netherlands. Furthermore, over the years we have exchanged personnel between our staffs. We are currently looking into the possibility of making this exchange more structural. Moreover, barely five years after integrating the 43rd Mechanized Brigade into the 1st Panzerdivision, we deployed our combined tank battalion 414 as the backbone of the enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup in Lithuania. As we will do next year, with a Dutch battalion commander. It is a testimony of our achieved level of integration.

A Leopard tank from the German-Dutch 414 Armoured Battalion crosses the training area during Eager Leopard 2021 near Pabrade: ‘We deployed our combined tank battalion 414 as the backbone of the enhanced Forward Presence Battlegroup in Lithuania (…) It is a testimony of our achieved level of integration’. Photo NATO

Still, we continue to deepen our cooperation. One could argue we entered unprecedented territory, when in November 2022, General Mais and I signed the Common Army Vision, a vision shared by two armies and the foundation for our future cooperation. The guiding principle for our deeper integration is that we ‘organize as we fight’. Concretely, we have identified five fields of action.

Firstly, our armies will synchronize their force structures by developing light, medium and heavy units. We will also align structures and procedures with regard to combat support and combat service support. This makes it easier to integrate units into each other’s systems.

Secondly, we develop a binational, consistent chain of command with harmonized procedures and interoperable, if not interchangeable, systems, thus creating unity of command.

Thirdly, we strive for unity of thinking by synchronizing the knowledge development of our armies, for instance, in developing common doctrine and training fundamentals. By doing this, we develop our forces based on common concepts so that compatibility is ensured.

Fourthly, we align our operational requirements and national procurement processes. It is our intention to procure identical, or at least compatible, systems, always with an eye for balance between our national defence industries. The mantra ‘What is good enough for a German soldier is good enough for a Dutch soldier, and vice versa’ would apply to describe the clear advantages of this cooperation.

And lastly, together, we will redefine the role of 1GNC as our shared tactical command and control capability within NATO’s force structure. This way, NATO requirements as well as national requirements are taken into account.

All these measures together enable us for our common task of collective defence. It prepares us for warfighting against a peer competitor. It prepares us for our shared mission on the Eastern flank of Europe within the new NATO Force Model and its Regional Plans. Although these plans are still under construction, the outlines are already clear. We must be ready, as this is not a war of choice. It is a war of necessity. By working together in the Alliance and cooperating effectively, we ensure European security. And we will continue our support for Ukraine. Together, shoulder to shoulder.

In conclusion, the times we live in demand a new approach to security and defence. We must recognize the multipolar nature of our world and the increasing competition among states. We must remain vigilant in the face of unpredictable threats. We must adapt to new challenges swiftly and effectively. In such an increasingly unsafe and unpredictable world, partnership and trust are key. No one can do it alone, especially in times of crisis. And so, international cooperation is the future of defence, within NATO and within Europe, just like the Zeitenwende stipulates. Our German-Netherlands partnership is exemplary. It is a lighthouse project that will indeed continue to require a lot of work. But it is worth it, because together we are stronger. We show our allies that cooperation is the best option. And we can be proud of that.'


[1]  This publication is a slight adaptation of the speech given. It has been altered for ease of reading only.  

Over de auteur(s)

Luitenant-generaal Martin Wijnen MMAS

Luitenant-generaal Martijn Wijnen is Commandant der Landstrijdkrachten.