Center for Strategic Decision Research


New Forms of Military Cooperation In Europe:
The Belgian Example

Jean-Pol Poncelet
Belgian Minister of Defense

Belgium has a long and deep-rooted tradition in military cooperation with other countries. My country's size and history as well as its geographical location have made such cooperation a necessity. I would like to begin by describing the different types of cooperation Belgian armed forces have developed with armed forces of other countries and then comment on some of the lessons learned from these experiences as well as draw some conclusions for the future. Because Belgium's participation in the Alliance and WEU is very much the same as that of the other member-states, I will focus my remarks on Belgium's bilateral and trilateral military endeavors.


After World War II, cooperation was first initiated with the other two Benelux countries, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Since that time, Benelux has always been a laboratory where cooperation in various fields could be tested before being extended to a greater number of states.

As part of Benelux, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium share basically the same ideas concerning security and the role and functions of the armed forces. One basic principle is that the armed forces of each Benelux country must keep their own specificities and may decide on some strategic options individually according to their own priorities. Belgium, for example, with the Luxemburg contingent integrated into the First Belgian Mechanical Division, joined the European Army Corps--the Eurocorps--while the Netherlands integrated with the German-Dutch Army Corps.

Another basic principle that the Benelux countries share is that no specialization of military tasks may take place. Specialization would compel each country to make harsh choices about who should do what and with what kind of equipment. And since all armed forces naturally seek to privilege those tasks involving high technology and highly skilled manpower that greatly benefit their country's economy, no country would wish to take on the less-capital-intensive tasks. Also, specialization would vary the degree of risk undertaken during the different types of military operations, and we believe that we must all share the burden equally and fairly. Finally, we agree that each government and parliament must have full sovereignty to decide about military matters--whether or not to participate in them and, if so, how. While we believe specialization would hinder rather than help military cooperation, a significant segment of the population still argues its case, believing mistakenly that it would produce budgetary savings.

Cooperative Ventures

My colleague Joris Voorhoeve, Defense Minister of the Netherlands, was recently invited by the Defense Committee of the Belgian parliament to explain the restructuring of the Dutch armed forces. In his talks he confirmed that the Netherlands shares the view that their armed forces must be prepared to execute both defense and security tasks, which implies the need for a great variety of equipment. But how can we effectively ensure our national sovereignty within the limitations of our budgetary means? The Benelux countries have chosen to tackle the issue pragmatically, and task sharing seems the most promising way to cooperate.

As part of their joint efforts, the three Benelux countries' army, navy, and air force identified areas where they can complement each other. For instance, since the Dutch Air Force has only a few transport aircraft, Belgium can put its fleet of 12 C-130 Hercules at the disposal of the Dutch army. In return, the Dutch Air Force can handle the air-refueling of Belgian fighter aircraft during missions and the Luxembourg army can protect the airfields. All Benelux country forces are also trying to take advantage of existing similarities in equipment to develop common technical and operational capacities and to promote training and operations in common. Under the so-called Admiral Benelux agreement of 1996, the Dutch and Belgian navies have been brought under an integrated command.

Successful Operations

How have our bilateral and trilateral cooperative efforts worked in actuality? From November 1994 to March 1995, a Belgian-Dutch Military Police Monitoring Unit took part in the U.N.'s "Columbus Operation" in Haiti. The armed forces of the three Benelux countries also took part in peacekeeping operations in the former Yugoslavia: Belgian Blue Helmets were present in Eastern Slavonia while other Belgian troops took part in IFOR-SFOR operations alongside Dutch and Luxemburg troops. This was a unique opportunity to test the interoperability of our armed forces. Belgian F-16 fighter aircraft joined the Dutch F-16 squadron in Villafranca, Italy, and provided air control and close air support to IFOR and SFOR. Belgian and Luxemburg troops also worked together in Bosnia-Herzegovina in a transport unit, in the BELUGA Group, jointly with Austrians and Greeks in the first multinational military unit ever integrated at such a low level. Additionally, a Dutch frigate under "Admiral Benelux" command was sent to the Persian Gulf as part of the Multinational Interception Force (MIF).


Belgian armed forces have also been involved in military operations without their Benelux partners. Belgian paratroopers took part in rescue operations in Congo-Brazzaville and a Belgian medical team participated in the Alba mission in Albania. The first of these operations was the consequence of the historical links between Belgium and Central Africa; the second was above all a political gesture of European solidarity. These missions are just two examples of the need for countries to be able to act autonomously.


Like other bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral military cooperation efforts developing in Europe, the cooperative Benelux military operations are somehow only substitutes for credible European military cooperation within the framework of WEU. I consider such efforts as only second-best solutions because they run the risk of renationalizing security and defense policies in Europe. Joint military endeavors are undoubtedly useful and can be successful, but they should not remain the only approach.

From our own experience, we see the need for every country to preserve its capacity to act autonomously when confronted with crisis situations and to man its operational headquarters appropriately and within its means. Countries the size of Belgium will need to maintain more operational headquarters than larger countries, resulting in higher personnel and equipment expenses than larger countries incur. Smaller armed forces do not realize the savings that large-scale operations do, but still must provide all essential staff functions and departments.

I also want to stress the need for better sharing of Alliance capacities. In a period when the sense of danger and imminent threat is perceived by the population as greatly lessened, military expenses are rather unpopular. So the means and capacities of the Alliance should be used most effectively. Why, for example, when facing a crisis, couldn't all member-states have access to Alliance intelligence or logistic support? This is the underlying philosophy of the CJTF concept, and it seems we should be able to find a way to extend it to individual countries or groups of countries.

I would also like to express my concern about the organizing of military coordination in crisis situations when no nation can naturally take the lead. During the crisis in Zaïre, the Belgian Chief of Defense organized a successful coordination meeting between the different operational authorities of the countries providing ground troops. This meeting was the first of its kind. I would like to suggest that for the future we draw up a list of people within each Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Defense who can be contacted in a crisis situation to quickly set up steering committees, since countries like Belgium do not have military attachés everywhere. Another suggestion would be that when the need for an evacuation operation arises, a joint committee of the countries taking part in the operation could meet as soon as possible under the framework of NATO.


During my relatively short tenure as Belgium's Minister of Defense, I have experienced a new political sensitivity voiced by both the population and parliament. As Minister of Defense, I must govern in accordance with their wishes, and that means drastically limiting military expenses but at the same time keeping our armed forces ready to take part in all kinds of peacekeeping operations--sometimes in different places at the same time--and being prepared to conduct Article 5 missions. For countries the size of Belgium, this represents an enormous challenge.

Multilateral cooperation is the only solution. But cooperation implies solidarity, transparency, and respect for each country's specificities, and smaller countries face constraints that are a result of their size. However, no one should disregard the contributions that small countries can make. Navies need towboats as much as aircraft carriers. In addition, small size can be an asset in preventive diplomacy, since small countries are often perceived as neutral, not hegemonistic.

To conclude, I quote the famous French fabulist Jean de la Fontaine in his story about the lion and the rat: "On a souvent besoin d'un plus petit que soi" or "One is often in need of someone smaller than oneself."


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