Opinion

Liberators of the Netherlands in 1945, today Canada's Armed Forces are eclipsed by Dutch military

From the perspective of military capability for defence, peacekeeping and disaster-relief operations, the tide in 2020 has effectively turned between liberator and liberated, writes Robert Smol.

Tide has reversed in terms of military capability for defence, peacekeeping, disaster-relief operations

On the 75th anniversary of the Canadian-led liberation of the Netherlands, the Dutch military — on land, sea, and in the air — is now better equipped and technologically superior to the country that once fought so hard to win back their independence. (Lars Hagberg/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion by Robert Smol. He holds a Master of Arts in War Studies from the Royal Military College and served more than 20 years in the Canadian Armed Forces, retiring as a Captain in the Intelligence Branch.  He is currently studying law in Toronto. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The people of the Netherlands keep the memory of the Canadian-led liberation of their country alive with a celebration every May 5, but here in Canada we should hang our heads in embarrassment as the 75th anniversary is marked this year.

Why? From the perspective of military capability for defence, peacekeeping and disaster-relief operations, the tide in 2020 has effectively turned between liberator and liberated.

Today the Dutch military — on land, sea, and in the air — is better equipped and technologically superior to the country that fought so hard to win back their independence.

Multiple Canadian Army divisions, including hundreds of Canadian-built and manned tanks, fought their way at great cost through the highly urbanized, obstacle-rich Netherlands in 1945.

Fast-forward to 2020, and Canada's mobile land defence is supported by 80 aging Leopard tanks, many of which are second-hand purchases from, yes, the Netherlands!

In this file photo from 1982, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (bottom right) and son Justin (top left) take a ride in a Leopard tank on a visit to Lahr, West Germany. (Peter Bregg/Canadian Press)

Today's Dutch military also complements its newer tanks and armoured vehicles with a fleet of 28 recently upgraded, heavily armed AH-64 Apache Attack Helicopters, forming part of the country's Defence Helicopter Command.

Canada has no attack helicopter capability, and our modern martial weakness relative to our Dutch allies was made obvious during peacekeeping operations in Mali in 2018.

We had to quickly "soup up" our old fleet of unarmed Griffon utility/transport helicopters with improvised machine guns, so that it could have at least some semblance of the combat capability of the heavily armed Dutch and German helicopters we were replacing on that peacekeeping mission.

A Canadian CH-146 Griffon helicopter. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

And when it comes to costly multi-role fighter jets, the Netherlands is also outdoing Canada. While Canada has indefinitely delayed its planned purchase of new F-35 Stealth Fighters, choosing instead to buy old, second-hand F-18s from Australia, the Royal Netherlands Air Force is in the process of replacing its old F-16 jets with 37 new F-35s.

Likewise, when meeting the challenge of protecting ground forces and civilians from air attack, the Dutch are also dominating the sky.

In 2012, the Conservative government under Stephen Harper finally euthanized Canada's sickly ground air-defence capability, retiring the last of our ineffective, outdated air-defence batteries. Canada still hasn't supplied our military with replacements.

Meanwhile, the Dutch military currently has three air defence batteries armed with recently upgraded, American-built MIM-104 Patriot Long Range Surface-to-Air Missiles. An additional three batteries of the Royal Netherlands Army's Air Defence Command operate modern FIM-92 Stinger platforms and NASAMS II Surface-to-Air missiles, as well as supporting airspace monitoring systems.

Out at sea, whether it be destroyers, patrol craft, or support ships, the Royal Netherlands Navy is now protecting the world's 99th longest coastline with different types of recently constructed, better armed and equipped ships, all of which have been built by the Dutch themselves.

Canada, with the largest coastline in the world, has (after incessant delays) built one of six planned lightly armed, not-yet-fully-operational Arctic patrol craft. Quite an event, as it's the first military ship built for Canada in 25 years.

The Royal Canadian Navy's first Arctic and Offshore Patrol Ship, HMCS Harry DeWolf, seen during construction at Irving Shipbuilding's Halifax Shipyard. (The Canadian Press)

Compare that to the Dutch who, in 2013 alone, completed four Holland-Class coastal patrol vessels. Nearly the same number that Canada, a coastal behemoth, feels it needs to secure its maritime martial dignity under the U.S. defence umbrella.

Nonetheless, Canada has commenced bold — at least by Canadian standards — plans to eventually replace its fleet of 12 early 1990s-vintage frigates by the early 2040s (no, that is not a typo), when the oldest Canadian warship will be nearly 50.

Meanwhile, the tiny Netherlands has, in the past few years, been replacing its aging warships, beginning with four modern missile defence destroyers (De Zeven Provincien class vessels) that were completed in 2005 and are being further upgraded.

Missing from Canada's fleet is any equivalent to the two Dutch Rotterdam-Class amphibious transport ships completed in 2007, or their purpose-built joint support ship completed in 2015.

That is, unless you think we should take pride in including the second-hand civilian container ship MV Asterix that Canada has leased and is trying to pass off as a Naval Support Ship.

MV Asterix, the Royal Canadian Navy's supply ship, is seen in the harbour in Halifax in January 2018. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

So to recap, here's where things stand in 2020:

  • Modern, purpose-built naval ships: The Netherlands 11, Canada one.
  • New fighter jets: The Netherlands 37, Canada zero.
  • Originally designed, non-improvised attack helicopters: The Netherlands 28, Canada zero.
  • Operational air defence batteries: The Netherlands six, Canada zero.

But hey, a big thank you to the Dutch for selling us their old tanks, eh!

May 5, 1945. Lest we forget?


Corrections

  • This story originally reported that Canada is building four navy Arctic patrol craft. The Department of National Defence has plans to build six.
    May 08, 2020 9:00 AM ET

About the Author

Robert Smol holds a Master of Arts in War Studies from the Royal Military College and served more than 20 years in the Canadian Armed Forces, retiring as a Captain in the Intelligence Branch. He is currently studying law in Toronto.

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