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Sharing European Skies: the Benelux Air Defence Pact

Diminishing defence budgets and shortfalls in European military capabilities are an uncomfortable reality in 2015. Not only is the threat of an aerial terrorist attack a possibility, NATO member aircraft were forced to conduct more than 500 scrambles over Europe in 2014, as was reported by The Guardian. Many defence experts have painted a bleak picture for European airpower; cooperation might be the only way out.

On March 4th 2015 the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg (Benelux) jointly signed a Pact to protect each other’s airspace. From 2016, this will be yet another feather in the cap of European defence cooperation and stands out as the most integrated initiative between European air forces to date.

The Benelux Defence Pact includes the integration of surveillance and monitoring of the complete Benelux airspace against civil aircraft posing a potential terrorist threat and the option to intercept foreign or unidentified military aircraft (both Renegade and Quick Reaction Alert). With this Pact, Dutch officials have the authority to scramble Belgian aircraft into Dutch airspace and vice-versa. Luxembourg has no air force and will only open its air space to its neighbours’ aircraft (Belgium has been fulfilling the QRA-task so far), however excluding the use of deadly force in its airspace. The Benelux Air Defence Pact is an example of trilateral cooperation further enhancing the pooling and sharing of aerial assets, however, does it represent a step forward in European defence cooperation?

Impact to European defence cooperation – a way forward?

Air policing is a capability that demands cooperation, but needs the necessary political will for the concession and sharing of sovereignty in extreme security situations. Under such intensive cooperation, it is for example essential for there to be agreement on legal consequences and liability. As Dutch Air force Lieutenant-General Schnitger noted, the success of the cooperation between the Benelux air forces is down to (personal) trust and (political) willingness. There has been, in this case, abundant political support to extend the long standing cooperation and further the air staff integration. Moreover, the air forces are comparable in size and share the same culture, making enhanced cooperation a natural endeavour.

Moreover, under current financial limitations (Belgium for example is in the throes of cutting €401 million from its €2.5 billion defence budget), it could be argued that the cooperation also serves to relieve financial and material strains on capabilities. As stated by the Dutch Ministry of Defence,  this Pact does presents a significant advantage: “because the air monitoring task is performed in rotation, it is no longer necessary to have two fighters in the Netherlands permanently on standby”. Consequently, this would free-up more fighter planes for missions, for example, in Iraq.

Essentially, the Pact is not a new concept as there have been joint air policing initiatives within the NATO framework before. The Benelux agreement however is a novelty in European defence cooperation because it is the first time countries have agreed that a foreign air force may operate and potentially shoot down a civilian aircraft over their territory. Moreover, the Benelux cooperation might create a new paradigm for other EU member states to re-assess their own structural air force cooperation initiatives. Defence ministers from the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary have been discussing comparable plans for cooperation. These, however, are still in their embryonic stages and far from implementation.

The Benelux experience might ultimately prove to be a standard blueprint in the future. As is understood by military leaders; international cooperation in pooling and sharing is all about complementing to each other’s capabilities, creating more with less. This specific cooperation was ultimately motivated by the need to maintain a specific capability and financial constraints. The Benelux Defence Pact serves as a positive example of what can be done when respective political and military leaders step past the tedious debate on national sovereignty. As much as there is trust, willingness to cooperate and an urge to maintain essential capabilities on the military level; European leaders still hesitate to concede sovereignty. However, the fast-paced nature of security developments on Europe’s borders might not wait for lengthy sovereignty discussions.


Karlijn Jans –EU Policy Advisor at the Netherlands Organisation of Applied Scientific Research and is chairwoman of the Dutch Atlantic Youth


Karlijn Jans

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