The BENELUX Deployable Air TAsk Force
A Model for EU/NATO Defense Force Integration

Lt Col Dave L. Orr, USAF

Wilaya 4
Armée française



En français


Belgium and Luxembourg formed the Benelux Deployable Air Task Force (DATF) in September 1996 in an effort to optimize the effect of their limited defense resources. Components of the Belgium and Netherlands air forces were combined with a tailored Luxembourg security force to form the Benelux DATF- viable, highly specialized packages to support the gamut of military operations. Current security themes in the European Union (EU) and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) focus on the formation of corps-sized task forces that emphasize "long-range application of force, deployability, sustainability, and effective engagement" in peacekeeping and peacemaking missions throughout and beyond the US European Command (EUCOM) area of responsibility (AOR).1 In achieving this vision, European member nations seek to organize their individual capabilities through bilateral and multilateral arrangements to form specialized task forces. The Benelux DATF has been a model that illustrates the positive effects that achieving interoperability within multilateral coalition resources has on increased capability for military roles and missions. This article describes the DATF’s organization and its possible future role in NATO and an EU Rapid Reaction Force (EU RRF). It also compares the NATO goal of formally integrating member-nation assets with those of the DATF example, which merely pools capabilities for greater effect. Despite the 2002 Prague Summit’s repeated commitment to leverage military technologies and field an EU RRF in 2003, NATO and EU-member defense budgets have continued to decline. That decline pressures these nations to pool their combat and support assets within multinational task forces to be able to field a military capability that can successfully serve in future contingencies.

Benelux DATF Origins- 
Developing an EU Military Identity

Since the inception of NATO, and most notably with the growth of a military structure within the EU, European nations have sought multinational cooperation in building defense forces. NATO’s struggle with interoperability and burden sharing has continued in recent years due to the divergence in defense budgets and the resulting differences in military capabilities between the United States and the other members of NATO. The United States has been called on, during most post–Cold War missions, to provide all strategic airlift, intelligence gathering, and the preponderance of logistics and airpower; the other NATO members carried out "manpower-intensive tasks such as long-term peacekeeping."2 In the 1990s, the EU expanded its focus from economic interoperability to aggressively explore the development of European military capabilities. Initially, initiatives such as Combined Joint Task Forces (CJTF) and the European Security and Defence Identity (ESDI) were collaborative ventures with NATO. The CJTF organization enabled the EU to use NATO resources for peacekeeping operations without US involvement. During the approval of this concept in June 1996, President Jacques Chirac of France termed this multinational pooling of European assets as "separable but not separate forces."3 The Eurocorps was a formal example of this effort to integrate NATO assets into a multinational force. The Eurocorps includes forces from Germany, Belgium, Spain, France, and Luxembourg and maintains a permanent headquarters to execute NATO- or EU-directed missions.4 The Eurocorps participated in NATO operations in Bosnia and Kosovo, and its headquarters commanded the Kosovo Force from March to October 2000.5

EU’s drive to develop military capabilities continued with its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). With a vision to build a distinct military organization- separate from NATO- the CFSP sought a greater commitment from EU member nations and expected them to relegate some sovereignty over their military resources.6 The Benelux DATF and other bilateral and multilateral arrangements were forged during the effort in the mid-1990s to build multinational cooperation between NATO and EU members.

Benelux DATF:
Organization and Execution

Cooperation between the Netherlands and Belgium air forces was already strong before formally joining the DATF. They had developed comparable military capabilities, and their common NATO history and culture had allowed them to effectively participate together in military exercises. The precedent of their long-standing naval-command relationship, which placed the Netherland naval command over both navies during crisis situations, was not followed by the DATF. The air forces simply agreed to pool all types of military equipment and weapons systems for DATF use.7 A planning cell was activated in February 1996 as a precursor to the actual DATF enactment the following September. The cell developed the deployable force concept, which led to the inclusion of the Luxembourg army to provide deployed security. At this time, the DATF was unique because it extended military cooperation beyond the NATO model of matching systems. While NATO was the springboard for international cooperation, it focused on system interoperability and commonality to best integrate its multinational assets. The DATF took advantage of the Belgian and Dutch cultural similarities and extended its capabilities to include command and control, logistics, transportation, and operational planning.8 The DATF’s success in Operations Joint Forge and Allied Force showcased its capabilities in actual combat operations.

The DATF assumed both combat operations and combat support responsibilities in Operation Joint Forge. The Dutch and Belgians staffed intelligence and operational planning cells, security patrols, maintenance shops, and all flight-line specialties. Although Dutch and Belgian pilots flew their own air force’s F-16s, close cooperation existed between the operations and maintenance units. Both air forces had accomplished aircraft and weapons upgrades on identical schedules, so the aircraft were completely interoperable. This allowed DATF pilots to plan their missions together and enabled maintenance specialists to pool their expertise for solving system anomalies. This enhanced flight-line operations and generated higher mission-capable rates for both forces. Based on its success in Joint Forge, the DATF was tasked for a greater role in Operation Allied Force. The DATF deployed a total of 32 F-16 aircraft and 520 personnel to Amendola AB, Italy, in support of the NATO operation against Slobodan Milosevic.9 The Luxembourg army, as planned, provided over 100 security personnel to protect the DATF. During the 78-day air campaign from 24 March to 10 June 1999, the DATF flew 11.6 percent of all allied fighter missions and maintained a 95 percent mission-capable rate for the duration of the war.10 The DATF flew every type of mission called for by Supreme Allied Commander, Europe (SACEUR [NATO]) , including defensive counterair, night attack, and reconnaissance. Because the DATF F-16s were equipped with targeting pods, they were the only aircraft other than those of the United States and Great Britain to expend laser-guided munitions during the conflict. Their low-altitude navigation and targeting infrared for night (LANTIRN) system provided NATO planners additional night-attack precision-weapon capabilities.11 Since Allied Force, the DATF has continued to rotate forces in Bosnia and has conducted seven multilateral exercises with NATO and EU partners to enhance their interoperability in future integrated rapid-response forces. Denmark is negotiating to join the DATF, and its fleets of F-16s and C-130s are already compatible with the DATF platforms. Their cultural similarities would permit an easy and logical integration of shared resources to further increase the capability of the DATF for peacekeeping or peacemaking operations.

In addition to the original DATF, the Netherlands and Belgian armed forces are involved in other bilateral and multinational agreements to pool scarce defense assets. The Belgian-Portuguese DATF was formed in 2000 and combines the elements of each country’s C-130 fleet for intratheater lift and airdrop missions. The force has served NATO in Macedonia and conducts routine exercises to increase interoperability.12 Belgium also served as the lead NATO trainer for C-130H crews in the mid-1990s and trains a significant number of allied airmen in the F-16. Finally, the Belgian military has taken the lead to incorporate air transportation and air-to-air refueling in these multinational cooperation ventures. The Netherlands and Belgium programmed 50 million euros to strengthen Germany’s strategic-lift and air-to-air refueling capability.13 In return, the DATF will have access to Germany’s air-transport fleet during crisis and peacekeeping operations.

Building an EU RRF

This DATF discussion leads to the strategic level of the EU’s long-range force-structure planning. Will the EU have access to its members’ task forces and be able to integrate them into the proposed EU RRF? In 1999, leaders of the EU committed their nations to the Helsinki Headline Goal, which called for a 60,000-person force to be deployed within 60 days and be sustainable for at least one year.14 Under this goal and within the overarching European security and defense policy, the EU RRF would be equipped to accomplish all the command and control, airlift, logistics, intelligence-gathering, and combat support functions necessary to sustain a long-term deployment.15 Such an EU RRF will use smaller rapid-response elements, such as the DATF, to accomplish the tasks agreed upon in the Petersburg Tasks, which include duties associated with peacekeeping contingencies and the ability to generate combat missions for crisis management and peacemaking.16

Benelux DATF, the Belgian-Portuguese DATF, the Spanish-Italian Amphibious Force, the Franco-British Air Group, and other such organizations, as well as the many multilateral memorandums of understanding between member nations, are critical to the creation of a credible EU peacemaking force. Defense budgets for a majority of EU member nations are currently at less than 2 percent, and "present-day military capabilities do not match the common foreign policy ambitions of the European Union."17 Therefore, integrating these mission-specific, pooled resources becomes the only viable means for the EU to produce an effective and capable, stand-alone combat force. Beyond building, integrating, and training the 60,000-person force, the more difficult challenge will be developing the consensus on when to use such a force. The political and economic climates of the day will impact how much a nation supports a particular EU operation. NATO was able to successfully integrate member nations’ personnel and equipment using a common motivation based on a common threat- the expansion of Communism into Western Europe and throughout the world. Operation Iraqi Freedom vividly illustrates the difficulty that European leaders had in developing a common consensus on the use of force; that recent difficulty portends a future in which developing that necessary European consensus may continue to be difficult or even unattainable.

National defense postures change, and defense budgets get slashed when political concerns shift at the same time European economies are struggling; then internal social programs are prioritized ahead of a common EU military defense force. Shrinking budgets make it even more difficult for individual nations to bridge the technological gaps in their systems to improve- or even maintain- their military capabilities. Adding to this challenge is an increasing number of deployments for their downsized air forces. Formal agreements regarding future common-defense programs are also suspect, as evidenced by the large cut in Germany’s Airbus 400 strategic airlift program, demonstrating that German domestic interests supersede EU-defense initiatives.

Pooling Capabilities for
Coalition Warfare

The EU RRF could initially function at the tactical level by using established task-force agreements, such as the DATF, to separate categories of responsibility. This would encourage smaller countries to pool their limited assets and allow them to participate in a joint international force. The ability to combine the various weapons platforms and system operators creates the synergistic effect whereby the sum is greater than the constituent parts.18 In war-fighter terms, an operational commander would then be able to build sufficient combat mass from this pool of limited assets. For now this approach to pooling resources eliminates the problem of national control over national assets and alleviates the differences in doctrine and culture inherent in a formally integrated tactical force under an EU-designated commander.19 In any pooling arrangement, a problem will occur if one member nation refrains from participating in a coalition operation. Within the EU RRF-DATF framework, however, that effect is minimized; the impact will simply be a reduction in numbers versus the loss of an entire capability, which could be a critical element in an integrated force package. National pride also becomes a source of stability in such an organization as the smaller NATO or EU countries with modest capabilities make positive contributions to a specific military operation. A small member nation may have the technological lead in a given weapon system or be structured to best support a special mission capability such as combat search and rescue or integrated air defense. Providing an anchor system or mission capability to an international force not only serves as a source of national pride, but it also protects the military budget from internal cuts. The budgets of the Netherlands and Belgian air forces are less likely to come under domestic political scrutiny as long as the DATF is designated as the lead composite force for an EU peacekeeping operation in that budget year.

The Benelux DATF:
Roles Today and in
Future EU Task Forces

The employment of the EU RRF, to support a peacemaking operation, would likely cause the Benelux DATF to be deployed and tasked to conduct night attack missions and execute precision attacks on lucrative command and control targets. Likewise, the Spanish-Italian amphibious force would be tasked as the first-in infiltrating unit to conduct special operations missions, and the combined Dutch-German airlift operation would provide logistical support and personnel movement. The British, French, and German forces will form the composite task units essential to the success of a given EU RRF deployment and crisis-action response. Finally, forces representing the smaller EU member states would be integrated into specific combat, support, and sustainment functions.

The Benelux DATF is a model military organization in present-day Europe. It’s a force that optimized its nations’ limited national defense dollars, combined a diversity of systems, and built a composite force, which has now been proven in combat. The air forces of the Netherlands and Belgium and the security forces of Luxembourg can operate as single entities and retain sovereignty for action based on national interests. However, through years of cooperation in training, procurement of like systems, combined deployments, and the sharing of tactics, techniques, and procedures, the DATF in execution is a fully integrated combat force. The development and pooling of multinational task-force structures is the best starting point to meet the Helsinki Headline Goal of a deployable 60,000 EU RRF this year. Eventually, a formal integration of member resources will be required to sustain such a force for recurring peacekeeping or crisis- action contingencies. The future political, economic, and military environment in Europe will dictate if- and if so, when- the EU RRF will become a military organization on par with NATO. Nevertheless, the Benelux DATF is capable of serving either organization and will remain a mainstay in European fighter capabilities. 


1. Lord [George Islay MacNeill] Robertson, secretary-general of NATO and chairman of the North Atlantic Council, "Investing in Security," NATO Review, no. 3 (2002), on-line, Internet, 25 June 2003, available from issue3/english/art3.html.

2. James Appathurai, "Closing the Capabilities Gap," NATO Review, no. 3 (2002), on-line, Internet, 25 June 2003, available from art1.html.

3. Erik Derycke, "Belgium’s Contribution to Security in the Euro-Atlantic Area," NATO Review, no. 6 (1996): 4, on-line, Internet, 25 June 2003, available from 1996/9606-1.htm.

4. Eurocorps Web site, "Eurocorps: A Force for Europe and the Atlantic Alliance," 1, on-line, Internet, 25 June 2003, available from brochure_en.pdf.

5. Ibid., 12.

6. Guy Verhofstadt, Belgium prime minister, "Europe Has to Become a Force in NATO," Financial Times, 20 February 2003, on-line, Internet, 25 June 2003, available from http://victory

7. S. T. Planken, "Royal Netherlands Air Force Deployable Air Task Force," Canada Connection, 28 August [2001], on-line, Internet, 27 June 2003, available from tcc/rnlaf/datf.html.

8. Ibid.

9. S. T. Planken, "Operation Allied Force: Air Strikes against Yugoslavia," Canada Connection [Web site], on-line, Internet, 27 June 2003, available from allfor_forces.html.

10. Ibid.

11. F. H. G. DeGrave, "Opening Statement to the Air Power Colloquium in Rijswijk," 5 July 2001, on-line, Internet, 27 June 2003, available from content/070501_airpower.html.

12. Belgian Ministry of Defense, "Belgian-Portuguese Deployable Air Task Force to Be Formed," 7 July 1999, on-line, Internet, 27 June 2003, available from data/communiques/archives/1999Jul/data/1999Jul496/.

13. DeGrave.

14. Gen Rainer Schuwirth, "Hitting the Helsinki Headline Goal," NATO Review, no. 3 (2002), on-line, Internet, 27 June 2003, available from issue3/english/art4.html.

15. Colin Robinson, "The European Union’s Nascent Military Capability: The Right Move for European Security?" 23 May 2002, on-line, Internet, 25 June 2003, available from mrp/eu-security.cfm.

16. Ibid.

17. DeGrave.

18. Lt Gen B. A. C. Droste, commander in chief, Royal Netherlands air force, "Combined Joint Task Force Development and Allied Air Power: Pooling Assets for Cooperative Missions" (paper presented at the Global Air Chiefs Conference, Las Vegas, Nev., April 1997), on-line, Internet, 25 June 2003, available from

19. Ibid.

Lt Col David L. Orr (BS, University of Miami [Florida]; MPA, Valdosta State University; MSS, Air War College) is a war-fighting capabilities analyst in the Force Structure, Resources, and Assessment Directorate (J-8) of the Joint Staff. He has served in numerous operational and staff positions, including the commander’s special action group, Air Combat Command; executive officer for the vice commander, Air Combat Command; director of staff, 56th Fighter Wing; operations officer, 35th Fighter Squadron; and commander, 56th Operations Support Squadron. He is a command pilot with 4,500 flying hours, including 2,300 hours in the F-16. Colonel Orr is a distinguished graduate of Squadron Officer School and a graduate of the Army’s Command and General Staff College, and Air War College

Published in Air & Space Power Journal

Back to the publications list



Copyright© 2008-09 Madoui. All Rights Reserved.