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‘We need to be better prepared for war’

What makes peace missions succeed or fail? Which new technologies will determine the outcome of wars? In recent decades, insufficient use has been made of knowledge of modern warfare, when this is crucial to European security. This is what Frans Osinga, Professor by Special Appointment of War Studies, will say in his inaugural lecture on 11 November.

Wars on the edge of Europe, the battle against Islamic State and superpowers wanting to increase their sphere of influence... Osinga, Professor by Special Appointment and Commodore in the Royal Netherlands Air Force, is worried. ‘We are mainly involved in peace operations, but I’m afraid we need to start taking the risk of a big war seriously once again.’ Former alliances are no longer a given. The rise of nationalistic and far-right groups is undermining the European Union and NATO. ‘Measures are needed in Europe to make conventional and nuclear deterrents credible once again. Particularly with the old order waning, but it still being unclear what will replace it.’

Complex missions

Over the last 30 years, European countries have almost continually deployed military personnel to way beyond Europe. But, says Osinga, people deny that we have been at war for 30 years. ‘Softer words are used, such as peace operations, but the decision has, in fact, been made to go to war.’ The armed forces have been given one complex assignment after another: they have had to undertake new types of mission with different goals and stringent limitations imposed by government policy, against different types of opponent and in new geographical conditions.

Scant knowledge

There was often scant knowledge beforehand of these new types of mission and the complex dynamics of the conflict areas. Osinga: ‘With hindsight, the military personnel were not properly equipped for their increasing range of duties.’ This, he adds, makes it unsurprising that it often takes so much effort to achieve the political goals of such a mission.

Prevent institutional memory loss

With long-term cuts and reorganisations, knowledge has been lost from organisations and the lessons learned from missions have been forgotten. ‘Institutional memory loss,’ says Osinga. That is also because European armed forces are generally operational organisations. Only a small number of officers deal on a daily basis with planning and supervising operations, and even fewer focus on strategic military issues. Strategic military knowledge at the ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs is also ‘sparse.’

Limited contact with academics

This is also true for the academic world in Europe. Modern warfare is not studied much at European universities, with the exception of Great Britain, he says. In many countries, there is little contact between the academic world, the ministries and the armed forces themselves. Osinga: ‘Each organisation views the strategic problems from its own and thus limited perspective.’ 

Importance of war studies

Osinga hammers home the importance of knowledge sharing, particularly with war studies starting to boom in recent years in the Netherlands. Much research has been conducted into missions and new conflict areas, but better use needs to be made of this knowledge than in the past. War research can explain why peace missions succeed or fail, reveal the nature of contemporary warfare and specify the limits and possibilities of military missions. Knowledge about strategic issues should also be disseminated more widely within the academic world. Now, in particular, says Osinga. ‘From a historical perspective,’ he says, ‘war is the norm; peace is a recent, fragile invention and a historical exception. Knowledge is Athena’s shield.’

Photo above article: the Royal Netherlands Army in Mail during a UN peace mission. (Photo: Ministry of Defence)
Text: Linda van Putten
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Frans Osinga has been a professor at the Netherlands Defence Academy in Breda since 2010. He earned his PhD at Leiden University and was a research fellow at Clingendael Institute. He was also a fighter pilot in the Royal Netherlands Air Force and worked for NATO. The chair at Leiden University was endowed by KVBK, the Royal Netherlands Association for the Promotion of War Studies.

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