The three 'Benelux' countries of Belgium, Netherlands and Luxembourg aim to push their military air forces far closer together, with the commander of the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) calling for a "fully integrated" Benelux air component within a decade.
"We do not have the time to wait for a top-down approach from the 28 [EU nations as a whole] for co-operative initiatives or replacing our fighters, helicopters and transport aircraft," said Lieutenant General Alexander Schnitger, commander of the RNLAF.
"Benelux is a test laboratory for defence co-operation in Europe. Our air forces have taken important steps, and more will be taken in the future. My intention is to create a truly integrated Benelux air component over the next 10 years."
Gen Schnitger and his Benelux counterpart, Lieutenant General Claude Van de Voorde, Belgian Air Component Commander, addressed a closed gathering of military and government officials in Brussels on 13 February, attended by IHS Jane's .
To exemplify their intentions, the two generals pointed to the latest bilateral development between their forces - a letter of intent (LoI) signed on 23 October 2013 by the Belgian and Dutch defence ministries to combine the two countries' air policing functions. Gen Van de Voorde said: "we are in legal negotiations at the highest political level to come up with a treaty to cover things such as political control of the air assets, common RoE [rules of engagement] and other sovereignty issues" to ensure similar lines of action by either Dutch or Belgian pilots.
Gen Schnitger added: "Basically it's in the hands of the lawyers, and it will then move to our parliaments. As for us in the military, this [air policing agreement] was mapped out in a few minutes because our procedures have been standardised via NATO for so many years."
The policing LoI is only the latest in a series of moves to bring the two countries' military establishments closer together. Belgium and Netherlands have already integrated their naval commands, and share the training of naval personnel as well.
Regarding where their air force co-operation may be headed, Gen Schnitger said: "co-operation in itself is not a panacea; it must lead to a win-win situation for both partners and it has to be open-book and strategic. Thus, we are looking at integration of our air force survival schools, helicopter commands and air transport units."
Luxembourg, which is buying the Airbus A400M Atlas military transporter, will also benefit from this arrangement, said Gen Van de Voorde. "They face a steep learning curve with the A400M and we will be helping them start up their transport capabilities," he observed.
But Gen Van de Voorde also warned that Belgium will maintain certain core capabilities. Referring to economic considerations such as the fact that Belgium's aerospace industry is heavily concentrated in its southern Walloon half with strong ties to France, Gen Van de Voorde said: "there are political decisions driven other than by security considerations. It only makes sense that any decisions we take in this area [of Benelux integration] pave the way for Belgium's co-operation with both France and The Netherlands. For some things such as UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] we'll need to look south [to France] and for others what we can do with the Dutch".
Meanwhile, neither he nor Gen Schnitger excluded expanding their co-operation to countries beyond the Benelux region but said that would have to unfold slowly.
"Calling our co-operation 'Benelux' does not exclude Germany or France," Gen Schnitger said. "But on the other hand, expanding it too quickly would slow things down. We cannot put undue pressure on one another to move in one direction or the other before the time is right."