Belgium’s Vigilant Guardian operation(OVG), the equivalent of France’s Sentinelle, blew its second anniversary candle yesterday. Activated on 17 January 2015 following the attack in Paris against the weekly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Vigilant Guardian has hit cruising speed, explained Colonel Laurent*, of the joint Operations and Training department of the Belgian defence ministry.
The objective of OVG is to assist the Belgian federal police with its mission of surveillance and protection of people and sensitive sites when the threat level as defined by the Threat Analysis Coordination Organ (OCAM) reaches at least three out of four. The contingent was originally deployed only in Brussels and Antwerp and after a few ups and downs has stabilised at 1,100 soldiers and an operational reserve. Thanks to the experience acquired, Vigilant Guardian will in 2017 benefit from an “established plan to ensure operations at current levels with an operational reserve,” explained Colonel Laurent.
If Vigilant Guardian has considerably improved the image of the Belgian military in the eyes of the population and has enabled precious exchanges of experience with the police force, the continuation of the operation does raise concerns amongst the chiefs of staff concerning the soldiers’ operational capabilities.
Colonel Laurent admits that “the workload imposed on our personnel is very heavy and has required our training schedule to be adapted.” The reason is that the soldiers have swapped the shooting ranges for the streets of Brussels to the point at which the days of training per soldier has dropped by 50% in two years to attain just 15 days in 2016, whilst the number of days of deployment for the Army more than doubled from 70 in 2014 to 180 last year (and up to 212 days for the Navy). One of the solutions, according to Colonel Laurent, would be to string out the training period which lasts between 18 to 24 months.
Even if the Belgian military are trained for this type of operation, there is a “real loss in terms of complex tactical tasks,” the colonel explained. The impact is such that the joint chief of staff, Lt-General Marc Compernol, is worried that a “generation of lieutenants and sergeants will be lost having done nothing else but this mission which only calls for a small part of the competencies which should be acquired.”
* As in France, only the first names of operational military personnel are given.