Will Belgium’s army be sidelined in the fight against terrorism?

Molenbeek, Salah Abdelslam, Level 4 alert, Brussels under siege, etc., these words and images have put Belgium on the front of the international scene over the past few weeks. However, even if Brussels has adopted measures almost identical to those of Paris to handle this unprecedented situation, the popular reaction seems to have differed in the two countries. Remember our article published on 25/11/15, in which we described the rush into French army recruitment offices, overwhelmed with candidates wishing to play their part in the fight against terrorism? This does not seem to have happened in Belgium. Why? We investigate.

 

The Belgian army could disappear entirely from the streets to be replaced by police

The Belgian army could disappear entirely from the streets to be replaced by police

 

First, it should be noted that the security situation in Belgium is very different from that in France. With the exception of the attack on the Jewish Museum in Brussels on 24 May 2014, the Kingdom is not facing a comparable wave of terrorist attacks. Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 and then the attack last November in Paris and its suburb of Saint Denis were catalysts that pushed people of all ages through the doors of the army recruitment centres. The same has not occurred in Belgium where the ordinary citizen considers the army as a second or even third ranking actor in the fight against terrorism.

 

Second, Belgium’s needs regarding troop numbers are much lower than France’s. The latter currently has almost 34,000 personnel deployed at home and abroad, that is 3,180 more than Belgium’s total contingent for 2016! In addition, France has undertaken an ambitious recruitment policy in order to maintain its operational capacities and lift the pressure on deployed units. In comparison, Belgium deploys barely 2,000 soldiers on operations: in addition to the 1,000 men and women patrolling Brussels, the defense ministry is planning to deploy 700 personnel on seven theatres in 2016, a rise of 16% on the 600 deployed in 2015. This is hardly enough to make people walk through the doors of the recruitment centres that already struggle to meet their annual quotas. In fact, Belgium’s armed forces are going to shrink between now and 2030. In the strategic plan adopted just before Christmas by Belgian Defence Minister Steven Vandeput (see our article dated 24 /12/15), the army, which supplies the bulk of the troops mobilised in the fight against terrorism, will lose 9,000 soldiers in the next 15 years to reach a total of 25,000.

 

Belgium is not giving itself the means to recruit. Even if, just like France and other European nations, the Belgian government is proposing a (very light) rise in its military budget, the €700m earmarked for investment up to 2030 will be exclusively used to procure new equipment. Without a budget to incorporate more personnel, the Belgian army has to limit its recruitments. And France, on the contrary, is creating a further 2,300 military positions this year.

 

The only similarity between the two nations: the rise in the number of policemen. The Belgian police plans “to put an extra 2,500 men on the ground,” the Belgian Minister of the Interior Jen Jambon said on 22 December. The strategic plan adopted the same day by the Belgian government makes provisions for the creation of a new Directorate of Surveillance and Protection. This new structure, notably in charge of preventing acts of terrorism, will take on the role currently held by the troops patrolling the streets of Brussels. Eventually almost 1,660 agents will be integrated into this structure of whom 1,220 will come from the defence ministry, 400 from the justice ministry and 40 from airport police. In addition, a further 400 agents will be recruited by the Belgian federal police both to consolidate the operational capacities of the special forces, of the computer crime unit, of the airport police and the federal judicial police in charge of the fight against terrorism.

 

This is Belgium's new anti-terrorist structure in which the army is almost entirely absent

This is Belgium’s new anti-terrorist structure in which the army is almost entirely absent

 

Exit then the Belgian army, which, given the absence of any surveillance missions at home and a drop in its participation in operations abroad has no reasons to recruit. If there is a recruitment rush it is logical that this should be benefitting the police and not the army.