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Is This Any Way to Run a Navy? Dutch Bet It Is

May 18, 1986|GEORGE C. WILSON | The Washington Post

ABOARD HNLMS ABRAHAM CRIJNSSEN — Standing on the deck of this sleek Dutch frigate knifing through the harbor ice of Den Helder, one could envision a U.S. admiral whistling in admiration as it glided toward the North Sea.

If the admiral came aboard the 3,400-ton warship and looked around, he might turn purple with rage or white with shock.

There he would find unionized sailors with long hair and gold earrings drinking at one of three bars on board, the engine room deserted while the frigate was underway, and only three of the 180 crew members standing watch on the bridge at night. If he put off his visit until this coming summer, he would see women officers and sailors serving as full partners with the men.

Comparison With U.S. Navy

The U.S. Navy forbids long hair, earrings and drinking aboard ship, keeps engine rooms and bridges fully manned at all times and permits women to serve only on support ships, not combat vessels such as the Abraham Crijnssen (pronounced CRANE-sin, named after a Dutch seafaring hero).

The differences between the navy of the Netherlands, formerly a neutral, and its U.S. counterpart involve style more than substance.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization commanders describe the Dutch navy as one of the alliance's best. They have said they rely on its ships and submarine-hunting planes to help protect the sea lifeline between the United States and Europe and its marines to help hold forward bases in Norway that the Soviet Union is expected to try seizing in the first hours of a war.

"Great ships, vital role, absolutely essential" are among terms used by Air Force Gen. Richard L. Lawson, deputy commander of NATO's European forces, when asked his opinion of the Dutch navy.

Engaged in Maneuvers

As he spoke, a task force of some of the Crijnssen's nine sister frigates practiced destroying submarines, ships and aircraft with "smart" missiles during maneuvers across the world in the Pacific Ocean. Dutch marines were encamped along Norway's northernmost coast to learn the terrain and practice defending ports and airfields.

As if to underscore Lawson's praise, the 428-foot Crijnssen merely hummed as it gained speed while bucking the first waves of the North Sea. There was none of the whirring, clanking and knocking heard on so many U.S. warships when underway.

Up close, the four-turbine engine room was noisier than the rest of the ship, but no one stood on its catwalks reading gauges. That was done in a separate, quiet room down the passageway where three men monitored the frigate's inner workings with the intensity of heart doctors watching electrocardiograms.

To offset shortages of money and skilled technicians, the Dutch navy is as fully automated as fighting requirements allow. The Crijnssen could be run with fewer than 180 men, but Dutch navy officers said that number is needed to put out fires or patch the hull in battle.

Computerized Combat Center

Another antiseptic room amidship is the combat center, also highly automated and computerized. There, an officer demonstrated how he would sink an enemy ship in wartime.

He rolled a marble inserted into broad desk, causing a dot of light to flit on a console dotted with radar images of ships around the Crijnssen. He maneuvered the dot until it covered the target ship on the screen. If he pushed the firing button, a Harpoon missile would wing from the frigate toward the enemy ship, out of sight of those in the closed room trying to sink it. So goes the impersonal naval warfare of the 1980s.

The Crijnssen's officers and sailors went about their jobs with little of the stiffness exhibited on U.S. combat ships. Their long hair and earrings eventually blended with the low-key manner in which the ship was run. No one seemed to have to shout, and off-duty sailors went sightseeing on the bridge, the captain's domain usually avoided by their U.S. counterparts.

"Why the earrings?" a visitor asked a young sailor wearing two of them as he worked in the laundry.

Sought 'Different Life'

"Why not?" responded steward Wim van Dalen, 19, with a smile, saying he joined the navy to find "some different life" than what he would have led ashore. "I used to have three earrings. I took them off to take the oath. I couldn't get the third one back on because the hole for it had grown shut," he said.

A Crijnssen officer said: "We don't worry about the earrings. They'll have to take them off to make their gas masks fit." He said many sailors remove the earrings and opt for increasingly shorter hair the longer they stay in the navy.

Several officers described on-board drinking as adding camaraderie to life at sea and noted that no one is allowed to drink on duty or become drunk off-duty. They said availability of beer and hard liquor aboard means fewer onshore drinking sprees, such as those often staged by U.S. sailors when their ships reach port.

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