Netherlands finally selects F-35 to replace F-16, but cost questions still loom
After years of political wrangling, the Netherlands has finally decided to purchase the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), but at a greatly diminished number than originally envisaged.
The Hague will now buy 37 of the 85it had intended to purchase when it first signed on to the program in 2002, basing its decision on the need to remain within the tight €4.5 billion ($6.1 billion) budget assigned for its Fighting Falcon replacement program, and the €270 million annual operations budget for fighter types in the armed forces' inventory.
In the decision, announced on Sept. 17 in policy documents setting out the forecast plan for its armed forces, Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert said she saw the purchase of the F-35 as a key innovation for the services, at a time when the country is becoming less militarily ambitious, pointing out that any future Dutch military operations will be limited to “shorter periods of time than was previously possible.”
“The F-35 provides the most options from a military operational perspective,” she says. She also cited its “potential for further development, especially in the area of networked operations [along with] the opportunities for international cooperation in areas such as training, maintenance and deployment.”
The report states that independent analysis from organizations such as TNO, the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research, backed up the ministry's decision.
The Netherlands intends to begin operations with the F-35 in 2019 alongside the country's last F-16s, which will retire in the early 2020s. The defense ministry does not rule out purchasing more aircraft “within the financial framework,” but the document highlights one of the ongoing frustrations of the program as air arms try to work out the operational and ownership costs of the aircraft. As a result, the ministry is creating a “risk reserve” of 10% to be applied to the program and operational costs. Even if more aircraft are ordered, fleet size would still be in the “low forties,” says one official close to the program.
The ministry has notified its partners in the F-35 program of the changed figure.
The Netherlands was an early signatory to the JSF program, investing more than €1 billion in a bid to retain aerospace skills and knowledge in the country following the collapse of Fokker in 1996. Two F-35As were purchased early on to take part in the operational test-and-evaluation phase of the program.
Despite this, the F-35's place in the Netherlands' inventory has never been assured. In recent months, the program has faced bitter opposition in parliament: A finalized Dutch purchase had been rejected mainly by the left-leaning Labor Party while in opposition. However, that decision changed after the Labor party formed a majority coalition in the lower house with Prime Minister Mark Rutte's Liberal party after last September's elections.
The political strife forced the defense ministry to put one of its two JSFs into storage at Edwards AFB, Calif. The second is understood to be test flying at's F-35 production facility in Fort Worth.
The European economy has taken its toll on defense spending. The Netherlands' once near-200-strong F-16 fleet has dwindled to fewer than 70 aircraft, and a further 10% of the fleet will be cut throughout 2014. Under the new policies proposed by Hennis-Plasschaert, the country will share responsibility of guarding the airspace of the Benelux countries—Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg—with Belgium, rather than each country, holding a quick-reaction alert against possible aggressors in sovereign airspace, as is currently the case. Belgium, too, might be replacing its aging F-16s in the coming years. The Netherlands' transport aircraft and helicopter fleets will remain stable, although the air force's VIP Gulfstream IV will be sold in 2014.
The Pentagon is predicting a 50%-plus increase in the ramp rate for F-35 production in the next five years that will contribute, officials hope, to a significant reduction in the aircraft's per-unit price. The cost of each F-35A, not including engines, is targeted below $100 million in low-rate, initial production Lot 7 for the first time.
Program officials, however, are ultimately targeting “fifth-generation capability at a fourth-generation price,” by 2019, said U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan, executive officer for the F-35 program, during a briefing at the annual Air Force Association conference near Washington on Sept. 17. “We are at a point . . . where that [production] ramp is going to shoot up.”
With Amy Butler in Washington.