LONDON – The Netherlands has placed an order for its first batch of eight F-35 Lightning IIs to begin replacing its F-16 fleet in the early 2020s.

The deal was formally signed in Washington on March 25 by Defense Minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, who said the order was the “point of no return,” in the country’s F-16 replacement program. “It is good that after 12 years of political debate, there is clarity about the successor to the F-16,” he added.

The Netherlands already has two F-35s, both of which are currently based at Edwards AFB, California, where Dutch pilots are currently conducting joint Operational Test and Evaluation in conjunction with the U.S. Air Force. The order for eight aircraft is likely to be followed up with similar-sized batch orders over the next few years.

The first of the new batch will be delivered in 2019 and are programmed to be produced at the European Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO) facility in Cameri, Italy.

The Hague plans to buy at least 37 aircraft to replace its current fleet of 60 F-16s upgraded with the European Mid-Life Update. Around five of the F-35s will be retained in the U.S. at Luke AFB, Arizona, for pilot training, leaving the remaining 32 to be based in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands settled on the F-35 as its F-16 replacement in mid-2013. It had originally planned on buying up to 85 aircraft when it first signed up for the project in 2002. Officials say 37 is the minimum fleet size and that this could increase, although the number is not likely to go beyond 50.

So far, around 20 technicians, four pilots and about 10 staff from the Netherlands have been trained in a supporting role to work with the F-35.

The Cameri facility recently rolled out the first Italian-assembled aircraft, an Italian air force F-35A, dubbed AL-1, on March 12. AL-1 is due to fly later this year.