Dec 21, 2014

Netherlands commits to first operational F-35s

The Netherlands announced on 15 December that it will sign a contract in April 2015 for an initial eight Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters (JSFs).
In total the Netherlands is planning to buy 37 F-35s, with the first of the eight initial aircraft expected to enter service in 2019. Full operational capability (FOC) is expected to be attained in 2024 with all aircraft delivered.
The bulk of the F-35s will be tasked with performing quick reaction alert (QRA) duties in defence of national airspace. In total five aircraft are projected to be permanently based in the US for training purposes. The Netherlands previously ordered two test aircraft, based at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida.
Meanwhile, only four F-35s will be available for international missions such as the current one in Jordan for strikes against the Islamic State in Iraq.
At the beginning of November, 323 Squadron was charged with overseeing the operational test and evaluation (OT&E) phase, preparing for the arrival of the first F-35 in 2019 at the squadron's homebase of Leeuwarden. This unit was also responsible for the introduction of the F-16.
The low number of aircraft that the Dutch MoD envisages being able to deploy abroad has prompted public criticism.
That the Netherlands would likely only be able to deploy such a small fleet of aircraft for foreign missions, though, should come as no surprise.
The country already struggles to find aircraft to deploy abroad from its current fleet of 60 Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcons. For example, in order to deploy Dutch F-16s to Jordan to take part in the strikes in Iraq against the Islamic State, a planned Dutch participation in the next rotation of the NATO Response Force (NRF) had to be cancelled.
With an even smaller fleet of available aircraft it is logical to assume that the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) will have a reduced ability to deploy aircraft abroad in the future. One potential solution could be to operate a mixed fleet of aircraft, retaining some of the newer F-16 airframes in service for QRA duties beyond their proposed retirement date of 2024.
While this would impose some additional logistical and training costs on the RNLAF, this could be made up by reduced F-35 operating costs and a potential reduction in F-35 numbers. If done with the aim of increasing the overall size of the RNLAF's fast jet fleet beyond its currently envisaged strength of 37 aircraft, it could be a fairly low-cost way to free up more of the Dutch F-35 fleet for operational deployments. The alternative would be to increase the overall number of F-35s purchased closer to the original goal of 85 aircraft - a requirement cut to just 35 operational and two test aircraft in September 2013.

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