Dutch air force hit by spending cuts

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Dutch defence minister Hans Hillen is to make dramatic changes to the nation's armed forces structure as part of a process to reduce its annual defence expenditure by €770 million ($1.1 billion).

Outlined on 8 April, the package of cross-service cuts includes the withdrawal from operational use of the Royal Netherlands Air Force's Eurocopter AS352U2 Cougar helicopters, and a further reduction in the size of its fleet of Lockheed Martin F-16 fighters.

All but three of the air force's 17 Cougars will be withdrawn from use by 9 May and offered for sale, with the remainder and four 300 Sqn crews to be retained until 2012, when NH Industries NH90s will take over their medical evacuation responsibilities. The savings should total almost €50 million, the defence ministry says.

Hillen says that one of the air force's five operational F-16 squadrons will also be disbanded, reducing the frontline strength of the aircraft to 68. This is expected to save around €40 million and 19 surplus fighters will be offered for sale.

A delayed project to introduce a third McDonnell Douglas DC-10 in a passenger/freighter configuration has been axed, after the modification effort encountered numerous setbacks. It will be offered for sale once work has been completed and airworthiness certification is secured.

The reduction in expected transport capacity will be met by using hours on Boeing C-17s flown by NATO's Heavy Airlift Wing, and with access to foreign aircraft arranged via the European Air Transport Centre in Eindhoven.

Elsewhere, one of the air force's current four operational Lockheed Patriot air defence squadrons will be removed, with the extra equipment to be held in reserve.

But despite the cuts, an order will go ahead this year for a planned second Lockheed F-35 to safeguard the Netherlands' participation in the programme's operational test and evaluation phase. A final decision on whether to acquire the type as a replacement for the air force's F-16s will not be made before 2014. The extra cost of running the current fleet longer than expected will be around €300 million.

Hillen has also revealed the Netherlands' intention to purchase a medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aircraft system. Worth more than €100 million, the investment will lead to the acquisition of four air vehicles for use on international operations. The type of aircraft involved is not yet known.