The road towards finding a replacement for the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s ageing Lockheed Martin F-16s has been a very bumpy one. Since an initial investigation was made into potential candidates in 2002, seven different coalition governments have been in power – each having a different view on the service’s role and needs.
Currently, the situation looks good for the Netherlands’ preferred successor – Lockheed’s F-35A Lightning II. Two test aircraft have been delivered to the air force, and the first flight by a Dutch pilot took place on 18 December 2013. If the plans hold firm, the conventional take-off and landing type should achieve full operational capability with the service in 2021.
In the mid-1990s, the Dutch defence ministry made its initial steps in pursuing a replacement for the F-16A/B multirole fighter. To be able to make a selection, a list of questions was prepared for possible contenders, consisting of seven main topics. These spanned weapons system effectiveness, life cycle costs, possibilities for Dutch industrial participation, risks, environmental issues, quality guarantees and contractual aspects.
A request for information (RFI) was sent out to the producers of possible candidates in 2001. In addition to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, contenders included the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed’s advanced F-16 and the Saab Gripen C/D.
The results of the RFI were presented in February 2002, with the conclusion that the Gripen and Super Hornet were not suitable, due to a variety of reasons. The advanced F-16 and Typhoon were suitable, but judged to be outperformed by the Rafale and F-35, the defence ministry said. While noting that stealth may not be a future guarantee for low radar visibility, a stealth aircraft will always have a benefit compared to a conventional fighter, it added, naming the JSF as the most effective operational choice.
Based on the outcome of this evaluation and the perceived economic benefits, the Dutch government decided in 2002 to participate as a Level 2 partner in the JSF programme’s system development and demonstration phase, with an associated budget allocation of $800 million.
This was followed in 2006 by the Netherlands’ signature of a memorandum of understanding (MoU) on the production, sustainment and follow-on development phase, together with Australia, Canada, Denmark, Italy, Norway, Turkey, the UK and the USA. The move was based on the purchase of 85 F-35As to replace its modernised F-16AMs.
The Dutch commitment was underscored by the government in early 2008, when it signed a MoU to participate in initial operational testing and evaluation (IOT&E) of the F-35, including an obligation to order two aircraft. This option was preferred over an alternative of conducting a national testing process, as participating in the US activity would be cheaper and quicker.
As part of the process, the government promised parliament that it would re-evaluate the previous possible candidates before ordering the Netherlands’ two test aircraft.
An extensive questionnaire was again sent to potential suppliers, and while the Gripen was initially not included, Saab was requested by parliament to participate with its planned NG development. Soon after receiving the new RFI, both Dassault and Eurofighter announced they were withdrawing from the process, as they saw little chance of success.
The remaining prospective bidders completed the questionnaire, which was based on six mission types identified by the air force as possible in future operations. These were offensive counter-air, defensive counter-air/cruise missile defence, the suppression/destruction of enemy air defences, air interdiction, close air support and non-traditional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Responses were not judged only by the air force, but also by the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research and RAND Europe, acting as external advisors.
In a results document presented to parliament in March 2009, the evaluators concluded: “It becomes clear that the F-35 is the only true multirole fighter based on the comparison of the three candidates.”
Also saying the JSF’s “operational and development risks are rated as low”, the report added that the type “achieved the highest score on operational availability and has the biggest improvement potential”. Describing the difference in capability between the other remaining candidates as “marginal”, it added that “the rating on mission effectiveness of the Gripen NG and the advanced F-16 is not sufficient to meet the required level”.
The outcome of the study allowed the defence ministry to order its first of two IOT&E airframes the following month. The second was ordered following renewed discussions in parliament in 2011.
But Dutch political turmoil around the JSF then continued, fed by delays in the development of the Lightning II. Presumably this was the reason for the nation and Lockheed not widely announcing the delivery of aircraft F-001 in late 2012.
Shortly after the acceptance of a second aircraft, F-002, both F-35As were temporarily transferred to the US Air Force to keep them ready to fly and to perform some lightning tests at NAS Patuxent River in Maryland, pending the outcome of a report on the future of the Netherlands’ armed forces in September 2013.
Like its European allies, the Netherlands was suffering with the global economic crisis and had to look for budget cuts – including to its military. In its report, the defence ministry set out a vision of a dedicated armed forces built on a long-term future, and able to perform in international operations at a reasonable cost.
While the F-35 was retained as the fighter of choice, the number of aircraft required was slashed from the previously expected 85. Based on an available budget of €4.5 billion ($6.2 billion), the number now planned to be purchased is just 37. The eventual total will depend on the final price, but is likely to be in the range of 34-40 fighters.
Based on the outcome of this strategic vision, the decision was taken to start initial pilot and technician training at the joint F-35 training facility organised under the USAF’s 33rd Fighter Wing at Eglin AFB in Florida, where aircraft F-001 was already located. The pair of Dutch aircraft are now assigned to a pool of training assets also provided by the USA and UK.
In November 2013, the Dutch house of commons approved plans to order 37 F-35s, in a move which was described by the nation's air force commander as crowning its centennial anniversary. According to the plans of the nation's Defence Materiel Organisation, the final order is likely to be signed in 2015.
In the meantime, the training programme at Eglin AFB is moving forward rapidly, with Maj Laurens Jan Vijge having become the first Dutch pilot to fly the type. He graduated from training following three months of intensive instruction in January 2014, at the same time as six crew chiefs.
Vijge is now a qualified instructor pilot and immediately started his duties as one of the instructors with the 58th Fighter Squadron, where he will help to prepare the next Dutch pilot to participate in the programme’s IOT&E phase.
Talking about his training, Vijge – a pilot with more than 2,500h flight experience on the F-16 – said the transition to the F-35 was “very smooth”. His instruction involved 210h of academic studies and 13 simulator flights before flying the Lightning II.
Synthetic training was performed using a full-dome simulator which included the correct sounds and vibrations, which Vijge says made the first start-up of the real aircraft seem very familiar. Before flying the F-35 for the first time, a pilot only performs one taxi run in the type. Following his debut sortie, Vijge also said he was impressed by the thrust provided by the Pratt & Whitney F135 engine.
In total, four pilots, 20 technicians and between five and 10 IT specialists will be involved in the Dutch IOT&E activity, with the work to take place at Edwards AFB in California from late this year, after initial training in Florida.
Already under way at Edwards AFB and involving US and Lockheed personnel, the IOT&E process is intended to mutually test and develop the F-35 weapon system in its broadest sense. This includes developing and validating operational concepts including logistics, maintenance and training.
In addition to supporting general testing, the Dutch team will focus specifically on three goals. The first is to check whether the F-35A will be able to use current Dutch weaponry. The wider campaign will focus on armaments used by the USAF, but the Netherlands has its own stock of bombs and missiles, with software variances.
Secondly, the IOT&E needs to result in a specific Dutch maintenance concept, as the USA’s vision relies on having a larger team of technical personnel per airframe than the Netherlands. This follows the RNAF's current practice, which sees Dutch F-16s currently based at Tucson AFB in Arizona being maintained by two crew chiefs, versus an average of 10 staff for USAF examples. This difference is driven by the limited budget available to the Dutch service. Basic technical orders developed by Lockheed also will need to be analysed and rewritten for use in the Netherlands.
The last item of specific Dutch testing concerns datalink integration with other national weapon systems. This joint use of information is one of the benefits of buying a fifth-generation fighter, so the ability to share it with other equipment is vital. Examples for the Netherlands will include working with its Boeing AH-64D Apache attack helicopters and its navy’s frigates.
According to Vijge, there is a possibility of using Dutch Apaches presently based at Fort Hood in Texas to support Dutch pilot training, and also to test datalink performance. Royal Netherlands Navy vessels also regularly visit the Dutch Caribbean islands, and may in future be asked to support such testing.
Planning for the coming years is heavily dependent on the political decisions made around the Dutch project. But since the first step towards approval from parliament has already been taken, the expectation is that the relocation to Edwards AFB will occur as planned at the end of 2014.
The Dutch team is expected to adopt the colours of the air force’s 323 Sqn, which is due to cease operations with the F-16 from Leeuwarden air base at the end of this year. By that time, aircraft F-001 will also have undergone modification at Hill AFB, Utah, taking it to the same standard as F-002.
Testing of these Block 1 aircraft will be followed by a similar process for the Block 2 F-35 in 2016-2017. Work on a final, combat-ready Block 3 version will then occur in 2017-2018. The initial training of operational Dutch crews will also start at the latter point, to ensure the type’s availability by the end of 2018, when a first Block 3 aircraft should be delivered to 322 Sqn in the Netherlands.
Three years later, the F-35 should achieve full operational status, and take over the tasks of the by-then more than 40-year-old F-16 fleet.