Netherlands cuts F-35 fleet plan to 37 fighters

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The Netherlands’ government has confirmed the selection of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to replace the nation’s aged F-16s, but its purchase is likely to be for fewer than half of the number of aircraft previously anticipated.

Included as part of a budget announcement made on 17 September, the decision will lead to the introduction of the nation’s first frontline examples at Volkel air base from 2019.

“The replacement will be carried out entirely within the previously reserved investment budget of €4.5 billion [$6 billion] and the current operating budget for the F-16, which amounts to €270 million per year,” the government says. “Based on the current insights, the available financial room is sufficient for the purchase of 37 aircraft.

“The defence organisation will from now on base its plans on that number, and will inform its partners in the F-35 programme accordingly.”

Previous plans had called for the Royal Netherlands Air Force to eventually receive up to 85 Joint Strike Fighters, but this total has for some time exceeded the size of its now-dwindling F-16 inventory. In its announcement, the government says a further seven of the current type will be withdrawn in 2014, cutting the fleet size to 61 aircraft, with three squadrons. The type will leave Dutch use in the mid-2020s.

Citing the need for “careful consideration and astute choices” during a time of budget pressure, the government notes: “Opting for a modest number of the best aircraft attests to a sense of reality.” The F-35 was selected on “operational, financial and economic grounds”, and “is also the most future-proof option”, it adds.

Noting that the unit price for its conventional take-off and landing F-35As is not yet known, it comments: “Should any unexpected major changes occur in terms of product, time or money, the project will be reviewed within the given financial parameters, if those changes exceed the margins of the project budget.”

However, the statement notes: “If, within the given financial parameters, room is created in the coming years to purchase more aircraft, the defence organisation will do so. This may be the case if the [10%] contingency reserve is not used in full and if the price per unit of the F-35 turns out to be lower than is currently expected.”

The air force should be able to manage effectively with its more capable F-35s, says the government, which is also eyeing potential savings to be made through “international co-operation in areas such as training, sustainment and deployment”. A proposed bilateral quick reaction alert agreement already being discussed with Belgium would also reduce the impact of maintaining such an air policing capability in both nations, it adds.

Pointing to a more than 30-year relationship established with the air force via the F-16, Lockheed says the F-35 will provide “the very best aircraft capabilities possible for the Netherlands’ national security”.

The positive decision should also clear the way for two test aircraft already delivered to support initial operational test and evaluation activities to be returned to flight status. The pair were grounded earlier this year, pending the outcome of the formal selection decision.

Other potential candidates for the Dutch F-16 replacement had included offers of the Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab Gripen.