The Netherlands defence ministry has categorically endorsed the capability and affordability of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter over two of its main rivals.

Dutch undersecretary of defence Jack de Vries pronounced the F-35 superior to the Saab Gripen NG and Lockheed’s proposed F-16 Advanced, ranking the latter two fighters essentially the same in its overall assessment.

The results of the comparison fulfils a requirement imposed by the Dutch parliament and clears the defence ministry to buy two F-35s in April 2009 to participate with the USA and the UK in the JSF programme's initial operational test and evaluation phase.

"The F-35 is the best multirole combat aircraft and by around 2015 will certainly be able to carry out all six main missions successfully," de Vries says.

For Lockheed, it was the second major endorsement by a partner in its international development programme in less than a month. In November, Norway’s defence ministry also recommended the F-35 as superior in both cost and capability to the Gripen NG.

The timing of both announcements came as a surprise. Norway’s decision was scheduled for mid-December, but came out at least three weeks early. The Dutch had planned to release a report before year-end, but more recently were expected to wait another three months analysing simulator data for the Gripen.

The Dutch statement notes that the Block 3 F-35 scheduled to be available in 2013 meets mission standards in four of its six identified categories, but that the Block 4 aircraft available after 2015 surpasses all six.

By contrast, the Gripen NG and the F-16 Advanced each meet only two of the six Dutch mission requirements, de Vries says.

The cost of the F-35 is one of the programme’s key issues, as further development or testing delays could dramatically raise the unit price of the aircraft, which is not scheduled to enter service for at least three more years.

But defence ministry officials in Norway and the Netherlands both discounted the F-35’s risk of price increases. The Dutch report says the F-35’s comparatively huge orderbook insulates the programme from major cost increases, while the Gripen’s uncertain sales prospects pose the greater risk.

Lockheed says it is “pleased with the conclusions of this important and thorough new evaluation report. This report illustrates the importance of an earlier decision of the Netherlands to build its future air-combat capability requirements around the F-35 Lightning II.”

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