The Netherlands has postponed a final decision on whether to purchase 85 Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft.

The nation's defence ministry confirmed that a decision will be taken in 2012, rather than 2010 as previously planned. Its statement added that "2012 has always been the year where we had to sign the first production order" and that "the Netherlands stays fully committed to the F-35 programme". The new aircraft would replace a fleet of Lockheed F-16s.

The decision to postpone a final decision follows a dispute within the nation's coalition government. The Social Democrats - one of three parties in government - clashed with the Christian Democrats and the Christian Union by opposing the acquisition of two test aircraft.

The compromise solution delays the 85-arcraft order until after the next general election, due by May 2011, and gives Dutch deputy defence minister Jack de Vries authority to sign a contract in late April covering one F-35 initial operational test and evaluation aircraft. The defence ministry says its investment values €113 million ($148 million).

However, a decision on the second test aircraft will not be taken until next year. "If there is a negative decision, we will resell the first [test aircraft] to the US," says the Dutch defence ministry, which insists that two aircraft are required to complete the operational test phase.

The Netherlands has pledged to invest $1 billion during the development phase of the F-35 programme. The Dutch commitment ranks second behind the UK among the eight F-35 development partners besides the USA.

Stork Aerospace is a major component supplier to the Lockheed industrial team, and Dutch industry hopes to establish a sustainment base for the F-35 in the Netherlands.

Source: Flight International