The Netherlands is to participate in initial operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) of the Joint Strike Fighter alongside the USA and UK, and will provide two Lockheed Martin F-35As for the multi-national test force.

The Dutch defence ministry has informed parliament of its decision to participate in IOT&E and to make a 10% downpayment on the two F-35s in 2008, but says it will make a final decision on buying the aircraft in 2009. The two F-35s will be delievered in 2011 and 2012. IOT&E will run from 2011 to 2013.

The Royal Netherlands Air Force plans to buy 85 conventional take-off and landing F-35As under its Replace F-16 programme. The Dutch are Level 2 partners in the JSF system development and demonstration programme.

RNethAF F-16 MLU 
© Przemyslaw Idzkiewicz

The Dutch have planned to participate in F-35 testing since signing the memorandum of understanding on JSF production, sustainment and follow-on development in February 2006. But the government says negotiations with the USA on an MoU allowing it to join the US-based IOT&E programme took longer than expected.

Italy also has an option to join the IOT&E programme, providing two CTOL F-35As, but political developments make it uncertain whether Rome will sign the MoU in the short term, according to the Dutch government.

Justifying its decision to join the multi-national JSF test programme, the Dutch government has told parliament that it will be quicker and cheaper than conducting a national IOT&E programme in the Netherlands.

Participation in multi-national IOT&E cost an estimated €275 million, including the two aircraft, the government says. A national test programme would require 10 aircraft, an additional €200 million to rent airspace in Australia or the USA, and would delay the RNethAF's initial operational capability by two years to 2018, it estimates.

The Netherlands says it will re-examine the business case for the JSF before deciding whether to proceed with the purchase of the two test aircraft early in 2009. A slow-down US procurement has pushed up the estimated cost of the Replace F-16 programme, the government says.

In 2006, the Netherlands estimated the cost of 85 F-35s at €5.5 billion. The government has told parliament that the projected cost is now almost $5.67 billion.