The future of Dutch air warfare is shaped in all of the vast airspace around Edwards Air Force Base, California. The two tools of the trade have clocked up over 500 flight hours since first delivery in 2013. They are two stealthy and somewhat secretive F-35A Lightning II fighter jets, flown and tested by four Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) pilots. The RNLAF is looking to get the most out of only 37 jets to be ordered. Cooperation may be key.
The F-35 – current unit price roughly 88 million EUR – still has to win over the hearts and minds of the Dutch. The decision in 2013 to purchase 37 F-35s in several batches for 4.5 billion EUR was a hugely debated one, as is much about the – give or take – 380 billion EUR international weapons program in which the Netherlands is a ‘level 2’ partner. A Dutch follow-on order isn’t on anybody’s radar, except maybe the RNLAF’s. In the eyes of executive air force commander Alexander Schnitger, after 37 aircraft ‘there is no period, but a comma’, as Aviation Week reported in December.
For good reason. Of the 37 Lightning IIs, five constantly remain in the US for training and testing. The 32 aircraft in the Netherlands are flown by 29 combat ready pilots who use the jets for operational training and Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) to protect Dutch and NATO airspace. Combined with the fact that a number of jets is always in maintenance, it leaves only four F-35s with pilots available for missions abroad at any time. Four fighter jets on deployment is a long way from the more substantial contributions the RNLAF made to international military campaigns in the past.
“We’re studying our options”, says Marten Hendriksma, chief of RNLAF fighter operations. “The current plan is to stop using the F-16 in 2023. Until then, we are looking to use the F-16 as a companion aircraft alongside our F-35s, much in the same way we tested last year over Edwards.”
To ease pressure on future F-35 operations, the RNLAF is also looking at the FNM Aeronautics (formerly Finmeccanica) M-346 as a companion operational trainer next to the stealthy F-35. Or perhaps not? Hendriksma has his doubts: “It is a great trainer, as some of our pilots now find out in Italy. But I don’t think it is in the same league as the F-35.” As far as operational training goes, the RNLAF could also rely on the support of civil contractors, just like it did during the integration training at Edwards last year.
On the subject of training, the number of trained Dutch F-35 pilot will remain at four for some time. Future Dutch F-35 conversion training takes place at Luke Air Force Base. In 2019, the RNLAF will receive six more jets produced by Lockheed Martin in Fort Worth. They will will fly the short hop to Luke for pilot training, which takes 70 actual flight hours for inexperienced F-16 jocks and 60 hours for seasoned pilots. Training an instructor pilot takes 100 hours.
Also in 2019, the Final Assembly and Check-Out (FACO) facility in Cameri which is run by – again – FNM Aeronautics, will deliver two F-35s to the RNLAF. These two Italian-made aircraft will be the first to be based in the Netherlands. All next batches for Dutch F-35s will be manufactured in Cameri under the careful eye of Lockheed Martin. By 2023, all 37 aircraft should be delivered, with the current number of 61 F-16s set to dwindle from 2019 onwards.
Between then and 2023, the RNLAF faces an intensive transition from the fourth generation fighter aircraft that is the current F-16 to the fifth and latest generation that is the F-35. It will surely have an impact on Dutch involvement in international military missions like the current one over Iraq. That mission comes to an end later this year. After that, there’s a least another Baltic Air Policing shift to be fulfilled using the F-16.
The first Lightning II to be based in the Netherland, arrives at Leeuwarden airbase in 2019 to be introduced into 322 squadron. Two years later, Volkel airbase it is to welcome its first jet. By 2023, three squadrons operate the new aircraft. It is somewhat frustrating for the RNLAF however to see the Norwegians getting their aircraft in-country in 2017 already, whereas they only received their first jets last November. The Dutch debate slowed down decision making. The government in The Hague was only able to order the first batch of eight F-35s in March 2015, five years after buying the first two test aircraft.
“We did indeed lose time there”, says Marten Hendriksma. “On the other hand, we’ll have a mature aircraft that we’ll know inside out and have validated tactics at our disposal. But it still was strange to see Norway broadcast the handover of their first jets live on national television. Our aircraft’s appearance this year at Leeuwarden will be a milestone in that respect. An expensive project like the F-35 deserves its critics, but we are working to win over Dutch hearts and minds for it.”
Dutch F-35s reach Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in 2021 and Full Operational Capability (FOC) in 2024. In 2023 the stealthy jet takes up Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) duties. Starting 2016, the Dutch will share their QRA with the Belgian Air Component, saving costs and freeing up enough available fighter jets and pilots for operations abroad.
The Belgians still have to decide what aircraft replaces their F-16s from 2024 onwards, however. The F-35 is a candidate, but so are the Boeing Super Hornet, Saab Gripen, Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon. “Of course it would be great to see Belgium operate the same jet as we do, but it is by no means a condition for sharing QRA. Our counterparts from Brussels regularly ask about the F-35, but keep in mind they are not a partner in the program. It means we cannot tell them everything we would maybe like to. But I’m sure they will make the right choice for them.”
Four deployable Dutch F-35s in the future may not seem like much compared to the current eight available F-16s, but the F-35 offers a more valuable contribution to any campaign thanks to its warfare and weapons suite – its internal (GAU)-22/A 25mm Gatling gun being just one of those weapons. It is currently the subject of testing at Edwards and is embedded in the F-35A’s left wing root in a way that maintains the jet’s stealthy characteristics. According to the F-35 Joint Program Office, the F-35 should have an operational gun in 2017. Both Dutch F-35s have the gun already fitted, but have yet to use it during testing at Edwards.
Hendriksma states that F-35 future deployments will have a footprint that is comparable to today’s F-16 missions. “The real impact is in the transition period starting 2019. There’s a big and fantastic challenge ahead of us, and the Dutch team at Edwards is now getting the first taste of exactly that. They’re shaping the future of Dutch air warfare.”
© 2016 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
Featured image (top): Two Royal Netherlands Air Force F-35s explore Californian skies. (Image © Frank Crébas/ Bluelifeaviation.com)