The year 2017 will be the year that for the first time in history sees joint air defense over four European countries. Not only are Belgium and the Netherlands operating a combined Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) since 1 January 2017, starting this summer the Czech Republic and Slovakia will do the same. The latter countries today agreed on cooperation.
The joint efforts are quite remarkable in a time of increasing international tension, although the combined effort of Belgium and the Netherlands has been on the cards for quite some time already. Whereas until last year both countries each had four F-16s on constant standby, they now take turns in keeping an eye out for airliners gone astray or potential threats, thus saving costs. Being small countries, they apparently can afford slighly longer transit times for the F-16s to get close to the action.
Czechs and Slovaks
The Czechs and Slovakians also talked about joint air defense before, but mostly in light of Slovakia maybe also leasing Saab Gripen fighter jets, as does the Czech Republic. While Slovakia for now continues to operate older MiG-29 Fulcrums, both countries today still agreed to keep a watch over each other’s skies. The agreement should be officaly ratified and come into effect later this year.
Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see what effect the cooperation between Belgium and the Netherlands has on the former’s selection of a new fighter jet to replace the F-16. The Netherlands has already opted for the F-35 Lightning II, but Belgium is still undediced. The Belgians are looking at the F-35, Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, Saab gripen and Dassault Rafale.
Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) F-16 fighter jets hardly see action over Syria despite being cleared to do so earlier this year by Dutch parliament, reports on Tuesday 3 May say. The ageing jets apparently do not have the right communication equipment for combat over the war torn country. Most missions take place over Iraq instead.
Dutch F-16s have been engaged in fighting so-called Islamic State since the fall of 2014, operating from Jordan. They previously flew solely over Iraq until allowed to operate over Syria also earlier this year. In reality, Dutch pilots mostly only see action over Iraq.
Operations over Syria require satellite communication equipment, a feature the Dutch jets do not have. They largely rely on UHF radios. The reports do not say why the jets apparently do not need satellite radios over Iraq.
The Dutch Ministry of Defense in The Hague later on Tuesday stated that its F-16 indeed lack some relay methods, but at the same time said the jets do not operate over parts over Syria because the current mandate prevents it. It’s mostly US aircraft that operate over areas that now see fighting, according to Dutch MoD.
The RNLAF is replacing its F-16s with Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning IIs from 2019 onwards.
The apparent shortcoming begs the question how Belgian and Danish F-16s will support operations over Syria later this year. Both countries operate F-16s identical to the RNLAF, and are preparing to send jets to the area after the Dutch leave next July.
Where’s a gas station when you need it? That’s exactly what’s going in the minds of a Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) KDC-10 crew as they look for the French C-135 Stratotanker that should be flying somewhere ahead of them. Seconds later, they find the French aircraft and move in closer. It’s an obvious metaphor for closing the infamous European tanker gap. The solution comes in two shapes: the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) and the Airbus A400M.
Over the North Sea and to the crew of the KDC-10, that’s all distant music. As participants in the European Air Refuelling Training (EART) at Eindhoven airbase in the Netherlands, they have just finished air-to-air refuelling (AAR) twelve F-16s that take part in action packed exercise Frisian Flag 2016. Somewhere ahead and beneath them, the French KC-135 also just finished refuelling fighter jets, as did the German Airbus A310 that’s also nearby.
That’s three air-to-air refuellers in the same patch of sky, a sight not often seen as tanker aircraft are usually hard to find in Europe. The overall goal of EART is to improve flexability, efficiency and effectiveness of the combined tanker force of all zeven nations (the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, France, Spain and Italy) that handed command over their assets over to the European Air Transport Command (EATC). From Eindhoven airbase in the Netherlands, EATC commands 19 tanker aircraft of various types from all seven nations. That number equals 65 percent of all AAR platforms available in Europe.
Compared to the hundreds of air refuelling aircraft available to the US, the European numbers fall far short, hence the ‘tanker gap’. However, that gap may soon be a thing of the past, given the increasing number of Airbus A400M available to France and Germany, plus Spain and Belgium in the near future. By 2025, EATC should have 80 or so A400Ms at its disposal, with roughly 40 air refuelling kits available for those aircraft. The new Airbus aircraft has been involved in AAR tests.
Moreover, the Netherlands, Norway, Luxembourg and Poland are on course to jointly buy and operate the Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT). During EART, it emerged that a Memorandum of Understanding is to be signed during the NATO summit in July in Warsaw, with a contract for three or four aircraft to be signed that same month during the Farnborough Airshow.
The shared pool should grow to eight Airbus A330 MRTTs eventually. Belgium, Germany and Spain have already expressed interest in particpating in the program as well.
“EATC has been asked to harmonize A400M and A330 MRTT operations in the future”, says Colonel Jurgen van der Biezen, a RNLAF-delegate to the joint European command in Eindhoven. “What we are looking for, is an air-to-air refuelling hub that is very similar in operation to the European Heavy Airlift Wing operating from Hungary.”
Introducing the A400M and A330 MRTT as tankers increases EATC’s refuelling fleet to 69 assets, equal to 82 percent of all similar capacity in Europe. It’s a signifant increase compared to today’s situation, an increase that enables European nations to support their own – plus each other’s – operations.
It’s an idea that gets the thumbs up from all within EATC, just like the thumbs up shown by the crew of a Dutch KDC-10 tanker over the North Sea. They successfully performed some formation flying with the other two tankers in the same patch of sky. After leaving the formation, they are on their own again. But with a different feeling this time. There are others out there.
Jordan is offering fifteen used but serviceable F-16A/B Midlife Update (MLU) models in a move that seems strange in the light of the pending arrival of… fifteen very similar F-16 MLU models previously operated by the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF). The Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) aircraft are offered on the air force’s website.
The Jordanian offer comes complete with a list of the actual aircraft for sale. They are all jets that orginally flew with the US Air Force in the eighties an nineties and were delivered to Jordan under the Peace Falcon II contract from 2003 onwards. Prior to 2009, all were updated to MLU standard in Turkey.
Airframe hours range from 4,600 to 6,000 hours and some phase inspections were completed as late as December 2015 and even January 2016. The jets underwent the Falcon UP and Falcon STAR structural upgrades as well, extending projected service lifes to about 8,000 hours.
Jordan has a habit of purchasing used F-16s while at the same time selling aircraft of the same type. Pakistan received a batch of former RJAF F-16s, the first of which arrived in Pakistan in April 2014. In turn, disused Belgian and Dutch F-16s found their ways to Jordan before, some of which were used for Jordan’s contribution in the fight against so-called Islamic State in neighbouring Iraq and Syria.
It would be no surprise if Pakistan snatches up Jordan’s latest F-16 offer as well, although Islamabad also eyes a small batch of brand new and more advanced F-16C/D jets from Lockheed Martin.
The current Jordanian F-16 fleet is estimated to be around 64 aircraft-strong. The second batch of used Dutch aircraft should find its way to the Middle Eastern country soon. The aircraft are currently being prepared for transfer in the Netherlands.
During the annual Saab Gripen seminar, which was held on Thursday 17 March, Ulf Nilsson, head of Saab business area Aeronautics, and Richard Smith, head of Gripen marketing and sale, gave an update on the status on various developments on the Gripen.
At this moment, manufacturing of the first Gripen E prototype is still on schedule and within budget, as the aircraft is in final assembly now. Roll out is planned to take place at 18 May this year. This protoype will be used as test aircraft, so test equipment will be installed in it.
Competitions and tenders
At this moment, SAAB is involved in different competitions and tenders to market the Gripen system. Smith stated the Gripen has been offered to Croatia and Bulgaria as replacement of eageing eastern type of fighter aircraft. Negotiations started with Slovakia for delivery of 8 Gripens to replace the MiG-29 Fulcrum aircraft, which are reaching the end of their service life. Finland is looking for new aircraft as replacement for the F-18 Hornet, in which SAAB participates in a tender for 40 Gripen E/F aircraft. Belgium still has to decide what will be the successor of the F-16’s, and the Gripen will take part in the tender for 30-36 frames. In the Asian Pacific market, SAAB started the negotiating process with Malaysia, and they’re even confident the Gripen has in chance in Indonesia. Further more, SAAB stll has a focuss on India, as the Swedish and Indian Prime ministers met in India recently. In the Americas-region Colombia got marketing info about the Gripen system.
Currently, there are 50 Brazilian engineers in Linköping, Sweden, who are being trained to learn the maintenance and development tools of the Gripen and the program. In April the next group will arrive in Sweden, and finally it is expected some 350 Brazilians have found there way to Linköping. SAAB and Embraer are building a new test and engineering center at Embraer’s industrial plant in Gavião Peixoto, Brazil. This will support the operations of the Brazilian Air Force Gripen aircraft.
SAAB expects to sell 400 aircraft in the next 20 years, with a backlog of 96 aircraft at the moment (60 Gripen E’s for Sweden and 36 for Brazil). At this moment the Gripen is already in service with the Swedish military, as well as in Thailand, South Africa, Czech Republic and Hungary.