The Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) celebrated 500 flight hours during Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E) at Edwards Air Force Base in California on Wednesday 25 October. This milestone was reached and celebrated by Edwards-based 323 squadron this week.
The Dutch have been testing both RNLAF Lockheed Martin F-35As and their behaviour in an operational evironment. Recent activities included dropping live bombs on the test ranges surrounding Edwards.
Of course, 2016 was also marked by the successful deployment of both jets to the Netherlands, which sparked a major change in public acceptance of the F-35. Whereas earlier the Dutch mainly opposed the expensive fighter jet program, they now seem to have accepted the F-35 as the best choice to replace ageing F-16 jets.
Still, the RNLAF F-35 fleet will only consist of the current two jets for the next two years. Starting 2018, more jets are to be delivered. The total number projected so far is 37.
The F-35 Integrated Test Force (ITF) at Edwards Air Force Base, California, recently completed 25 missions comprising of 12 Weapons Delivery Accuracy (WDA) and 13 Weapon Separation Tests as part of a month-long weapon’s firing test surge. Historically, only one WDA take places every month given the myriad of coordination required. The highest number previously accomplished in a month, was three in November of 2014 during 2B software testing.
These successful test events — performed using the F-35’s newest block 3F software — demonstrated the accuracy of the Lockheed Martin fighter jet. Five of the test events featured dropping multiple weapons. The F-35 weapons test team was given exclusive use of the Sea Test Range, an instrumented Pacific Ocean test area off the central coast near Point Mugu Naval Air Station, California. Tests were also conducted at the US Navy’s China Lake Weapons Range, California and the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico.
During the surge period, a total of 30 weapons were dropped or fired, including the Joint Direct Attack Munition, AIM-120 Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile, GPS-guided 250-pound Small Diameter Bomb, AIM-9X Sidewinder air-to-air heat-seeking missile and GPS/laser-guided munition.
“The WDAs rely on the full capability of the F-35 — multiple sensors, navigation, weapons envelope, mission planning, data links and inter-agency range scheduling — all working in sequence to put steel on target,” said Lt. Gen. Chris Bogdan, F-35 Program Executive Officer. “This was a tremendous effort by the F-35 test team. They surged and worked seven days a week for more than a month to expend 30 ordnance and advance weapons testing. This testing has moved us that much closer to delivering the full F-35 capability to warfighters within the next two years.”
The F-35 is a multi-role, next-generation fighter that combines advanced stealth with speed, agility and a 360-degree view of the battlespace. The F-35 will form the backbone of air combat superiority for decades to come and replace legacy tactical fighter fleets with dominant air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities to deter and defeat potential adversaries.
The US Marine Corps declared the F-35B combat-ready IOC in July 2015, the U.S. Air Force declared F-35A IOC earlier this August. The US Navy intends to attain F-35C IOC in 2018. More than 200 F-35s have flown in excess of 66 thousand fleet-wide hours, with over 300 F-35 pilots and 3,000 maintainers trained to operate and support this next-generation aircraft.
Two Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) F-35A Lightnings were the first of their kind to fly from the US to Europe on Monday 23 May, arriving at the Dutch airbase of Leeuwarden after an eight hour Transatlantic flight. The jets were warmly welcomed in cold, windy and otherwise challenging weather conditions for the two pilots.
Upon arrival, the aircraft greeted Leeuwarden in formation with a RNLAF Gulfstream with Dutch defense minister Jeanine Hennis on board. The Lightnings then landed separately just after 9pm local time, each escorted by an F-16.
Both pilots were visibly impressed by their reception on the ground, and said their aircraft behaved without problems. They had left Edwards Air Force Base in the US on Saturday and made a single stopover at Naval Air Station Patuxent River on the US East Coast.
The Lockheed Martin-made jets fly their first missions over the Netherlands on Wednesday. They will remain here for three weeks for various test purposes. One test involves the measuring of noise levels, while another involves the F-35’s criticized and vulnerable Autonomous Logistics Information System (ALIS). More on that is here.
More on the arrival – video included – follows soon.
The Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) plans to put the F-35’s Autonomous Logistics Information System (ALIS) to the test when it deploys not one, but two aircraft from the US to the Netherlands next week. “We will study the logistical footprint of this deployment on behalf of all other partners in the F-35 program”, says Col. Albert ‘Vidal’ de Smit, who will lead the deployment by flying one the F-35s from Edwards Air Force Base to Leeuwarden in the Netherlands himself.
On Saturday 21 May, both RNLAF Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning IIs currently based at Edwards for testing purposes, will first ferry to Naval Air Station Patuxent River on the US East coast. They are joined by a KDC-10 tanker and approximately 30 Dutch personnel. On Monday 23 May, the aircraft will cross the Atlantic for the direct flight to Leeuwarden, where they are scheduled to arrive at eight in the evening. Once there, the aircraft will undertake so-called ‘perception flights’ to familiarize those living around both Leeuwarden and Volkel airbases with the F-35’s sound profile. The aircraft is known to be louder than the F-16 it replaces, but the sound characterics are different also.
The Dutch are taking roughly 35 tonnes of support equipment with them on board the KDC-10 and a C-17 Globemaster III. “It may seem impressive, but in fact a lot of the weight is taken up some heavy ground equipment that is independent from the amount of aircraft that we deploy. Nevertheless, we do have a lot of spare parts available to us, including two spare engines that will remain on the US East coast”, says De Smit.
Surveying the deployment’s footprint is one of the objectives during the three week’s stay in the Netherlands, as is testing and evaluating ALIS, the logistical component that is crucial to F-35 operations but is also suffering from various software related issues. Last but not least, the system doesn’t yet interact with the aircraft’s Pratt & Whitney F-135 engine. De Smit: “It ‘ll be interesting to see how ALIS supports this deployment and is able to deliver us certain spare parts on short notice. Even if we don’t need to change parts, we’ll probably still order some parts from the US when we are in Europe, just to see how ALIS and the supply chain hold up.”
ALIS is known to be dependent on server access. The Dutch will experiment by not taking their dedicated server with them, but instead leaving it at Edwards and accessing it remotely from the Netherlands. Information gathered will be shared with the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO). Several Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) personnel will support the Dutch during the deployment, capturing data and lessons learned about ALIS and logistical challenges. Several US staff will travel along to support security requirements for the two F-35s.
Other than that, the deployment will also test how the F-35 interacts with the hardened aircraft shelter at Dutch airbases. “It will mark the first time the jet operates out of these shelters”, says De Smit. “Together with the F-35 JPO we are gathering data on the impact on both the aircraft, environment and human conditions.
During their stay in the Netherlands, the two F-35s generate sorties taking part in the regular flight program, which will further stress the sustainment system of the aircraft. In 2015, the Dutch operated F-16s and F-35s alongside each other during tests at Edwards Air Force Base, highlighting the role of the F-35 as an intelligence platform that provides information to other fighter aircraft via data link systems. According to De Smit, it is not unlikely RNLAF F-16s and F-35s will operate alongside each other ‘for real’ in the 2018 – 2023 timeframe. In 2023, the final F-16 should leave Dutch service. De Smit: “Also, beyond 2023 our F-35s will still have to interact with other allied and 4th generation jets.”
After also taking part in the Leeuwarden Airshow on 10 and 11 June – marking the F-35 international airshow debut ahead of the Royal International Air Tattoo and Farnborough International Airshow in July – both F-35s will ferry back to Edwards and continue Operational Test & Evaluation (OT&E) there. That will involve getting the aircraft ready for Block 3 software that enables the firing of air-to-air munitions.
Meanwhile, the majority of Dutch taxpayers won’t see an F-35 again until 2019, when the first aircraft should start arriving at Leeuwarden to take the place of the F-16. At least, thanks to next week’s deployment those same taxpayers will know exactly what a Lightning II sounds like.
If all goes well, at least one Royal Netherlands Air Force F-35A Lightning II should touch Dutch soil for the very first time on Monday 23 May at the earliest, the Dutch Ministry of Defense said on Monday 25 April. The ferry flight from Edwards Air Force Base, California, to Leeuwarden airbase in the Netherlands is a complex operation.
A lot of preparation goes into the ferry flight. The arrival of the F-35 is a major PR-moment for the RNLAF, so it leaves nothing to chance. Both KDC-10 tanker aircraft will first head to Edwards, airlifting equipment and personnel. Sources say a C-130H Hercules and a European Heavy Airlift Wing C-17 Globemaster will be used to transport additional supplies.
Whereas Dutch MoD spokespersons previously and constantly mentioned only one F-35 heading for the Netherlands, the amount of support flights does not rule out both Dutch F-35s actually crossing the Atlantic. That way, the Dutch seem to make sure that at least one F-35 makes it all the way to Leeuwarden – in a best case scenario, both aircraft actually appear over the Netherlands.
It is not yet confirmed if the F-35 will fly during the airshow. Preparing a full display takes time, while a display that only involves a couple of flat passes in each direction may disappoint the audience and ruin the PR-moment. The RNLAF studies its options very seriously, according to sources.
The main reason for the F-35’s visit to the Netherlands however, are the planned ‘perception flights’. The flights are aimed at familiarizing those living around airbases with the jet’s noise level – known to exceed those of the F-16. The F-35 will demonstrate its noise levels at both Leeuwarden and Volkel Airbase while joined by an F-16.
The RNLAF only recently started promoting the F-35 and using the state of the art fighter jet in its recruitment strategy. Until now, the air force operated cautiously when the F-35 was concerned. The weapons program is still scrutinized by media and opponents because of its alleged shortcomings.
In 2013, the RNLAF received its first two jets. Both were first used for training pilots and are now based at Edwards for Operational Test and Evaluation (OT&E). An in-depth story on that is here and here at Airheadsfly.com.
In total, the Dutch eye 37 F-35s. A formal order for eight aircraft on top of the two already delivered was placed in March 2015.