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.
It is a kingdom known by its beautiful fjords, shock-and-awe inland scenery and very friendly, maybe slightly reserved people. Once a domain of Norman the Scandinavian country stretched on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean is prepping to be have some new toughness to show: the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II. Airheadsfly.com dug into the Norwegian view of what is coming. This is what we got back from our sources inside the Norwegian Armed Forces.
As announced by the Royal Norwegian Air Force in July, a total of ten F-35s will be on strength by late Summer 2017. Three of these will be flown to Norway before the end of next year. Initially they will form part of the Operational Training and Evaluation (OT&E) effort, before becoming part of the first Norwegian F-35 squadron. As of 2019, the F-35 will take over roles and missions of the current F-16 fighter jet. In that year Norway expects to declare Initial Operational Capability with the F-35. But which roles will be taken first, has not officially been confirmed yet.
Evenes to become “combat base”
The future Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) in the north will be at Evenes, near Narvik. It is a big move north from Bødo, Airheadsfly.com feels. Evenes was initially chosen as a Forward Operating Base that would mainly utilize existing infrastructure to support the F-35. But, under a more recently presented long-term plan, Evenes will be a “combat base” for the RNoAF, “including operations with new maritime patrol aircraft” that Norway will choose to replace the aging Lockheed P-3 Orions at Andenes.
“Evenes will also gain dedicated ground defence and ground based air defence systems.” However, no details on when the “significant investments in infrastructure will be made that go above and beyond what is required for the previously planned QRA functions of Evenes” a Norwegian Armed Forces spokesperson writes to Airheadsfly.com. The F-35s are to commence operations from Evenes in 2021 or 2022, with the new plans for Evenes first having to go through the Norwegian parliament for approval.
Current Norwegian Air Force bases of Andenes and Bardufoss were deemed not feasible for F-35 operations after the closure of Bødo. “The primary reason was noise concerns, along with other technical considerations related to the ability to conduct fighter operations in line with the stated requirements.” Bodø Air Station’s air strip has already been formally transferred to civilian aviation authorities, ahead of its future closure, after the last passenger aircraft landed there on 1 August 2016.
Joint Strike Missile
Oslo is confident that the F-35 will perform and will be better than than the F-16, also when it comes to operations in the Arctics. “The F-35 will provide a marked improvement over the F-16 in all aspects of High North operations. It offers superior range and situational awareness, and will allow Norway to operate freely throughout our air space under all conditions thanks to its survivability.
The addition of long-range precision guided weapons such as the Joint Strike Missile will also add considerably to the capabilities of the Norwegian Armed Forces.” The Joint Strike Missile (JSM) is developed by Norway’s own Kongsberg Defence Systems as a Anti Surface Warfare and Naval Fire Support weapon that even includes a Link 16 connection.
When it comes to operations a long way from base – like in the Arctics, over the Atlantic Ocean or down a long the many many miles of coast line – aerial refuelling might seem like a logic addition to the capabilities of the Air Force. But Norway is not considering any air tankers of its own, nor is it planning modification to the current fleet of four C-130J Hercules transport aircraft to be able to provide in-flight refueling. “However, Norway continues to explore the possibility of contributing to a multinational effort to strengthen the availability of air refueling tankers in Europe.”
Oslo is confident it can defend any of its territories, including Svalbard. Airheadsfly.com stands corrected that Svalbard – of which parts are allowed to be run by Russia – is in fact not a demilitarized zone. “Norway has full and absolute sovereignty over Svalbard. Svalbard is not demilitarized as such, however the Svalbard Treaty puts certain limitations on the use of military force against other states from or on Svalbard.
This does not exclude the use of military force pursuant to self-defense as defined in the UN-charter, article 51. The Norwegian government, as the sovereign on Svalbard, has the right and obligation to ensure that other states do not exploit Svalbard for military purposes. As such, Norway has the right to defend Svalbard militarily and Svalbard is an acknowledged part of NATO’s area of responsibility, as defined in the North Atlantic Treaty, article 6. Beyond that, we do not wish to discuss specific plans for responding to any potential future threats against Norwegian territory.”
During his presentation at the Lockheed Martin / RIAT 2016 press conference at RAF Fairford in July by RNoAF’s Lt. Col. Tesli, Norway’s main F-35 pilot and Norwegian F-35 detachment senior officer, the F-35 can expand the range of for example the navy by serving as its airborne recon/targeting gathering platform.
“Providing reconnaissance and targeting is not in itself a new role for the Norwegian Air Force. The F-35 forms part of a wider development where both platforms, sensors and weapons of all services gradually add range and capability, and where the F-35 in particular provides our joint force the ability to find, track, and effectively engage targets at significantly greater distances than we have been able to in the past,” a Norwegian F-35 Program spokesperson writes to Airheadsfly.com.
The US Air Force on Tuesday 2 August declared Initial Operational Capability (IOC) for its very first squadron of F-35A Lightning II jets, situated at Hill Air Force Base in Utah. The declaration follows a period of extensive training for the squadron and comes one year after the United States Marine Corps (USMC) declared IOC for its F-35Bs.
The 34th Fighter Squadron at Hill is now the world’s first operational F-35A squadron, flying ‘combat-coded’ aircraft running on the latest software block. The unit consist of 12 aircraft and 21 pilots, plus many support personnel. The first Lightning II arrived at Hill in September 2013.
Wether the squadron will soon make use of its IOC and deploy for operations abroad remains to be seen. Critics are quick to point out that the advanced Lockheed Martin F-35 is far from ready for actual combat. For exampe, the internal gun is still being tested at Edwards Air Force Base.
US Air Force tops brass however recently hinted to a deployment to Europe perhaps in 2017. That year, the USMC will first deploy its F-35Bs to Japan
A Norwegian F-35 pilot stationed at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, speaks favourable of the F-35’s dogfigthing capabilities in a blog published on Tuesday 1 March. His statements describe how the aircraft performs better than the F-16 at low speeds. His findings are similar to those of a Dutch F-35 pilot written here on Airheadsfly.com and contrast earlier reports.
Morten ‘Dolby’ Hanche is a pilot with 2,200 hours on the F-16. Last year, he became the first Norwegian to fly the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II, of which Norway seeks 55. Hanche is now an F-35 intructor pilot (IP) at Luke Air Force Base.
In his blog, Hanche writes about his impressions during basic fighter manoeuvring (BFM) in the new jet. “The F-35 provides me as a pilot greater authority to point the nose of the airplane where I desire. This improved ability to point at my opponent enables me to deliver weapons earlier than I am used to with the F-16, it forces my opponent to react even more defensively, and it gives me the ability to reduce the airspeed quicker than in the F-16.”
Slow speed handling is crucial in close range dogfights. “Yet another quality of the F-35 becomes evident in this flight regime”, continues Hanche. “Using the rudder pedals I can command the nose of the airplane from side to side. The F-35 reacts quicker to my pedal inputs than the F-16 would at its maximum angle of attack (AOA). The F-16 would actually be out of control at this AOA.”
Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) pilot Ian ‘Gladys’ Knight earlier this year already described to Airheadsfly.com that slow speeds are where the F-35 performs better than the F-16. “Slow-speed and high AOA performance is much better than many fourth generation fighters like the F-16. High angle of attack testing has been an eye-opener for previous F-16 pilots, who are not used to very good slow speed performance. ”
Acceleration from the Pratt & Whitney’s F-135 engine impressed both Hanche and Knight. “It is evident that the F-35 has a powerful engine”, writes the Norwegian. His complete blog is found here.
The experience of both pilots contrasts with the findings of an anonymous US pilot, who reported the F-35 had hard time fighting an F-16, even though the latter was fitted with two wing tanks. His experience sparked a lot of critical reports and was mentioned in an annual program review by the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation.
Australia has dropped plans to buy Lockheed Martin F-35B Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) fighter aircraft for its Landing Helicopter Ships HMAS Canberra and HMAS Adelaide, various sources report on Thursday 9 July.
Plans to operate the F-35B from both ships first emerged last year and were even confirmed by Defense minister David Johnston. Those plans have now been quietly ditched, the apparent reason being the large number of modifications needed to both brand new ships.
Australia therefore will only operate the standard F-35A variant, of which 72 are on order and two are currently used for training in the US. The first Royal Australian Air Force pilots are learning to fly the F-35A at Luke Air Force Base, Arizona.