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.
The Netherlands is ready to purchase two Airbus tanker/transport aircraft with Luxembourg, Dutch Defense minister Hennis Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert announced on Thursday 28 July. The aircraft will be NATO property and will be stationed at Eindhoven airbase in the Netherlands for pooling and sharing. Belgium, Germany, Norway and Poland intend to join the agreement at a later date.
The purchase of the MRTT A330 type aircraft is an important step in filling the notorious European tanker gap. Compared to the US, European nations individually and combined have very limited air-to-air refuelling capabilities.
The European Defence Agency (EDA) is closely involved in the purchase of the aircraft. Luxembourg and the Netherlands will have exclusive user rights. In addition to the purchase, the MRTT project also covers maintenance and operational deployment. The Netherlands leads the multinational collaboration project.
The new aircraft will be registered in the Netherlands and stationed at Eindhoven airbase, as reported previously here at Airheadsfly.com. A study will be carried out to determine whether European Air Transport Command, which is also stationed in Eindhoven, will be able to supervise the MRTT pool.
Costs and personnel will be allocated on the basis of the number of flying hours that each country needs. The expected life span of the fleet is 30 years and the investment budget is between €250 million EUR and 1 billion EUR.
The Netherlands and Luxembourg recorded the agreement in a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU). The contract with Airbus was signed today. If Belgium, Germany, Norway and Poland decide to take part in the agreement, both the MoU and the quotation given by Airbus allow for expansion. If more countries do indeed decide to join, the design costs will be shared with these countries too, leading to lower costs for Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The number of A330 MRTT aircraft to be purchased could eventually rise to 8.
The 2 participating countries are examining the possibility of collaboration with France and the UK, among others, in relation to training and instruction as well as maintenance. France is set to receive its first A330 aircraft in 2018. The UK already has A330 MRTTs in service.
The 2 aircraft will be delivered from 2020. In the same year, the Royal Netherlands Air Force will start to gradually decommission its current two KDC-10 aircraft.
Royal Netherlands Air Forc (RNLAF) F-16s ended operations over Iraq and Syria on Tuesday 28 June. Since deploying to the area in October 2014, Dutch crews chalked up 2,100 mission, during 1,800 of which weapons were deployed. The Dutch jets will return home on 30 June while Belgian F-16s take their place.
The RNLAF operated from Jordan throughout the deployment, first with six jets plus two reserved and eventually with four jets plus two reserves.
The return marks a rare opportunity for RNLAF crews to catch some breath. Dutch F-16s have actively involved in many conflicts for decades. In the early Nineties, Dutch Vipers supported a no-fly zone over Bosnia. Several years later, they took part in the air war over Kosovo. Also, the RNLAF took part in operations over Afghanistan for many years. In 2011, the Dutch saw limited action during the allied campaign over Libya.
The next scheduled deployment is in 2017, when the Dutch take their turn in NATO’s Baltic Air Policing Mission in the Baltic states.
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.
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.