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.
In an enormous rectangular building in Cameri, Italy, a group of people swarms over the grey object that among them is known as AL-5. To others, it is known as the fifth Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II for the Italian Air Force. But judging by the language used, it’s not Italians who seem to turn AL-5 inside out. They are Americans, employed by Lockheed Martin and the US Department of Defense (DoD). And their job at hand is quality inspection of a factory fresh, Italian-made F-35 Lightning II.
Airheadsfly.com’s recently paid a very exclusive visit to the rather secretive F-35’s Final Assembly and Check Out (FACO) facility in Cameri, which is run by Leonardo Aircraft and which rolled out its first F-35 in March 2015. The FACO is the result of extensive negotiations involving Italy, the US, Lockheed Martin and Leonardo Aircraft prior to 2010.
Development of the site started as soon as the ink was put on the contract. When epxloring the facility, it is hard to image that this 22-building, one million square feet complex was raised from the ground up in just three years. It is one of only three F-35 final assembly lines in the world, the others being Lockheed Martin’s production plant in Forth Worth, Texas, and Mitsubishi’s FACO in Nagoya, Japan.
Cameri sees final assembly of F-35A and B models for Italy, plus F-35As for the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) in the future. Other potential customers may follow as well. “So far, we have completed delivery of four jets to the Italian Air Force, and we’re getting ready to hand over AL-5 as well. The first four were flown to the US for pilot training, but the fifth will stay in Italy. It will be delivered to the 32nd Stormo (wing) at Amendola airbase soon”, says brigadier-general Giuseppe Lupoli, F-35 FACO program manager on behalf of the Italian Ministry of Defense.
Situated in the center of the FACO is the assembly hall. It covers eleven assembly bays, in one of which Leonardo Aircraft employees now crawl under and over AL-8, the final aircraft of an initial order of eight F-35s from Italy. The same hall also covers five bays for future maintenace, repair and overhaul works on the Lightning II.
Whereas in Fort Worth the hugely expensive 5th generation fighter jets are manufactured on a moving production line, in Cameri an F-35 stays in a specific assembly bay for the whole build process, with parts being brought to the jet. “Our bay approach is certified by Lockheed Martin and elements of it have even been introduced in Fort Worth”, says Lupoli. At full speed, the Cameri FACO is said to be capable of delivering two new jets per month.
For now, production rate is not anywhere remotely near that. Most assembly bays remain unused and empty while awaiting a formal procurement decision from Rome. The exact numbers are debated for a considerable time already in Italy, but the country currently is eyeing 52 more F-35As for its air force, plus 30 F-35B short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL) variants to be used by both navy and air force. Meanwhile, the FACO understandably needs to keep the production flow going. Lupoli: “Because of long lead times, we are indeed moving ahead with production of parts for the next batch of jets.” Indeed, during Airheadsfly.com’s visit the first Italian F-35B was seen in final assembly, along with more A-models for the air force.
Also, 2019 will see production of the first F-35s for the Royal Netherlands Air Force. The RNLAF has for several years been performing operational test and evaluation (OT&E) with its first two Lightnings in the US and should initially see delivery of six more from Fort Worth. The remaining 29 out of 37 aircraft ordered are to be assembled in Cameri.
In the Netherlands some concerns were raised over the fact that a 90 million USD aircraft designed and ordered in the US, is to be manufactured in an Italian factory. Those concerns were mainly about quality control…. and that’s were those Americans swarming over AL-5 come in. Not one F-35 leaves this FACO without a US pilot test flying it and without personnel from both Lockheed Martin and US DoD performing an inspection that easily lasts a couple of days. Pieces of blue tape on AL-5’s stealthy coating mark the spots that apparently are not up to standard.
Although their number has been greatly reduced since production got underway, the presence of US personnel in Italy comes as no surprise given the sensitive nature of the F-35. Lupoli: “Even with an aircraft destined for the Italian Air Force, we first hand it over to US DoD personnel for inspection and acceptance. Only then does US DoD hand it back to our own air force. By doing so, quality control here in Cameri is totally in line with the US standard.”
Apart from complete jets, the FACO also produces full wing sets for use in Fort Worth, with a maximum capacity of 72 sets per year. Quality control is equally strict here. Experts check each wing before it is ‘closed’, which means the upper skin is joined with the lower skin, making components inside unreachable without extensive repair jobs. Recently, faulty insulation on piping inside the wing forced Lockheed Martin to do exactly that kind of work on dozens of F-35s. According to the Italians, the problem was not found on Cameri-made wings.
The work done is testimony of the skills acquired by Leonardo Aircraft employees in just a few years’ time. In total, F-35 works in Cameri should generate an estimated 6,000 Italian jobs and add 15.8 billion USD to the Italian economy.
The Cameri site is projected to be in operation for at least forty years, during which focus will shift more and more to maintance, repair and overhaul of European. Lupoli: “Over the next 15 years, we expect to reduce the number of assembly bays and turn those into additional bays for F-35 maintenance.”
That’s no surpise, given the fact that Cameri back in 2014 was appointed as the sole provider of heavy F-35 airframe maintenance in Europe. But to maintain one of the world’s most advanced and expensive military jets, this facility will first have to build them. To a passing visitor such as Airheadsfly.com, it seems the FACO is ready to fill those empty assembly bays and do exactly that. It seems ready to fulfill its projected contribution to the Italian economy as well as European defense needs. All it needs, are more actual F-35s to build.
The delivery of 15 surplus Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) F-16AMs to Jordan has been delayed over Jordanian requests for specific hardware and software updates. The jets were supposed to make their way to Jordan this year, but that has been postponed according to a RNLAF spokesperson.
The Netherlands and Jordan in 2013 agreed on the transfer of 15 RNLAF F-16 to the Royal Jordanian Air Force (RJAF) as a follow up on the delivery of six former Dutch jets in 2009. Delivery of the latest batch was at first planned for 2015 and then rescheduled for 2016.
After an inquiry by Airheadsfly.com, it has now become clear that the RJAF has requested several configuration updates on the jets. The Dutch are waiting for those to be completed before delivery commences. A RNLAF spokesperson confirms the deal is still ‘on’ but no new timeframe was given.
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 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.