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Netherlands Preparing For F-35 Introduction

The first two Dutch F-35s are operating from Edwards AFB, California, to support the operational test and evaluation effort. Credit: Royal Netherlands Air Force/Frank Crebas. #thenewscompany  #aerobdnews
The first two Dutch F-35s are operating from Edwards AFB, California, to support the operational test and evaluation effort. Credit: Royal Netherlands Air Force/Frank Crebas. #thenewscompany #aerobdnews
AeroBD | The AERO news Company…FEB 15, 2016, London : With plans to purchase just 37 aircraft, the Netherlands fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters (JSF) is likely to be one of the world’s smallest. Yet the fighter’s introduction is seen as a catalyst for change, transforming not only the way the Netherlands thinks about airpower but also prompting cohesion, with bilateral and trilateral discussions with other European operators.
“We need to be suitable to operate in a modern agile and ever-changing environment,” Gen. Alexander Schnitger, commander of the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF), tells Aviation Week.
He says the rapid pace of technological development, the changing security environment and the increasing role of cybertechnology and information has evolved the modern battlefield, and his air arm needs to reflect this. The F-35 buy is just part of that evolution. “The trick is to build an air force around the ability to at least react proactively and engage in those areas,” says Schnitger. Without such thinking, he adds, the force could “run the continuous risk of using the F-35 as simply a one-on-one replacement for the F-16 and to use it as bomb truck. But it [the F-35] can do so much more.”
The aircraft is arriving at a difficult time, however. The F-35’s operating and procurement costs do not necessarily fit well with a new age of fiscal austerity. Since the global economic crisis, Dutch ministers have been aggressive in slicing the defense budget. Only in recent months, faced with an increasingly aggressive Russia, has money been flowing back in.
The Netherlands was a 2002 signatory to the JSF program, with the aim of purchasing 85 F-35s to replace its F-16s. In 2009, the Dutch defense ministry ordered two F-35As to support the operational test and evaluation program. However, ministers had not formally settled on a decision to buy the aircraft. It was not until September 2013 that they officially announced the F-35’s selection. But the number of aircraft was greatly reduced, with the budget allowing for just 37 aircraft, eight of which were ordered in March.
The Dutch aircraft will be assembled at the Cameri final assembly and checkout facility in Italy. After accounting for aircraft out for maintenance, overseas training duties and the defense of Dutch airspace, the RNLAF expects it will be able to send only four F-35s on operational deployments. Furthermore, these will be limited in terms of time and scope—a dramatic change for an air force usually relied upon by its NATO allies to punch above its weight in support of coalition air operations.
Schnitger says that 37 aircraft was the maximum number acceptable to ministers at the time, but he expects the number to rise, albeit not in the short term. “Behind the number 37, I tell my people, there is not a period, but a comma,” explains Schnitger. “The security situation in Europe is changing, [defense] budgets are recovering and every day we take a hard look at our [projected] needs five, 10, 20 years from now,” he adds.
The two operational aircraft are currently being flown out of Edwards AFB, California, where they form part of the joint U.S.-led JSF operational test team. With the RNLAF planning for the F-35’s service entry in 2019, the Dutch team there has been accelerating testing with recent trials proving interoperability with the F-16, the KDC-10 refueling aircraft, navy vessels and joint tactical air controllers.
The F-16 and F-35 will be “operating side-by-side for quite a while,” says Col. Albert De Smit, commander of the RNLAF detachment at Edwards. Part of the testing has been to understand and develop tactics for fourth- and fifth-generation fighters to work together more effectively.
“Analysis on the exchange of information is far from complete,” adds De Smit. “But F-35 capabilities definitely enhance fourth-generation fighter effectiveness by providing increased situational awareness.”
“In Europe, for a long time to come, we will be working with this mix [of] fourth-, fifth- and even third-[generation] aircraft and dwindling numbers of airframes and weapons,” says Schnitger. “We have to make the most out of that construct.”
Schnitger says the Netherlands will have to make its transition to the F-35 at a “fast and furious” pace, as the RNLAF cannot afford to operate both the F-16 and F-35 for an extended period of time. Some of the F-16s have high airframe hours and sustainment issues. “It’s unavoidable that there will be a slight dent in our abilities to sustain operations abroad, and that is what we have to accept,” says Schnitger. He points out that the pace of transition will allow the air force initial operating capability in 2020.
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Rajowan Syed

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