Defence Minister Hans Hillen says he did not avoid thorny issues during his recent visit to the JSF factory in Texas. “Lockheed Martin knows it will have to work hard to keep us on board,” he said afterwards. The Netherlands is still divided on the purchase of the F-35 which is to replace the country’s ageing fleet of F-16 fighter jets.
Minister Hillen said he was greatly impressed by the gigantic factory in Fort Worth where the F-35’s are being produced: “It’s a kilometre-and-a-half walk from one end to the other. You have no idea how big it is.”
The minister was allowed to put his signature on the first Dutch test plane which is currently under construction. He also had his picture taken with the plane in the background, but the photograph will only be released until after Lockheed Martin has ascertained that nothing classified as secret was accidentally included. The factory has extremely strict security regulations. Even taking out a mobile phone was banned because most of them can be used to take photographs.
Minister Hillen said he informed his hosts of the thorny issues regarding the purchase of the Joint Strike Fighter that are causing political headaches in The Hague: “The price, the rumours about technical shortcomings. Are they true, and if they are not: why is it that they keep doing the rounds?”
In turn, the Dutch minister’s hosts clearly stated the thorny issue facing them: the Netherlands still has not taken a decision on a definitive order. “They do accept it; they are quite well informed about our political balance of power and public opinion,” the minister said. “However, I had to explain it to them once again because it is even more complicated than they thought.”
However, Mr. Hillen said the Americans are “extremely pleased” with the quality of the F-35 parts produced in the Netherlands. He is not much concerned about the delays to the JSF project. “It does not really affect us all that much, because we have postponed our final decision. It is much more of an issue to the Americans and others who have already placed their orders. It’s not my biggest headache.”
Mr Hillen said his biggest challenge was “to see whether we can convince a majority of the Dutch people and of parliament to choose this excellent plane as the successor to the F-16.”
At present, such a majority does not exist. Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party, on which Prime Minister Rutte’s minority cabinet depends for parliamentary support, is opposed to the multi-billion euro investment in the F-35. Under the terms of the coalition agreement, the next cabinet will take the final decision on a definitive order. In Fort Worth, Minister Hillen reiterated his argument that “the Netherlands could well make more money from this project than it would ever cost. It creates great opportunities for Dutch industry: for employment, but also for innovation.”
Defence Minister Hillen is on a working visit to the United States. He will meet his colleague Leon Panetta in Washington. US President Barack Obama last week announced a new defence strategy for his country, in which the main focus changes from Europe and the NATO alliance to Asia and the Pacific.
“If that is the case, Europe has only itself to blame. We do rely on the Americans to resolve rather a large number of our problems. Are they maybe testing us to some extent, yes. But I don’t believe they are trying to shove Europe aside. On the contrary. They regard the joint values we created as too important to dump by the wayside.”