The F-16 has unequivocally proven its worth for the armed forces in intervention and stabilization operations. In the coming decades, we will continue to require fighter aircraft. After comparing the candidates in 2001 and 2008, and updating the relevant information in 2013, the government has decided, on operational, financial and economic grounds, to select the F 35 as the new fighter aircraft for the Netherlands armed forces.
The F-35 is a well-considered choice for a high-tech, future-oriented air force. From a military operational perspective, the F-35 offers the greatest number of options. It is also the most future-proof option. The aircraft is best able to deal with the proliferation of mobile air defence systems and offers vastly improved observation capabilities, which are of great value in any type of mission. In addition, the aircraft offers great potential for follow-on development, particularly in the area of network-enabled operations. Also important are the possibilities for international cooperation in areas such as training, sustainment and deployment. NATO’s analyses underpin the Netherlands’ decision.
With this decision, which concludes a process of almost fifteen years, the Netherlands is responding to the Alliance’s call for investment in quality and, consequently, in the collective security of the Alliance. The decision also consolidates the opportunities for the Dutch industry to gain contracts for high-quality work, both in the production of the F-35 and in the sustainment phase.
The cutbacks in Defence budgets which many NATO member states, including the Netherlands, are facing demand careful consideration and astute choices. Above all, opting for a modest number of the best aircraft attests to a sense of reality.
International cooperation is the ideal way to further optimize operational effectiveness. An important step in this respect is the intention of Belgium and the Netherlands to patrol the Benelux airspace together. These Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) and Renegade tasks currently place heavy demands on the pilots and aircraft of the two separate countries. Cooperation will therefore significantly benefit both countries. A treaty will be required in order to be able to carry out these tasks in each other’s airspace.
In many areas, the introduction of a next-generation fighter aircraft will lead to new insights and applications. The Royal Netherlands Air Force, research institutes and the commercial sector have the innovative potential to play a leading role internationally in this respect. The organizational management of the air force will be structured in such a way as to guarantee optimum operational output at all times. With the introduction of the F-35, the possibilities for pilots to maintain their skills after their operational period will be reduced to a minimum. This is to ensure that the available flying hours are primarily used for operational pilots.
It has been decided that the replacement will be carried out entirely within the previously reserved investment budget of 4.5 billion euros and the current operating budget for the F-16, which amounts to 270 million euros per year. This will prevent budget displacement effects, which sooner or later would be to the detriment of other capabilities.
As the cost per unit and the operating costs for the F-35 are as yet not definite, there will be a contingency reserve of ten percent for the investments and the operating costs. This can be used to meet any unforeseen rise in the estimated costs, without any direct consequences for the number of aircraft.
Opting to maintain tight financial parameters underscores once more that the Defence organization is determined to put and keep its finances in order. Based on the current insights, the available financial room is sufficient for the purchase of 37 aircraft. The Defence organization will from now on base its plans on that number and will inform its partners in the F-35 program accordingly.
If, within the given financial parameters, room is created in the coming years to purchase more aircraft, the Defence organization will do so. This may be the case if the contingency reserve is not used in full and if the price per unit of the F-35 turns out to be lower than is currently expected. In that case, in addition to the deployment possibilities referred to earlier, the air force would also be able to provide a short-term contribution to a second large-scale operation, as was done recently in Libya.
The order system allows the final number of aircraft to be kept within the available budget. Should any unexpected major changes occur in terms of product, time or money, the project will be reviewed within the given financial parameters, if those changes exceed the margins of the project budget.
Compared with the current fleet of F-16s, the air force will in future be able to deploy fewer F-35s for longer periods of time. In addition to the permanent deployment for the protection of Dutch and Allied airspace, with 37 F-35s the Netherlands will continue to be able to deploy four fighter aircraft, simultaneously and continuously, to support Dutch ground troops as was done in Uruzgan and is still being done in Kunduz.
In 2014, the current number of F-16s will be reduced by 7, to 61. This will reduce the investment costs involved in maintaining the F 16 for a longer period of time. The 7 aircraft will be added to the logistic reserve, to improve the deployability of the remaining 61. The deployability goals for the period up to the replacement of the F-16 will be adjusted accordingly. The F-16s and pilots stationed in the Netherlands will be divided into three squadrons.
On the basis of the current estimated timescale, the introduction of the F 35 will begin in 2019. The air force will decommission the last F-16s in the mid-2020s. As the noise regulations in the Netherlands do not permit concentration of all aircraft at one air base, Volkel and Leeuwarden will both remain in operation as the two Dutch fighter air bases. In 2015, however, the status of Leeuwarden will be changed from a Main Operating Base to a Deployed Operating Base. This means that the functionalities of the base will be limited to the necessary minimum. The overheads will be concentrated at Volkel Air Base.