Dutch Move Toward Final Decision on F-35 Fighter Jet

The coalition government is reportedly close to a compromise on replacing its F-16s.

The Dutch coalition government is moving closer to decide to buy the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter to replace its aging fleet of F-16s. But as the costs of Lockheed’s advanced multirole fighter jet have mounted, the Netherlands might only buy 35 instead of the previously budgeted 58.

The conservative Dutch weekly Elsevier reported on Thursday that the ruling Labor and liberal parties are preparing a compromise to invest another €4 billion in modernizing the air force. The European country has already invested some €1 billion in the development of the F-35 and owns two test planes.

Labor, wary of the purchase from the start, agreed in 2007 in government with Christian Democrat parties to buy the two test planes before committing to acquiring more. But in July of last year, it joined opposition parties to block further procurement, citing the American fighter jet’s mounting costs.

When the Netherlands entered the Joint Strike Fighter project in 2000, it expected a total cost per plane of €35 million. The Dutch Defense Ministry now estimates that it will have to spend up to €61.5 million per plane.

Labor was long concerned about the far-left Socialist Party’s opposition to buying the planes. Before the last election, the Socialists had outpolled Labor, traditionally the stronger party on the left, which only managed to revive its fortunes when party leader Diederik Samsom impressed in a series of televised debates while his Socialist rival infamously underestimated Dutch defense spending by more than €5 billion in an interview.

According to Elsevier, Labor Party leaders no longer fear the Socialists’ resistance to the fighter jet program, even if the latter get up to ten more seats in recent opinion surveys. Foreign minister Frans Timmermans, it reports, “is aware of the dangerous trends in North Africa where drug cartels have gained a foothold and mingle with violent Islamists.” It also cites Labor’s reluctance to intervene in Syria, where the secular regime of President Bashar Assad has been locked in a brutal civil war with mostly Sunni Muslims for more than two years, owing to its government’s formidable air defenses. If the Netherlands decided to help enforce a no-fly zone over the country, as NATO did in Libya in 2011, the old F-16s wouldn’t suffice.

Moreover, the Netherlands have already invested €1 billion in the project and industry is reaping the benefits of it. At least 1,200 people at Stork and other aviation companies owe their jobs to the F-35. Those numbers could be significantly expanded if the Netherlands bought the F-35 and provided engine maintenance for all European planes. The Labor Party would be hard pressed to explain why it canceled such a deal.

The Dutch Royal Air Force has operated F-16 fighter jets since 1979. Sixty-seven are still in service. Eighteen were most recently sold to Chile in 2010. The remaining aircraft are slated to be replaced in 2015 although it is doubtful that a full fleet of F-35s will have been delivered by then. The United States Air Force doesn’t expect the planes to enter service until 2018.

Plagued by cost overruns and delays, the F-35 has had more good news recently. Norway agreed in April to buy the first six of the 56 planes it intends to acquire while American allies in East Asia have expressed an interest in it as well. South Korea, which seeks sixty new warplanes, reportedly favors Lockheed’s stealth plane because it will be able to evade North Korean radar. Singapore has also expressed “tremendous interest” in the F-35, the Pentagon said two months ago. It might buy up to three dozen jets. Israel is buying 35.