Labor Gives In, Netherlands to Buy F-35 Warplanes

An F-35 fighter jet lands at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, March 21
An F-35 fighter jet lands at Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Arizona, March 21 (Lockheed Martin)

The Netherlands’ ruling Labor and liberal parties are expected to announce later this month that they have made the final decision to purchase F-35 fighter planes to replace the European country’s aging fleet of F-16s.

The two parties signaled no commitment to buying the F-35 when they formed a coalition late last year. Labor, which blocked its procurement when it was still in opposition, was seen as wary of staying in the Joint Strike Fighter project when costs mounted.

When the Dutch entered the program in 2000, they expected to pay €35 million per plane. The country’s Defense Ministry now estimates it will pay twice as much. With a reported budget of €4.5 billion, it might be able to buy up to sixty planes or more.

The coalition is due to present its spending plan for the next fiscal year later this month. The conservative weekly Elsevier reported on Thursday that the parties had decided on the F-35 deal as early as July, prompting immediate criticism from the far-left Socialist Party — a rival of Labor’s which has consistently opposed buying the American plane. Party leader Emile Roemer questioned the wisdom of buying dozens of new warplanes while other government spending is cut.

The Netherlands has already invested some €1 billion in the development of the F-35 and operates two test planes. Sixty-seven F-16 fighters remain 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.

The Defense Ministry still faces budget pressure. According to Elsevier, Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s liberals decided against replacing the country’s four submarines in exchange for Labor’s support on the F-35 while Trouw newspaper reported on Monday that the joint support ship Karel Doorman, which is currently under construction in the southern port of Vlissingen, will be sold rather than enter Dutch navy service.

Last year, the Netherlands decided to sell their remaining Leopard tanks as part of a €1 billion army budget reduction.

Correction: A tweet cited in an earlier version of this article was not authentic.

Dutch Move Toward Final Decision on F-35 Fighter Jet

An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet lifts off from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, September 10, 2011
An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet lifts off from Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, September 10, 2011 (Lockheed Martin)

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.

Pentagon Hopes Asian Allies Drive F-35’s Costs Down

An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, April 4
An F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, April 4 (US Air Force/Brett Clashman)

The United States are counting on additional foreign sales of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet to help drive down the plane’s costs.

Air Force Lieutenant General Christopher Bogdan, the Pentagon’s F-35 program chief, told the Senate on Wednesday that he is “cautiously optimistic” about South Korea joining the multinational development program in June when it is due to announce the winner in a procurement competition for the acquisition of sixty planes. Boeing’s F-15 and the Eurofighter Typhoon are among the other systems competing for the contract.

Bogdan also said that Singapore had shown “tremendous interest” in the F-35. The city state, which has a small but highly sophisticated air force, is reportedly in the “final stages” of deciding which plane should replace its three dozen Northrop F-5s which entered service there in the 1970s.

The United States’ Asian allies’ interest in Lockheed’s plane has increased since China unveiled two separate fifth-generation fighter jets of its own which are suspected to have a similar stealth capability.

The American airplane manufacturer and Defense Department claim that the F-35’s capabilities are still superior to those of China’s warplanes.

Even if Singapore and South Korea join the Joint Strike Fighter program, it might not make up for other participating nations reducing their F-35 buys.

Britain, which was supposed to cover some 10 percent of development costs, or $2.5 billion, plans to buy fewer planes as do Italy and the Netherlands which allocated $1 billion and $800 million to the project, respectively. Canada and Japan are increasingly wary as well.

Cost estimates have skyrocketed and varied since Lockheed was awarded the Joint Strike Fighter contract in 2001. The United States Air Force put the F35’s flyaway cost at anywhere between $89 and $200 million in 2010. In February 2011, the Defense Department said the 32 planes it expected to buy the next year would cost almost $210 million each, discounting research and development costs.

The Pentagon expects to finalize the acquisition of the sixth and seventh batch of F-35s by the end of next month, Bogdan told senators on Wednesday. The deal could involve 71 planes at a cost of some $9 billion.

The United States plan to eventually buy several thousands of F-35s which should bring down the costs per individual plane. But the new fighter will also likely be far more expensive in maintenance than the ones it is supposed to replace. The entire program has exceeded its original cost estimate by more than 50 percent. The Americans could pay over $1 trillion to operate the stealth warplanes over the next half century.

As a result of delays in the Lockheed program, the Air Force is refurbishing Boeing F-16 jets, some three hundred of which could remain in service through the 2020s when they would average forty years in service. It will also continue to fly some five hundred F-15s beyond 2030 when the youngest models will be almost fifty years old.

Of the Air Force’s 2,000 fighter jets, less than two hundred F-22 Raptors are currently on the cutting edge of aviation technology.

New Government Won’t Change Dutch Foreign Policy

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte and Labor Party leader Diederik Samsom answer questions from reporters in The Hague, September 17
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte and Labor Party leader Diederik Samsom answer questions from reporters in The Hague, September 17 (EPA)

The Dutch Labor and liberal parties that announced this week they had reached agreement to form a new government are unlikely to user in significant changes in the Netherlands’ European and foreign policy.

Although Labor is seen as more pro-European, it backed the previous, right-wing government’s European policy while in opposition for close to two years as one of its partners, the nationalist Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders, refused to support the ruling Christian Democrats and liberals in the creation of two European bailout funds for the financial support of Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain.

Before September’s election, which followed Wilders’ withdrawal from the ruling coalition, Labor leader Diederik Samsom vehemently disagreed with Prime Minister Mark Rutte when he insisted that Greece could not be given more time to comply with the terms of its two international bailouts.

Although their coalition agreement, which was published on Monday, does not stipulate a specific policy with regard to Greece, the parties note that the recipients of financial aid should work to improve their economies in the long term. They add, “Structural support from countries that do take their responsibility to countries that don’t is out of the question.”

Rutte has in the last two years maintained that he will not help build “a pipeline of permanent support” from the relatively strong economies in the north of the eurozone to the weak in the south. So even if Labor is expected to deliver the next finance and foreign affairs ministers, Rutte will likely remain an ally of German chancellors Angela Merkel’s in opposition to European “transfer union.”

The two Dutch parties agree that the European single market should be strengthened, another cause that has been embraced by the liberal premier and his British counterpart David Cameron in recent years. They write, “Protectionism is contrary to the European ideal.” Additionally, they plan to ask the European Commission to submit proposals for transferring responsibilities back to the national governments and agree that member states should be able to withdraw from the single-currency union as well as the Schengen customs union.

Beyond Europe, the liberals appear to have got most of what they called for in their election platform. Despite Labor’s reluctance, developmental aid will be cut €1 billion per year while defense spending, which was cut nearly €1 billion by the previous government, is slated to be reduced another €250 million, although a similar amount will be set aside to finance peacekeeping operations.

In 2010, it was Labor’s refusal to continue a military presence in Afghanistan that led to the collapse of their government with the Christian Democrats. In Monday’s coalition agreement, the two new ruling parties agree to maintain the Netherlands’ police training mission in the northern province of Kunduz until 2014 when all NATO forces are set to pull out of the country.

The decision to buy the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as a replacement for the Netherlands’ aging fleet of F-16 fighter jets won’t be made until 2013 but the coalition agreement references a report from the nation’s Court of Audits which said last Wednesday that leaving the project will be more costly than staying in. Dutch participation in the development phase of the F-35 will therefore not be affected. Political observers expect that Labor, which only this summer voted to leave the Joint Strike Fighter program, will eventually acquiesce and agree to buy the plane.

Dutch Parliamentary Majority to Stop F-35 Participation

An F-35 fighter aircraft lands at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, July 14, 2011
An F-35 fighter aircraft lands at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida, July 14, 2011 (USAF)

The Dutch opposition Labor Party on Tuesday announced that it would withdraw its support from the purchase of F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft. With other left-wing parties, the centrist Democrats and the nationalist Freedom Party, it has a majority to block acquisition of the plane.

The opposition parties cited budget concerns as reason to end participation in the program. However, many have opposed the F-35 purchase from the start. Read more

F-35 Not Expected to Enter Service Until 2018

Two F-35A fighter aircraft are poised for takeoff to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, August 31
Two F-35A fighter aircraft are poised for takeoff to Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, August 31 (Lockheed Martin)

The United States Air Force announced last week that it will proceed with upgrades of probably more than three hundred F-16 fighter jets to compensate for an expected two year delay in combat readiness of the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter.

The F-35A, the conventional takeoff and landing version of Lockheed Martin’s fifth-generation fighter aircraft, isn’t expected by the Air Force to enter service until 2018. The Marine Corps anticipates that the F-35B vertical takeoff and landing variant will enter service late 2014 or in 2015.

The F-35 is supposed to replace the aging American F-16 fleet as well as the A-10 and most F/A-18 fighters. The Air Force and Navy fly many hundreds of these planes and were slated to buy more than 2,400 new fighter jets. The individual price tag of the planes has skyrocketed however. It is estimated that the F-35 will cost $133 million a piece and be far more expensive in maintenance than existing warplanes.

Last year, the Department of Defense disclosed that the entire program had exceeded its original cost estimate by more than 50 percent. Total expenditures could reach up to $1 trillion.

Delays have forced the military to buy upgraded versions of older F-15s and F-16s to make up for the temporary shortfall. Other nations, including Australia and Israel, will likely face similar “fighter gaps” and ask to lease American jets to make up for it — putting further pressure on the United States Air Force and Navy.

Some five hundred F-15s could remain in the air beyond 2030 under current plans by which time the youngest models will be almost fifty years old. Three hundred F-16s could last through the 2020s, averaging forty years in service. Of the Air Force’s 2,000 fighter jets, less than two hundred F-22 Raptors are on the cutting edge of aviation technology.

F-35 Faces Budget Scrutiny in Congress

Lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic are now openly suggesting that their countries cut back on their F-35 purchases. Mounting costs and numerous delays have made the West’s ultimate fifth-generation fighter jet increasingly unpopular.

Across Europe, NATO countries are forced to cut defense spending. The British in particular are facing dramatic cutbacks while they were the only so-called Level 1 partner in the Joint Strike Fighter Program, supposed to cover approximately 10 percent of total development costs, or $2.5 billion.

Since Britain announced that it would reduce the number of F-35s it will acquire, the Level 2 partners, Italy and the Netherlands, contributing $1 billion and $800 million respectively, have been critical. In both nations, there are parliamentarians who favor pulling out of the project altogether. The Dutch government has indicated that if individual aircraft costs indeed rise by up to 20 percent, it will not be able to afford the 85 planes it originally intended to acquire to replace its current fleet of one hundred F-16s.

In the United States, the Joint Strike Fighter is supposed to replace the F-16, the A-10 as well as most F/A-18s. The Air Force and Navy fly many hundreds of these planes and were expecting to buy more than 2,400 new fighter jets. The individual price tag of each plane has skyrocketed however. It is now estimated that the F-35 will cost $133 million a piece and be far more expensive to maintain than existing warplanes. Last year, the Department of Defense disclosed that the entire program had exceeded its original cost estimate by more than 50 percent. Total expenditures could now reach up to $1 trillion.

Delays have forced the military to buy upgraded versions of older aircraft meanwhile to fill the gaps. Other nations, including Australia and Israel, will likely face similar “fighter gaps” and ask to lease American jets to make up for it — putting further pressure on the United States Air Force and Navy.

The Pentagon has repeatedly insisted that the cost overruns are “unacceptable” and lawmakers agree. “We need to know that the program is going to bring that number down,” said Senator John McCain, ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, last month.

While some politicians and defense analysts have proposed to terminate the program, the Pentagon insists that it still needs the new fighter jet. “We must field a next generation strike fighter, the F-35, and at a cost that permits large enough numbers to replace the current fighter inventory and maintain a healthy margin of superiority over the Russians and Chinese,” said Secretary Robert Gates last week.