PARIS and THE HAGUE --- A consensus is nearing among Dutch political parties to buy no more than 36 F-35A fighters – and perhaps as few as 30 – to replace the Royal Netherlands Air Force’s remaining fleet of 68 F-16 fighters.
This is a far smaller buy than the 85 that the Netherlands initially planned, and just over half of the reduced buy of about 55 that was agreed last year, before the latest elections voted in a different government coalition.
A political consensus to buy fewer F-35s would also mean that tentative plans to re-open a real and open competition for the F-16 replacement will be dropped. Boeing and Saab had been invited by Parliament’s defense committee to present their alternatives to the F-35 during hearings scheduled for April, but two other potential European bidders, Dassault Aviation and Eurofighter, had shown little interest in the Dutch order, as they doubted the Netherlands would drop out of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
However, reacting to reports of the consensus, Defense Minister Mrs. Hennis-Plasschaert said that “all options remain open”.
The de facto agreement between coalition parties on the lower figure was revealed by Robald Vuijk, the right-wing VVD party’s defense spokesman, MP and member of Parliament’s Defence Committee, in a March 27 interview with the daily newspaper De Telegraaf,
In the interview, Vuijk said that his party believes that only the F-35 suits Dutch requirements, and that a final decision is needed this year, as soon as possible. “We don’t want any further delays,” he said.
If formally confirmed by the two governing parties, the new consensus will mark a major shift in their previous positions regarding the F-16 replacement program, and a major step towards a final, binding decision by the government.
Among Dutch political parties, the VVD (which has 41 seats in Parliament) has always been the most enthusiastic backer of F-35 acquisition, and has consistently pushed in its favor with the backing of industry and the armed forces.
The left-wing PvdA Labour party (with 38 seats), on the other hand, has long opposed the project, as have several of the smaller parties: (PVV with 15 seats; PvdD with 2 seats; D66 with 12 seats; SP with 15 seats; GL with 4 seats, and 50plus with 2 seats).
Taken together, the F-35’s opponents now hold 88 seats and, when the VVD’s 41 seats are added, the compromise solution to buy 36 or fewer aircraft is backed by a solid majority of 129 seats, out of a total of 150 MPs. Sources say the consensus around a much lower number of aircraft became possible when Parliament found out that only 24 of the Dutch air force’s fleet of 68 F-16 fighters are available for operational duties, due to maintenance issues and the lack of spare parts.
The lower aircraft number also remains within the budgetary envelope approved by the coalition for the replacement of the F-16s, which amounts to € 4.5 billion but, when 21% Value-Added Tax is stripped out, the actual acquisition budget is only € 3.72 billion, which in the best of conditions will probably have to be stretched to buy 36 F-35s.
Finally, a 60% cut in the original Dutch order will inevitably increase acquisition costs for other countries, especially when added to similar, if smaller, cuts in orders already announced by Italy, Australia, Canada and Denmark.