New discussion about Dutch fighter planes

X-35 (Experimental) Joint Strike Fighter.
By Rob Kievit for Radio Netherlands Worldwide

The Dutch ministry of defence's plan to replace its F-16 fighter planes by 2014 is premature, according to research carried out at Leiden University by Bert Kreemers.

Kreemers, a former defence ministry spokesman, says that given the planes' generally accepted lifespan of 6000 flight hours, and that they are used for 175 hours or less per year, most of the fighters can remain in service until at least 2020. The oldest ones date back to 1984. Other countries are assuming an 8000-hour lifespan for the plane, suggesting that the Dutch defence forces could retain this jet fighter even longer, Kreemers told Dutch public radio.

Last December, deputy minister of defence Jack de Vries warned parliament that maintenance costs for the ageing F-16s will increase sharply by 2015, and ruled out the possibility that keeping the machines after 2021 would be a viable option.

Back in 1990 it was discovered that certain parts of the aircraft had a lifespan of no more than 3000 hours, rather than the 8000 that Lockheed Martin had specified for the F-16 as a whole, necessitating a thorough overhaul programme.

On its website, the Dutch defence ministry adds that the F-16s are "aging operationally", i.e. they are becoming less suitable to counter the changing threats they face in action.

Costs unclear

The replacement for the F-16s, which has to be decided on next year, is a politically sensitive issue. The Dutch government is planning to sign a contract in May for the purchase of two new F-35 planes, usually referred to as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), without knowing the actual cost of this purchase. These US-built planes would be the first of 85 JSFs that are due to replace the current Dutch fleet of 138 F-16s.

The Dutch audit office last week criticised the ministry of defence for failing to provide adequate information about the JSF. The JSF program office reckoned in 2002 that the planes would cost 37.2 million dollars each; by 2007 that price had risen to 49.5 million. This could saddle the Dutch budget with extra expenses of 360 million, the audit office warned.

Estimates of the production cost of the JSF plane have consistently been too low, as US defence undersecretary John Young explains to secretary of defence Robert Gates in a memo leaked last week via insidedefense.com. In that memo Young writes that this is partly due to cost calculations being based on the experimental prototypes, whose weight was lower than that of the final design.

Meanwhile, public and political resistance to the JSF project is growing in the Netherlands. People living near military airbases are worried about a fourfold increase in noise pollution produced by the more powerful and louder JSF engines, which has been predicted by a US report. Members of parliament are complaining that the current government hesitated too long before finally deciding to examine other, cheaper alternatives. Although the centre-left coalition of Christian Democrats, Labour and the small ChristienUnie party remains committed to the JSF test programme, it has now agreed to another independent investigation into other potential suppliers, as required by parliament. The most recent comparison of alternative planes was carried out in 2008, well before the onset of the economic crisis.

The Dutch JSF contract

In 2002 the Dutch cabinet of then prime minister Wim Kok signed a contract with the US government, agreeing to participate in the development of the Joint Strike Fighter, and paying an investment sum of 858 million dollars for the privilege.

In return the Americans promised Dutch industry would receive substantial orders to help with production of the plane. Dutch companies that agreed to participate in the JSF programme promised they would repay the government 3.5 percent of their turnover once they became involved.

However, seven years on, few of the compensation orders from the US have materialised, say industry leaders.

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