How less F-35s could lead to a more effective Dutch air force

Ruben Veenstra & Lieuwe de Vries 
for Veenstra & De Vries Aviation Publishing

Over the last decade the Royal Netherlands Air Force has been a tactical air force, most of its operations in Afghanistan and Iraq were in support of ground troops. Both Dutch troops and those from international partners were supported by bombing, strafing or simply show of force operations by the RNLAF’s F-16AM fighter jets. Dwindling budgets and thus a decreased force size (down to 61 Falcons from a force that once numbered around 200 machines) have meant that the Dutch can now realistically sustain a deployment of just four aircraft.

The F-16 isn’t the Netherlands’ only asset available for close air support though. In 2000 a fleet of 30 AH-64D Apache’s entered service. The helicopter gunships have served the RNLAF admirably with past operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently, the helicopters are in Mali supporting UN Peacekeepers for the international MINUSMA operation. The Apache fleet has maintained its size with just one lost in a training accident after it hit power lines while hovering in poor weather.

The rest of the Dutch rotary wing fleet has suffered however; budget cuts upon budget cuts have left the RNLAF without much of its Cougar helicopters. The Navy lost it’s frigate based Lynx helicopter before their replacement, the NHIndustries NH-90, was ready to take their place and the AB-412 search and rescue helicopters (which also perform civilian medevac’s from coastal islands) are to be withdrawn from service in favor of the same troubled NH-90.

Like many European air forces the RNLAF sees its future closely tied to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter with the Dutch ordering 37 of the high-tech jets from Lockheed Martin. The price tag for this new fighter force is around 4.5 billion Euros. Because of these costs, the F-35 will eat up a large part of the defense budget and resulting in less and less money available for the rest of the armed forces in general and the air force in particular. In a recent interview with Business News Radio the Dutch Minister of Defense Mrs. Hennis-Plasschaert said that the overall defense budget will shrink to just 1,15 percent of the gross domestic product by 2017 from 1,25 percent in 2014. Well short of the 2 percent rule that all NATO partners have agreed on, let alone of the 4 percent the United States currently spends on defense.

The military has stated that it will guarantee four F-35s ready for deployment for EU/NATO operations. Having such a low number at the ready will mean the expeditionary force’s effectiveness is very vulnerable to mishaps of any kind, leaving the question of how effective an air support provider such a small deployment will be.

Combat operations are, of course, more dangerous than peacetime flying. Under operational pressure accidents are more likely to happen even though chances of damage from opposing forces might be small in conflicts such as in Afghanistan and Iraq. The loss of just one F-35 to an accident would mean a large loss to a small fleet, let alone the propaganda value for an enemy of bringing down, by force or by accident, the latest and greatest US-built aircraft.

Another consideration is the inherent risk and cost of providing air support with a very expensive stealth fighter-bomber. Let alone the necessity of such a high-tech aircraft when combatting a force made out of guerrilla style combatants who have little advanced weaponry.
The RNLAF does have an alternative solution for delivering air support with their Apache fleet. Cost wise one less F-35 will buy you about eight Apaches. Ten less F-35’s would more then triple the Dutch Apache fleet. Increased availability in numbers would boost the potential of Dutch air support. Using the Apache over the F-35 also means a decreased cost footprint per hour of supplied air support.

Unlike the high speed F-35, which needs to maintain altitude to clear terrain and typically circles the combat area in a wider arc, the Apache can stay on top of the action. Staying closer to the action means it doesn’t lose sight of what is happening. Using its nose mounted optical sensors it can observe the combat area and relay information back to ground troops on a more continuous basis then a high speed fixed wing aircraft ever could.

Closer proximity does translate into more danger, operating closer to the troops also puts the Apache in range of enemy fire and especially that of heavy machine guns. Although damage to the Dutch combat helicopters has been relatively rare, American aircraft have sustained damage and losses while operating in Iraq. Back in 2003 the U.S. Army flew 31 Apaches over Karbala, Iraq. Due to problems with preparations and shifting timetables the mission resulted in two Apache losses and of the remaining 29, only one was fit to fly afterwards. The Apaches were riddled by bullet holes with an average of 15 to 20 hits by small arms fire. But in spite of the problems with the mission it shows what a tough aircraft the Apache is. The design is outfitted with many redundancies and a special effort is made to increase pilot survivability.

Of course the F-35 has its advantages. One advantage is its speed and range: the F-35 easily outpaces the Apache and the latter has no way to refuel in flight like the F-35 does. The Apache can and often does carry auxiliary fuel tanks under its stub wings, which help increase its range. They do take the place of some of its armament though. In it’s classical (cold war) anti tank role operating over Germany, the Apache would carry up to 8 hellfire missiles and two pods with unguided folding fin rockets aside its helmet controlled 30 millimeter cannon.

The reduction of armament carried due to the external tanks, however, hardly hampers the Apache’s operational capabilities. Even when armed with four Hellfire missiles and one pod of the unguided rockets the machine is still more then a match for Taliban-style warriors. Further compensation for any range or endurance issues is the Apache’s ability to operate from so-called FARP’s closer to the front. A FARP, short for Forward Arming and Refueling Point, is a small base where the Apaches can come to rearm and refuel without the need to return to a large base further away from the frontline. The F-35 requires a much larger logistical footprint compared to the Apache and once it runs out of armament needs to make the long flight back to its base.

Though the F-35 has a place in the future RNLAF, especially when operating in contested airspace, the current tunnel vision might leave the RNLAF increasingly less able to efficiently conduct its core business. Close Air Support is and will remain the bread and butter of the RNLAF and with minimal numbers of F-35s available for deployment abroad, the ability to deploy a stronger and larger force of attack helicopters makes much more sense. Such a force would make a much more meaningful contribution to NATO operations or those of coalition partners instead of four fighter jets. No matter how capable the F-35 is.