IS commitment spreading Dutch F-16’s thin.

Lieuwe de Vries for Veenstra & de Vries Aviation Publishing

With the Netherlands joining the fight against the Islamic State with ten F-16 fighter aircraft the Dutch might be putting a lot, perhaps too much, pressure on their ageing  fleet of fighter aircraft.

After a much debated political decision to support the fight against the Islamic State the Royal Netherlands Air Force transferred ten of their F-16AM Fighting Falcon aircraft to an officially undisclosed guest nation. Though the government initially declined to name the nation that would host the Dutch contingent, citing a possible increased terrorism threat level, it has now become clear the aircraft will be based in Jordan. Most likely their homebase for the coming months will be Azraq, which they will share with American, Belgian and Danish F-16’s.

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A RNLAF F-16AM landing at Leeuwarden Air Base during exercise Frisian Flag.

This would put the aircraft in good position to strike IS targets in Iraq. Part of the deal that allowed partners of the centrist coalition government to agree to the deployment is that the aircraft would only be used where there is a clear mandate. The Iraqi government has asked for international help fighting IS and thus such a mandate exists, the Syrian government has not. As such the Dutch aircraft will be limited to operating in Iraqi airspace, targets in Syria are officially not an option though individual cases can be considered. This might limit their choice of targets in a theater where targets are already hard to find. Royal Air Force Tornado’s flying from Akrotiri, Cyprus, have returned from the majority of missions without finding targets. The Dutch contingent would however free up aircraft from allies who are willing to engage IS targets in Syria from the fight over Iraq. Though the aircraft are controlled by American planners a Dutch officer will always be able to “red card” certain targets or missions, Dutch defence minister Ms. Hennis-Plasschaert explained.

Fighting IS in Iraq puts the Dutch viper fleet under a lot of pressure. After many decades of budget cuts the fleet has gone from once numbering around 200 to around 60 aircraft at present. A large chunk of these aircraft are based in the United States with a training detachment and are thus not immediately available for other tasks. Another group is currently supporting the NATO led Baltic Air Policing mission from Malbork air base in northeast Poland. Add to this recent troubles with fatigue in F-16’s world wide and increased engine inspections in the RNLAF specifically due to engine parts of uncertain origin and it is clear that availability of the fleet as a asset is questionable. Even the Dutch Ministry of Defense has stated in previous letters to parliament that the RNLAF can at most maintain a short-term deployment of six aircraft, longer deployments can only be maintained if the detachment consists of four aircraft. The government has however pledged ten aircraft to the fight against IS, a conflict that looks to be rather a long-term then a short-term engagement.

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RNLAF F-16’s wait as a two-seater taxies into position on the runway at Leeuwarden Air Base.

Financially speaking the multi-year budget for the F-16 program does not allow for associated costs of operations in Iraq. Unwilling to allocate more funds to defense the Dutch government is paying for the deployment by taking money from future budget allotments. In essence the RNLAF is cannibalizing its future self, a self that was already looking rather meager due to recent failed helicopter procurement plans and delays in the Joint Strike Fighter program.

The RNLAF had intended to withdraw it’s Vipers from service once the F-35 was ready to take its place. Originally that should have been accomplished before 2018 by which date a large part of the Dutch airframes and engines need major planned overhauls. With the delays to the F-35 program the F-16’s will have to soldier on beyond that date, meaning those overhauls will need to be done. A number of aircraft will require new wings due to fatigue issues and anti corrosion measures are being taken through out the fleet. Budgetary pressures caused by these unplanned expenditures have forced a reduction in flying hours for each jet.

Reduced flying hours, increased maintenance due to age and other issues, a ever decreasing force size and the continued lack of political will to seriously invest in defense capability coupled with a unrelenting ambition level for defense from those same politicians might push the Dutch F-16 fleet in particular and all Dutch defense forces in general beyond their limits. This will lead to either increased costs or even further reduced operational capabilities, it seems the Dutch government will either have to “pay up” or “shut up”.