The Netherlands is joining the international coalition battling Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. But the 10 F-16 fighter jets the Dutch want to send represent much—perhaps too much—of The Netherlands’ deployable military might.
After a heated political debate, the Royal Netherlands Air Force flew the 10 F-16AMs to an officially undisclosed country in the Middle East in early October. The warplanes conducted their first bombing mission on Oct. 7, striking Islamic State vehicles firing on Kurdish troops in northern Iraq.
Although the Dutch government declined to name the country hosting the F-16s and their pilots and maintainers, it’s clear the aircraft are operating from Azraq in Jordan, where the Jordanians and Americans also have F-16s.
The Netherlands’ centrist coalition government agreed to the deployment on the condition that the aircraft would only participate in military action where there is a clear international mandate.
The Iraqi government has asked for international help fighting Islamic State, but the Syrian government has not. As such, the Dutch aircraft will only operate in Iraqi airspace—targets in Syria are officially not an option.
This might limit the Dutch pilots’ choices in a theater where targets are already hard to find. Royal Air Force Tornadoes flying from Akrotiri, Cyprus, have returned from the majority of their missions without finding anything worth bombing.
The Dutch contingent could, however, free up aircraft from allied countries that are willing to engage militant targets in Syria. American planners assign missions to The Netherlands planes, but a Dutch officer will always be able to “red card”—that is, veto—certain targets or missions, Dutch defense minister Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert explained.
Fighting Islamic State in Iraq puts the Dutch F-16 fleet under a lot of pressure. After decades of budget cuts, the F-16 force has shrunk from around 200 aircraft to just 60.
A large number of these aircraft are in the United States with a training detachment and are thus not immediately available for other tasks. Another group is currently supporting the NATO Baltic Air Policing mission from Malbork air base in northeast Poland.
Add to this recent troubles with fatigue in F-16s worldwide and increased engine inspections in the RNLAF—due to engine parts of uncertain origin showing up in the maintenance system—and it’s obvious that the Dutch air force is stretched thin.
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 are only possible if the detachment consists of four aircraft.
But in Iraq, the government has pledged 10 jets—and the mission appears to be a long-term one. Something has to give.
Financially speaking, the multi-year budget for the Dutch F-16 program doesn’t cover missions like that 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 with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
The RNLAF had intended to withdraw its F-16s from service once the F-35 was ready to take its place. Originally that should have been before 2018, by which date a large proportion of the Dutch F-16s would need major overhauls.
With the delays to the F-35 program, the F-16s will have to soldier on beyond that date, meaning those overhauls will be necessary. A number of aircraft will require new wings due to fatigue issues. Anti corrosion measures are being applied throughout the fleet. Budgetary pressures resulting from these unplanned expenditures have forced a reduction in flying hours for each jet.
Reduced flying hours, increased maintenance due to age and other issues, an ever-decreasing force size and the continued lack of political will to seriously invest in defense capability—coupled with the politicians’ unrelenting ambition to take part in world events—could push the Dutch F-16 force beyond its limits.
This will lead to either increased costs or further reductions in capability. The Dutch government will have to either pay up or shut up.
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