Dutch MvD Report Urges F-35 over Gripen NG, F-16E Fighters
Over the past year, both Norway and the Netherlands have both held competitions for their F-16 fighter replacements. EADS pulled its Eurofighter out of the Norwegian competition in December 2007, amidst rumors that they believed the competition was fixed to a pre-determined outcome. Norway’s recent decision, and the follow-on presentation by Saab’s CEO, certainly add credence to that perception.
On the southern shores of the North Sea, The Netherlands has been a Tier 2 Joint Strike Fighter partner for several years. With Dutch industry potentially headed to legal proceedings against the government over JSF program fees, Rekenkamer reports questioning the F-35’s final costs, and controversy over Dutch participation in the F-35A’s IOT&E program, political pressure forced the Dutch to open their competition again in 2008. Neither EADS nor Dassault believed this, and both refused invitations to participate. Despite the government’s ongoing efforts to deepen Dutch participation in the F-35 program, Saab did participate, submitting an offer in near-record time.
The Norwegian competition featured a simulation as an important centerpiece of the competition. The Dutch competition also featured simulations, alongside a comparative study of the F-16 Block 60+, JAS-39NG Gripen, and F-35A. A study whose findings have become a key milestone to the Dutch IOT&E decision, and to its future fighter choice.
That study was carried out by the Ministerie van Defensie in cooperation with TNO (Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research) and NLR (Netherlands Aerospace Laboratory) and was monitored by the audit services of the MvD and the Ministry of Economic Affairs). At the request of the Dutch House of Representatives, RAND Europe also monitored the comparative study.
The Audit organizations and RAND Europe have all certified the study, and State Secretary for Defence, Jack de Vries, has now sent the results to the Dutch House of Representatives. It reportedly concludes that the F-35A is the best aircraft, with the lowest capital costs, and the lowest anticipated life-cycle costs. See MvD release [in Dutch].
The conclusions regarding the aircraft’s capital and operating costs are difficult to square with the Dutch Rekenkamer reports to date. While programs like ALIS and improvements tlike self-monitoring wiring do offer promise, it’s worth noting that several generations of American combat aircraft have offered projections that are consistently much lower than their real maintenance costs. Defense Aerospace asks the obvious questions:
bq. “Since the F-35 has barely begun its flight test program, and will not enter service for another seven years at best, one wonders on what rational criteria the Netherlands could have determined that the F-35 offers “the greatest operational availability,” that “its capital costs…are the lowest and…that the total life-cycle costs will also be the lowest.”
A reading and translation of the minister’s letters offers some broad answers in this regard, while other areas remain less transparent.
The F-35’s “investment cost” calculations appear to benefit from industrial spinoff expectations, thanks to the aircraft’s export potential. With regards to “exploitation” (maintenance, repair, and operation) costs, the letter says that all 3 aircraft had roughly similar scores because of the uncertainty of fuel prices and the dollar exchange rate. Their estimate for 85 F-35As over 30 years is EUR 14.4 billion.
Delivery for an advanced F-16 option and F-35 lists as 2015 in the letter, and the Dutch report assumes participation in the F-35’s IOT&E (Initial Operational Test and Evaluation) phase to accelerate fielding. Gripen NG’s delivery and Initial Operational Capability (IOC) was estimated at 2020, and the study rated the aircraft’s development and production risks as being much higher than the F-35’s, given the aircraft’s relative stages.
RAND’s study of the F-22 vs. F/A-18 Super Hornet development programs suggests that even a major upgrade of an existing type carries less risk, versus an entirely new fighter that banks on unproven leap-ahead technologies for the airframe, electronics, and propulsion. A better understanding of the basis for the report’s relative risk ratings would require more detailed information concerning their assumptions about each program, technologies seen as likely risk factors, etc. In Gripen’s case, the Thales RBE2-AA AESA radar or its replacement would have had a significant influence on both the IOC date and the assigned risk ratings.
Finally, the Netherlands considered an End Life Update of its existing F-16 fleet, involving options like AESA radars, new engines, conformal fuel tanks, etc. The letter concludes that wear and tear on the F-16 airframes will continue, and the classic issues associated with aging aircraft would remain: more frequent inspections and the possibility of sudden defects are the most prominent. The letter also cites potential problems with spares availability, though the size of the world’s F-16 fleets and availability of multiple production lines around the world make that rather unlikely.
More certain drawbacks include limits to the airframe’s life, resulting in almost certain retirement of the fleet by 2020; the likelihood that the Netherlands would have to bear a large percentage of that end life update’s development and technical costs on its own; and the effects on their operational fleet as planes are withdrawn for upgrades.
See also: JSF Nieuws [in Dutch], incl. links to Minister’s letters covering the competition [PDF, Dutch] and an F-16 End-Life Update option [PDF, Dutch] | NRC Handelsblad coverage [English] | Volkskrant coverage [in Dutch] | Trouw [in Dutch].