The aircraft is arriving at a difficult time, however. The F-35's operating and procurement costs do not necessarily fit well with a new age of fiscal austerity. Since the global economic crisis, Dutch ministers have been aggressive in slicing the defense budget. Only in recent months, faced with an increasingly aggressive Russia, has money been flowing back in.
The Netherlands was a 2002 signatory to the JSF program, with the aim of purchasing 85 F-35s to replace its F-16s. In 2009, the Dutch defense ministry ordered two F-35As to support the operational test and evaluation program. However, ministers had not formally settled on a decision to buy the aircraft. It was not until September 2013 that they officially announced the F-35's selection. But the number of aircraft was greatly reduced, with the budget allowing for just 37 aircraft, eight of which were ordered in March.
The Dutch aircraft will be assembled at the Cameri final assembly and checkout facility in Italy.
After accounting for aircraft out for maintenance, overseas training duties and the defense of Dutch airspace, the RNLAF expects it will be able to send only four F-35s on operational deployments. Furthermore, these will be limited in terms of time and scope--a dramatic change for an air force usually relied upon by its NATO allies to punch above its weight in support of coalition air operations.
Schnitger says that 37 aircraft was the maximum number acceptable to ministers at the time, but he expects the number to rise, albeit not in the short term.
"Behind the number 37, I tell my people, there is not a period, but a comma," explains Schnitger. "The security situation in Europe is changing, [defense] budgets are recovering and every day we take a hard look at our [projected] needs five, 10, 20 years from now," he adds.
The two operational aircraft are currently being flown out of Edwards AFB, California, where they form part of the joint U.S.-led JSF operational test team.
With the RNLAF planning for the F-35's service entry in 2019, the Dutch team there has been accelerating testing with recent trials proving interoperability with the F-16, the KDC-10 refueling aircraft, navy vessels and joint tactical air controllers.
The F-16 and F-35 will be "operating side-by-side for quite a while," says Col. Albert De Smit, commander of the RNLAF detachment at Edwards. Part of the testing has been to understand and develop tactics for fourth- and fifth-generation fighters to work together more effectively.
"Analysis on the exchange of information is far from complete," adds De Smit. "But F-35 capabilities definitely enhance fourth-generation fighter effectiveness by providing increased situational awareness."
"In Europe, for a long time to come, we will be working with this mix [of] fourth-, fifth- and even third-[generation] aircraft and dwindling numbers of airframes and weapons," says Schnitger. "We have to make the most out of that construct."
Schnitger says the Netherlands will have to make its transition to the F-35 at a "fast and furious" pace, as the RNLAF cannot afford to operate both the F-16 and F-35 for an extended period of time. Some of the F-16s have high airframe hours and sustainment issues.
"It's unavoidable that there will be a slight dent in our abilities to sustain operations abroad, and that is what we have to accept," says Schnitger.
He points out that the pace of transition will allow the air force initial operating capability in 2020.
The air arm is also planning to deploy one of its F-35s, with support from an RNLAF Douglas KDC-10 tanker, to the Netherlands in the summer of 2016, to allow communities living near F-35 bases to experience the aircraft's noise profile. The air arm will use the opportunity to take noise and vibration measurements to support F-35 operations from hardened aircraft shelters.
The same aircraft is also set to make the F-35's international public debut at the air force's Open Days at Leeuwarden in June.
Having recently deployed the Boeing Small Diameter Bomb on the F-16, the RNLAF is also studying future weapon options for the F-35 and sees a requirement for a standoff air-to-ground weapon capability in the longer term.
But Schnitger says the air arm will have to wait to see which weapons become available in the upcoming block development cycles. "We know there are some European and American developments in these fields, and we are looking at all of them," he says.
The F-35 procurement has opened up other, more immediate, concerns regarding pilot training as well. In order to get the most operational capability out of the F-35, the RNLAF is transitioning to a 2:1 ratio of pilots to aircraft from 1:1. But the current budgets do not stretch to giving all of those pilots the annual flying hours they need to be combat-ready.
Commanders are looking at a number of options, including the amount of training that can be performed in the simulator and use of a companion training aircraft, downloading F-35 training software to a type that is cheaper to operate.
They are also considering how well the current training in the U.S.--using the T-38 Talons of the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training--will prepare pilots for the fifth-generation fighter, given that the next-generation T-X trainer will not be operational until 2023.
"Simulation will be a big part of the training program for the pilots," says Schnitger. "Fighter pilots prefer to strap on a jet and not a simulator, but things are about to change, and they understand that. They are working with me to optimize what we have," he adds.
Two RNLAF students are in training at Lecce Galatina air base in southern Italy, where they will conduct advanced jet training on the Alenia Aermacchi M346 to see how that aircraft prepares them for the F-35.
The Netherlands is also in discussions with other European F-35 partners to lead a fighter weapons school exercise program, as well as to become a center for maintenance training for the jet. Closer ties with Italy could lead the Netherlands to make use of the Cameri maintenance, repair and overhaul center for heavy maintenance of the fleet, along with taking advantage of Italian airspace for training.
"Pooling and sharing in Europe is very important," says Schnitger. "Doing it based on bilateral or trilateral deals is much more effective than trying to lump together a large number of countries."
Neighboring Belgium, in particular, is considered a critical defense partner. Schnitger says the existing defense relationship could be strengthened if Brussels selected the F-35 as well.
"It is the best aircraft they can buy," says Schnitger. "I am sure that the decision-makers in Belgium know that they have an ally to the north of them, willing to have discussions on the integration between the two air forces.
"However, you could turn it around and say that the French candidate, the Rafale, is the same, so it is not a decision breaker [make or break]," he added.
The two governments are currently discussing a cross-border treaty that will allow the air forces to share the air policing role over both countries, potentially halving the burden of quick- reaction alert operations and freeing up flying hours. Such a system could be operational in 2017.