Ex Dutch defence chief stumbles to the rescue as MPs contemplate ditching F-35

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Yousuf Malik

Flight of fantasy

The former chief of defence of The Netherlands, Dick Berlijn, and Dutch defence expert, Peter Wijninga, recently backed the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme and their government’s bid to acquire the fifth generation fighter. This comes after the majority of Dutch MPs now back the idea of ditching the hugely expensive and much-delayed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which is built by Lockheed Martin, the US defence contractor.

The pair were recently interviewed [in Dutch] by the popular news website NU for a well-meaning article meant to counter The Hague’s dismay with the growing cost of the stealthy aircraft. Berlijn and Wijninga suggest that any alternative fighter jets the Royal Netherlands Air Force might buy would be outdated and just as expensive, if not more expensive.

In reality, it is a complete flight of fantasy which also contradicts the rest of their reasoning.

With age comes wisdom

It is unlikely that the former Dutch defence chief, who would have been privy to negotiations, could have gotten his facts so wrong.

"This has to be a politically motivated bid to cloud the debate and mislead Dutch taxpayers," said an inside source who wished to remain anonymous.

The NU article quoted Berlijn and Wijninga as saying that the options available to the Dutch, which include the Eurofighter Typhoon, Saab Gripen, and the French Rafale, were all outdated. The pair asked: "Who would buy a new car with 20 year old technology?"

The F-35 program office started life in 1993. That was nearly 20 years ago.

Audi vs. Buick: Next-war-itis?

Aware that the Dutch might prefer a sporty Audi to a Buick, Berlijn and Wijninga compare the F-35 to the high-end car manufacturer and suggest it would be insane to replace an Audi with a Buick. They assert that the whole discussion in The Netherlands is simply political.

"Arguments, which are supported by independent research by the Rand Corporation, seem not to matter anymore," they lament.

I would certainly hope they weren’t referring to the leaked Rand Corporation report which said the F-35 "can't turn, can't climb, can't run" and which resulted in the Australian government controversially buying more F/A-18 Super Hornets from Boeing, a fighter aircraft manufacturer.

Berlijn and Wijninga further argue that if The Netherlands send their men and women on dangerous missions, they have a duty to give them the best weapons. Perfectly reasonable then but convenient they didn't burden themselves with explaining how exactly the F-35 is the best weapon. General Motors, which makes the Buick, would probably disagree with the pair, asking which particular model they’re talking about? What year? What engine? Like the gorgeous ’49 Buick Roadmaster, the F-35 is a brilliant plane but it is the best weapon for what exactly? Red threat? Blue threat? Grey threat? Taliban in a Toyota Hi-Lux? Robert Gates’ "Next-War-itis"?

Air warfare is not about speed and manoeuvrability, they assert, but about being invisible and stealthy and being able to "take out an F-16 from a great distance." But the F-16 is not flown by any adversaries the Dutch are likely to come up against. It’s aircraft like the Su-27, Su-30, MiG-29s and all their Chinese variants and newer aircraft that the Dutch and other F-35 customers need to worry about. The F-35 truly is not as fast and is limited by the range of its weapons, which are exactly the same as the ‘Buicks’ – the F-16s, Rafales, and the Eurofighters– that Berlijn and Wijninga are comparing it to.

Invisibility through stealth is not as awe-inspiring as the smug Audi driver might think either. The kind of stealth that the F-35 comes with offers reduced ‘acquisition’ for enemy radars looking for you in the X-band only. There are ways to ‘see’ stealthy aircraft using longer radar wavelengths as the former Yugoslavian Army Colonel Zoltan Dani famously did when he shot down the stealthy F-117 Nighthawk back in 1999. Furthermore, modern infra-red search and track (IRST) technology has now advanced to the point that stealthy aircraft are no longer invisible.

The 2008 press release attributed to Tom Burbage, Lockheed Martin’s Executive Vice President, really stirred up the stealth debate:

"Simply put, advanced stealth and sensor fusion allow the F-35 pilot to see, target and destroy the adversary and strategic targets in a very high surface-to-air threat scenario, and deal with air threats intent on denying access – all before the F-35 is ever detected, then return safely to do it again."

In response, Aviation Week’s veteran journalist Bill Sweetman remarked, "Jeebus on a Vespa... I have been writing about LO [low observable; stealth] technology for 28 years and I have never heard anyone make a claim like this. Stealth means that you are hard to detect, harder to track and harder still to engage, but it doesn't make you invisible, particularly after large explosions have alerted the adversary to your presence."

How much did you say?

Perhaps most alarmingly, the NU article quotes Berlijn and Wijninga as saying that the "F-35 costs €88.5 million including training." Are they talking about the two F-35s the Dutch bought? They certainly weren't bought for €88.5 million. See Pentagon chart below.

Dismissing the French Rafale as an option for the Royal Netherlands Air Force, Berlijn and Wijninga go on to say, "This aircraft has just been sold for €95 million each to India and is therefore more expensive than the JSF."

The Rafale isn’t cheap but the two F-35s the Dutch bought probably cost in excess of €151 million [$190 million] each and they are incomplete as to final configuration and retrofit/modification cost (look at the lines for Unit flyaway cost and Weapons system flyawaycost, year 2010 in the chart above). The end of program final average forecast price for the F-35 aircraft on its own (without support, training or weapons and equipment costs) published in the 2011 U.S. Department of Defense F-35 Selected Acquisition Report is $78.7 million. To arrive at that price, the F-35 program office averaged the cost of 2,443 aircraft the US is meant to buy, and 716 aircraft that international customers are committed to buy over the total production run through to the year 2037. Tellingly, all 3,200 aircraft will have to be bought to realise that average figure. The Pentagon now projects that the cost of the F-35 program will be $1.45 trillion – up from $1 trillion a year ago. Costs are going up faster than we thought. That works out to a minimum average cost of $135 million per plane. Even that figure has only recently been made possible through creative arithmetic by estimating the total cost of the aircraft including operating costs spread over 50 years instead of 30 as was the original plan.

What about the Eurofighter then?

"This aircraft is absolutely not affordable and technically outdated. It has been sold for €271 million to Saudi Arabia," remarks Berlijn.

The costs of the Eurofighter, Rafale and Gripen used by Berlijn have no source to validate what they are based on. Is that the cost of a single aircraft alone or the total cost including weapons, 20 or 30 years of support, logistics, training, etc. which is usually figured in to the published cost when a country buys a fighter jet? The Japanese cost per aircraft in their F-35 acquisition program is about $238 million per copy (42 aircraft at $10 billion).

"That’s quite a clever trick," our source said. "When talking about the plane that he [Berlijn] supports, he gives you the price without engine, weapons, training or support over 20 years and when talking about the planes he wants to discredit, he adds everything in."

That would be the cost of the Buicks with all the trimmings – go fast stripes, service and repairs for 20 years, 3 spare engines, 800 watt stereo, video entertainment system and the cute blonde from the TV ad.

"The plane Berlijn is pushing the Dutch to buy is the Audi – a fine car and arguably a lot more desirable than a Buick – but what he doesn’t tell you is that if you want the engine, wheels, lights or seats, you’ll have to pay a lot more."

Perhaps Rob Meines from Lockheed rival Saab, which promotes the Gripen, best sums it up in the NU article: "Nobody knows what the JSF is going to cost us."

Buick – 1. Audi – 0.

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