It was a big week for the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II. The Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) announced on December 27 that it had reached initial operating capability (IOC) for its fleet of F-35A aircraft. It became the twelfth global military service to declare the fifth-generation stealth fighter ready for operations.
"Our F-35 squadron has attained IOC," the RNLAF announced in a tweet. “With this achievement, the Netherlands joins a select group of countries which can rapidly deploy a F-35 unit with associated personnel for a short period of time anywhere in the world."
The Dutch military has received twenty-four of the contracted forty-six aircraft, and those fighters are operated by 322 Squadron at Leeuwarden Air Base. A second unit will be stood up at Volkel Air Base as additional F-35s are delivered. The highly capable F-35A, the conventional takeoff and landing variant of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), is replacing the RNLAF's aging F-16AM/BM Fighting Falcon. The final F-35 is slated to be delivered by the end of 2023, with full operating capability for the RNLAF to follow in 2024.
The Netherlands' announcement comes just weeks after Finland chose the F-35A for its next fighter aircraft, and has stated that it will buy sixty-four of the aircraft in a deal worth a reported $11 billion.
The bigger news on the F-35 front is that Lockheed Martin has received a contract to design and develop a variant of the F-35 that will feature new requirements for an unspecified foreign customer. According to a United States Department of Defense (DoD) contract posting on Monday, December 27, the aerospace and defense giant was awarded a $49 million cost-plus-incentive-fee contract to provide engineering and other related activities in support of the design and development of a variant of the JSF for an "unspecified Foreign Military Sales (FMS) customer."
According the posting, the bulk of the work will be performed in Fort Worth, Texas, while other Lockheed Martin locations and subcontractors in the supply chain will also provide support with some work being performed in Redondo Beach, Calif., Orlando, Fla., Baltimore, Md., Owego, N.Y. and Samlesbury, Britain. The work on the new contract is expected to be completed in December 2026.
"This contract was not competitively procured pursuant to 10 U.S. Code 2304(c)(1). The Naval Air Systems Command, Patuxent River, Maryland, is the contracting activity (N0001922C0015)," the DoD posting also noted.
What And Where?
Currently all JSF customers receive either the F-35A, B, or C, with the exception of Israel. Its variant is called the F-35I "Adir."
Speculation has been running high on what type of variant might be in the works, and where the aircraft could be headed. It is unlikely that it would be a modified version of the F-35C, as there are currently no foreign customers of the catapult-launched variant. The United States Navy is likely to remain the sole operator of that version of the JSF. As The Drive noted, it would be unlikely to be a NATO customer as a variant could undermine the interoperability requirements that exists within the alliance.
Additionally, the $49 million contract should be seen as relatively low value, while the timeline is also on the rather short end – which could suggest a continuation and/or modification of a previously awarded design and development contract. Janes previously reported that the February 2018 contract to deliver the Israeli-specific upgrades for the F-35I was part of a wider Block 3F+ software package. It also provided for the procurement of weapons certifications unique to Israel, modification kits, and electronic warfare analysis.
Modifications to the basic F-35 aren't all that uncommon. One example was how Norway's F-35A aircraft were fitted with a drag chute. Given that Finland has also become the most recent JSF customer and is operating the fifth-generation fighter in similar conditions, the recent contract could be for Finland. It fits the profile as a non-NATO nation.
Other nations named as potential customers could include future operators such as Switzerland and Singapore. More unlikely would be a potential future operators such as the United Arab Emirates, Taiwan, or even NATO partners such as Greece, Romania, or Spain. While these nations could operate the F-35 in the future, the adoption of the aircraft likely wouldn't come via such a nondescript FMS posting. At this point we can only speculate, but the smart money would be that it is for continued upgrades for the Israeli aircraft, or for modifications to the existing Finnish deal.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.