A year ago the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) announced plans to purchase nine additional Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters, bringing the country’s inventory of the fifth-generation advanced stealth fighter to forty-six. The one-billion-euro acquisition was reported to “lay the foundation” for an eventual third F-35 squadron for the NATO member. The Netherlands sought to purchase the F-35 fighters to replace its legacy fleet of F-16s.
The decision to buy the aircraft also restores the force from the deep cuts that the Dutch military began at the end of the Cold War and continued through the 2008 global financial crisis. Currently, the RNLAF operates just sixty F-16s in three front-line squadrons and one training unit. That is a far cry from the late 1980s when the Netherlands had more than 200 F-16 airframes, which made it one of Europe’s most powerful fighter forces.
It isn’t clear if the Dutch government might have second thoughts after the RNLAF was unable to use its F-35s during last month’s Allied Sky operation, in which six B-52 Stratofortress strategic bombers flew across all thirty North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) counties in a single-day mission. Four of the United States Air Force bombers were deployed from Royal Air Force (RAF) Fairford in the United Kingdom and flew over Europe, where the bombers were escorted by fighters from NATO partners including RAF Typhoons, FAF Mirage 2000s and even MiG-21s operated by Romania and Croatia as well as MiG-29s operated by Poland and Bulgaria.
While Italian Air Force and Norwegian Air Force F-35 Lightning II fighters were also involved in the escort duties, notably absent were the RNLAF’s F-35As. This week the reason was made clear.
The F-35s were grounded in the Netherlands due to a thunderstorm.
The intention had been for the brand new aircraft from Leeuwarden Air Base to escort the B-52s, but there was a great risk of lightning, and due to a combination of mechanical problems and concerns over a lightning strike the decision was made not to risk the extremely expensive aircraft or pilots for the operation.
“Damaged pipes have been found on F-35A fighters. These are pipes from the On-Board Inert Gas Generation System (OBIGGS) in a fuel tank. All countries with F-35As were advised to avoid flights near storm cells and to protect the aircraft on the ground by a shelter or lightning rod,” the Dutch MoD explained in a statement. “The OBIGGS ensures that the risk of explosion of fuel vapors in the event of, for example, a lightning strike is reduced to a minimum. The damaged pipes can make the fuel tanks less well protected. After damaged pipes were found on 4 (non-Dutch) aircraft, further inspections followed. More damaged pipes were found, including at Dutch F-35As. The cause of the problem is still under investigation.”
Business Insider reported that that the F-35 has suffered issues with the OBIGGS for many years, and deficiencies with the system that is supposed to pump nitrogen-enriched air into the fuel tanks to inert them were first discovered during tests in 2008. The tests revealed a serious design fault where the F-35 could explode if struck by lightning—which is somewhat ironic given that the aircraft’s name is Lightning II. For those reasons the aircraft has been restricted from flying within twenty-five miles of lightning conditions.
While the issue was resolved in 2014, additional faults have been discovered—and that prompted the grounding of the plane during last month’s exercise.
It is not clear why the Dutch F-16s did not take part instead. It seems that nearly every other NATO nation took part in the exercise with the possible exception of Turkey. Even Ukraine, which is not a NATO member, took part in the Allied Sky operation flights on August 30, 2020.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.