April 1, 2024

Dutch 'nuclear-capable' F-35s to replace F-16s for NATO's 'rapid' interception of Russian jets


On March 29, Dutch F-35 fighter jets replaced the F-16 fighter jets in the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) detachment patrolling the skies over Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, marking a gradual step towards the retirement of the Fighting Falcons.

The two Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) F-35 fighter jets will rotate until May 9 this year, when a Belgian Air Force detachment will take over the QRA and patrol Belgium-Netherlands-Luxembourg (BENELUX) airspace.

NATO QRA involves the scrambling of fighter jets to investigate a potential or actual infringement of a NATO member state's airspace or area of ​​interest. It consists of reporting by the country involved and a coordinated response between operations centers and pilots.

Dutch F-16 Fighting Falcons have carried out the QRA mission since 1981, but that “era” is “over,” according to a statement from the Dutch Ministry of Defense. Capable of “taking off within minutes” and “intercepting unidentified aircraft,” the fighter jets will take on the role on an alternating basis between the Netherlands and Belgium over the coming months.

Air forces such as Italy and Norway operate the F-35 as part of NATO's air policing missions. The F-35's powerful radar, stealth, electronic warfare/electronic intelligence (EW/ELINT), and fusion of sensors and data collected by the aircraft-wide Distributed Aperture System (DAS) make it a formidable interceptor, able to spot enemy aircraft on its radar and engage them before they can detect it themselves.

F-35A Dutch Air Force F-16. Credit: Dutch Ministry of Defence

Dutch F-35s and F-16s

The RNLAF's F-35As will operate from Leeuwarden and Volkel Air Bases in the country, where F-16AMs are operated as part of the QRA. The RNLAF is phasing out its F-16A fleet and replacing it with 52 F-35As.

The Netherlands also leads the European F-16 Training Center (EFTC) in Romania, training Ukrainian and Romanian pilots, and is contributing its Viper aircraft to the effort, estimated at between 12 and 18 aircraft.

Instead of the F-16s, two F-35s that are part of the QRA will be on “standby” status “at all times” and ready to “scramble” within minutes to intercept any unknown aircraft. With the war in Ukraine still raging and strategic confrontation with Russia at an all-time high, NATO's air policing missions have become even more stringent. The Baltic Sea region is where most encounters between European and Russian military aircraft take place.

Before the F-35As took over the Benelux QRA, “one more” and final “scramble” was conducted at Volkel Air Base on March 28, where two other F-16s “acted as practice adversary aircraft.”

The Dutch defence ministry added that “very little will change” for pilots, but that “from now on only the F-35 will be used” and that “pilots must be as prepared as ever”.

“The situation remains the same. The F-35 makes things easier because, first and foremost, it is a modern platform. The aircraft can fly longer and has better sensors. The F-35 sends the right signals to the enemy,” the squadron's deputy operations chief, Maj. Nick Goffman, was quoted as saying.

Electronic emission data collected by the F-35 is transferred to a dedicated storage system, analysed and categorised by the F-35's own computers, which are then upgraded to automatically identify different types of air defence radar systems for the pilot.

Despite a troubled platform that has suffered a series of crashes and cost overruns, even pro-Russia experts believe Moscow values ​​the plane's pioneering technology.

The Air Operations Control Station in Nieuwmligen in the Netherlands coordinates QRA activities from the Dutch side and issues rapid alerts to aircraft to intercept unresponsive or unidentified intruders. As for Belgium, the Control and Reporting Centre (CRC) in Beauvechamps oversees QRA activities, with Belgian fighter aircraft based in Kleine Brogel and Florennes.

The base and jets can also carry nuclear weapons.

Interestingly, according to the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Strategies (CACNP), the air bases of Volkel (Netherlands) and Kleine Brogel (Belgium) are also among six bases in five NATO member states that store US-owned nuclear weapons. The others are Büchel Air Base in Germany, Aviano and Gedi Air Bases in Italy, and Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.

These six bases are equipped with B61-12 air-dropped bombs, which are stored in “WS-3” underground vaults and activated by Authorized Action Link (PAL) codes available only to U.S. military personnel.

RNLAF F-35. Source: Dutch Ministry of Defence.

Earlier this month, the F-35 Joint Program Office (JPO) revealed that the F-35A had also received certification to carry the B61-12 “thermonuclear gravity bomb,” making it a “dual capable” aircraft.

However, the F-35s can only operate with the new B61-12 variants they are replacing at the base. The bomb can be carried and dropped by NATO and US aircraft, including F-16s, F-15Es, F-35As, Tornado fighter jets and B-2 Spirit bombers.

According to the Federation of American Scientists, Belgium, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, with the exception of Turkey, participate in NATO's nuclear strike missions and are current and planned operators of the F-35, and therefore require nuclear-capable aircraft. It is unclear whether all individual F-35A units will be dual-use or whether only certain F-35s in the Air Force's entire fleet will have that capability.

However, given the need for air force redundancy, it is possible that all of the Dutch F-35As are “dual-use nuclear-conventional” capable.

In previous reports regarding the B61-12 nuclear certification of the F-35A, a US Air Force spokesperson was quoted as saying, “All F-35As in the Air Force inventory, regardless of assigned lot number, are scheduled to be nuclear certified in the future.”


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