April 5, 2024

NATO is slowly becoming an F-35 fighter jet alliance


The Royal Netherlands Air Force is withdrawing its fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons from Benelux air patrol missions, replacing them with the fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II, which will patrol the airspace over Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands. The F-35s will now serve as the RNAF's Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) aircraft.

QRA is an air defence readiness and operational methodology maintained throughout the day by NATO air forces, while in the US the Quick Reaction Alert is usually referred to as an “airspace control warning”.

Change of aircraft type – F-35 has the same mission

The Netherlands' venerable F-16s have been permanently capable for QRA missions since 1981, and the Fighting Falcons are integrated into NATO's air security arrangement managed by the Joint Air Operations Centre in Wedem, Germany. That era will come to an end on 29 March 2024, when responsibility for monitoring Benelux airspace will be handed over to two Dutch F-35s for at least another month.

The Netherlands and Belgium rotate responsibility for the QRA every few months, with Belgium due to take over again on May 9, 2024. According to NATO, two fighter jets will be available at all times for the QRA mission.

In the Netherlands, the Air Operations Control Station in Nieuwmligen manages QRA, while in Belgium the QRA aircraft are deployed under the responsibility of the Control Reporting Centre (CRC) in Beauvechamp.

Air combat control in Europe works closely together if an unidentified aircraft enters a neighbouring country's airspace. If the aircraft's pilot loses radio contact with civil air traffic control, NATO air security is triggered, alerting the QRA to intercept the aircraft.

This will enable a timely response to possible threats.

Truly prepared for rapid response

With short warning times, the aircraft are ready and able to take off within minutes to intercept unidentified aircraft. Over the next month, the two Dutch F-35s will ensure the safety and integrity of the airspace over the three countries. Pilot changes will be kept to a minimum as the F-35s, based at the airbases of Leeuwarden and Volkel, will carry out sustained missions 24/7.

“The conditions remain the same,” explained Maj. Nick Goff, the squadron's deputy operations chief, “so things are easier because the F-35 is, above all, a modern platform. This aircraft can fly longer, has better sensors and transmits the right signals.”

Several NATO allies are currently incorporating their F-35s into the international military alliance's standing air policing missions. While operating under NATO Enhanced Air Policing, the Royal Netherlands Air Force has flown F-35s in Poland in 2023 and Bulgaria in 2022.

Author experience and expertise: Peter Suciu

Peter Susiu is a writer based in Michigan. In a journalism career spanning 20 years, he has contributed more than 3,200 articles to more than 40 magazines, newspapers, and websites. He writes regularly about military equipment, firearms history, cybersecurity, politics, and international affairs. He is also a contributing writer to Forbes and Clearance Jobs. You can follow him on Twitter. Peter SusiuYou can also email the author: [email protected].

Image courtesy of Lockheed Martin.


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