Dutch JSF participation uncertain
The Dutch parliament has accepted a motion calling for the Netherland’s withdrawal from the testing phase of the Joint Strike Fighter development programme.
And just like that, Dutch support for participating in the ambitious JSF-project vanished. On Thursday, during this parliament's last official session, a slim majority voted in favour of a motion introduced by the Labour party that called upon the cabinet to end Dutch participation in the 'operational test phase' of Lockheed Martin's JSF-project. The US plane manufacturer is seeking to develop a new generation fighter jet that can replace the F-16s currently used by the Dutch armed forces.
The motion fell short of a definitive refusal to invest billions, but it is the latest step in a long political march in that direction, which began in 2002. Labour has played a key role in this process, as it did last Thursday.
During Thursday's debate, Labour member of parliament Angeline Eijsink said continued participation "is no longer financially responsible". She called upon the government to stop spending money on its first test aircraft "effective immediately".
Parties that had always opposed the JSF, hailing from both sides of the political spectrum, rejoiced. The project’s biggest proponents, Christian Democratic CDA and right-wing liberal VVD, were disappointed. The two parties were reduced to the status of supporting extras in a drama written and directed by Labour for the benefit of its electoral campaign in the run-up to the June 9 election. VVD member of parliament Han ten Broeke called the move "yet another [Labour] flip-flop".
A year ago, after a turbulent debate that was preceded by extensive persuasive efforts by Labour's coalition partners – CDA and the orthodox Christian ChristenUnie - Labour grudgingly agreed to purchase a single JSF test aircraft. The decision on a second one would be postponed to a later date. Last Thursday, Labour withdrew its support for this compromise because, the party claimed, the conditions for purchase of the test aircraft had not been met. Labour abandoned the governing coalition in February over another military issue.
Technical setbacks have delayed the first test flights in the US, and the project has been plagued by incessant budget overruns. The US congress has already decided to increase its oversight of the project for those same reasons. For Labour, this offered sufficient grounds to end Dutch participation in the test phase.
According to CDA and VVD, a decision on the matter should not be taken until the summer, when the next progress report is due. They fear Labour's move is a prelude to a full withdrawal from the JSF project. These fears are fuelled by the new austerity measures the party proposed earlier this week. Labour has listed scrapping the JSF project as a potential 500 million euro cost reduction.
Is Labour really looking to pull the plug on the project? On Thursday, Eijsink refused to get ahead of matters, but she did point to a recent defence ministry study outlining fundamental choices for the future of the armed forces. A debate over those choices would call into question the need for the JSF. If Labour has anything to say about it, anyway. New elections will determine if it will.