The unwanted JSF swamp and the new Dutch cabinet

Soon after the 12 September parliamentary elections in the Netherlands the two largest parties, VVD [liberal/conservative] and PvdA [social democrat], started talking about the potential for a coalition representing 79 out of 150 parliamentary seats. So far nothing has been leaked from the negotiating table to the media on what is likely one of the most contentious issues they have to deal with: whether or not to continue Dutch participation in the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF or F-35) project.

In early 2002 the ‘purple’ coalition government including both VVD and PvdA chose to join the US-led programme, but twice failed to get majority support from Parliament, because PvdA MPs voted against. It only got approval after the May 2002 elections, when the [now dissolved] LPF party entered parliament, barely a month after the murder of its leader Pim Fortuyn - who himself publicly opposed the JSF.

In the ten years that followed, government and parliament have been at odds constantly, with numerous attempts by the latter to stop JSF participation. But time and again, government participation by one of the critical parties made them withdrawing their opposition.

With the PvdA in government, they broke their 2006 election promise to step out of the JSF and a first test aircraft was ordered in 2009. The rightwing PVV of Geert Wilders did something similar in 2011. Staunch opponents beforehand, it voted for buying a second JSF test aircraft as part of their 2010 support agreement with the government coalition.

And in 2010 as well as last July, parliamentary motions demanding government to abandon the JSF project got a majority, but twice the outgoing government refused to do so, claiming it was for the next government to decide.

Meanwhile 1.4 billion euro has been spent on the JSF, but still it is completely unclear what number of aircraft the government plans to buy, nor what price Lockheed Martin will charge for the fighter-bomber. All we know is that 420 jobs are the result of all that money spent. The main beneficiary of the whole project – Stork’s Fokker Technologies – has again netted the largest union, FNV, in a campaign likely to put further pressure on the PvdA. And yes, even the right wing is now admitting that maybe the whole idea of participation wasn’t such a good idea after all, but still believes that it is best to move forward halfway into the swamp.

At the same time that the military and its right wing supporters are crying out against further budget cuts, telling the public that the economy and our international credibility is at risk with further cuts.

But they refuse to introspect and admit that at the core of their current financial troubles is the reckless adventure into the Joint Strike Fighter programme. Their long-time lobby, together with the Pentagon, Lockheed Martin and the Dutch military industry, is now hitting back as the Lockheed Martin’s F-35 does not deliver – as many observers predicted long, long time ago.

That realisation is felt in Canada as well, where the government has now taken control over the JSF programme, away from the ministry of Defence. And even more so in the United States, where significant budget cuts are inevitable and where the JSF bill will be the highest, with total programme costs estimated to be at least 1.1 trillion [!] US dollar.

Last month even the Pentagon’s JSF director Maj. Gen. Christopher Bogdan called the programme “the worst I have ever seen”.

So, will the next Dutch government choose to go deeper into the swamp, or will it show courage and pay the price for a reckless adventure they started together a decade ago?

It is telling that government sponsored think tank Clingendael in August revealed that a large majority of the people support further military cuts and that 75% want to get rid of the JSF [http://www.volkskrant.nl/vk/nl/10637/VK-Dossier-Verkiezingen-van-2012/article/detail/3303872/2012/08/21/Grootste-deel-kiezers-wil-bezuinigingen-op-Defensie.dhtml]. Contrary to military planners they apparently do not see much benefit coming from a nuclear capable bomber supposedly able to penetrate air defences of enemies much better equipped than the Taleban.

Just imagine what money can be saved, especially at a time when health and education budgets are under major stress.

[FS, 3 Oct 2012]

PS: Dutch readers may like to read this pre-election article on the JSF, written for 'Vredesmagazine'