Changing the guard in the Netherlands – last QRA duty of the Dutch F-16s

On 29th March 2024, Koninklijke Luchtmacht (the Royal Netherlands Air Force – RNLAF) officially informed about the end of the Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) duties for the country´s F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft. In the morning of that day, the QRA readiness over Benelux countries was taken over by the Dutch F-35A Lightning II jets.

The QRA duty has its roots in ´scramble alerts´ maintained by the Royal Air Force during the Battle of Britain. The procedure of quick response to airspace infringement had been progressively implemented by other air forces and considerably modernised after the war.

Usually, the QRA alert begins from detecting a possible threat by air defence control station. It can be either an enemy military aircraft approaching the airspace or a civilian aeroplane that is not responding to air traffic control or does it in any abnormal way, as well as any other unidentified flying object approaching (or appearing within) the protected airspace. In the next step, the fighter jets are scrambled to investigate and interrupt the threat. Then, the rogue aircraft may be escorted out of the protected airspace, forced to land or even – if there is no alternative – shot down.

F-16 Fighting Falcons, RNLAF

The Dutch F-16 fighters performed their first QRA duty in 1981. Since then, the RNLAF Vipers continually protected the airspace of the Netherlands, and later also over Belgium and Luxembourg.

In the middle of the 2010s, Belgium and the Netherlands agreed on shared protection of their airspace. Since that time, the QRA duty over the Benelux countries (especially as Luxembourg has no fighter aircraft at all) is being performed alternately by the Belgian Air Component and the RNLAF, usually in four-month-long shifts.

The Dutch F-16s handed over the QRA baton to the F-35 Lightning IIs during a symbolic training alert. On the morning of 29th March, two of the 5th generation fighters were scrambled to intercept mock enemy aircraft, played by a pair of Vipers.

F-35A Lightning II, RNLAF

As stated by the RNLAF officials, taking over the QRA responsibility by the 5th generation jets meant a new step towards the full operational capability of the country´s F-35A Lightning II fighters, and final retirement of the Vipers.

According to the RNLAF press release, there will be no changes in the current QRA system. The alerts will be still coordinated by the Air Operations Control Station in Nieuw-Milligen, with the QRA readiness maintained by the F-35s based at Leeuwarden and Volkel air bases.

The Dutch F-35 fighters will continue with their QRA duties over the Benelux countries until 9th May 2024. On that day, the responsibility will be taken over by Belgium – Control and Reporting Centre in Beauvechain, as well as the F-16 Fighting Falcons of the Belgian Air Component based at Kleine-Brogel and Florennes air bases.

F-35A Lightning II, RNLAF