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The Netherlands will purchase 37 Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter jets for about €4.5bn to replace its ageing fleet of F-16s, the Dutch defence ministry announced on Tuesday, with the new aircraft expected to enter service from 2019.

Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, the Netherlands’ defence minister, confirmed the purchases in a letter sent to parliament as part of the government’s presentation of its 2014 budget.

However, the number of jets the Netherlands agreed to buy is sharply lower than the 85 it had initially sought to purchase before western economies slumped.

The purchase had been long expected, as the Netherlands has been participating in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter development programme for years to guarantee that Dutch aerospace companies benefit from some of the fighter jet’s contracts.

But in an interview with Dutch state television, Ms Hennis-Plasschaert said the government had chosen the plane purely for operational reasons.

“For me as defence minister, it wasn’t so much about the business case,” Ms Hennis-Plasschaert said. “It was the plane which offered our pilots the best possibilities in the military-operational sense.”

The purchase of the planes has been a cause of bitter political division in the Netherlands for years, with leftwing parties complaining that the planes cost too much. Criticism has risen as the US programme has repeatedly exceeded its promised costs.

In particular, the centre-left Labour party, a member of the governing coalition along with the centre-right Liberals, was opposed to purchase of the planes as recently last year. Diederik Samsom, Labour’s leader, made it clear last week the party had shifted its position, leading to calls in the party for a members’ referendum on the issue.

That criticism is sure to continue, as the final decision to purchase the F-35s comes at a moment when the Netherlands is carrying out billions of euros’ worth of cuts to social welfare programmes in order to meet EU budget deficit limits.

The austerity measures include cuts in the defence budget itself, with the ministry announcing Tuesday it would cut the size of the Netherlands’ armed forces by 2,300 positions, including eliminating an armoured battalion.

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