Belgium Picks the F-35: President Macron Responds


Belgium is a key member of the European Participating Air Forces (EPAF) group which has flown F-16s for three decades. Denmark, Belgium, Norway, the Netherlands and Portugal are the members of the EPAF.

In a recent visit to Denmark, a key leader of the Royal Danish Air Force explained the importance of EPAF to a small country.

“All the F-16 users in Europe have our own meeting forum where we talk about the development of the F-16s together with the Americans. Because Denmark is a small country, we don’t have the capacity to think what it is we need and then develop it. We need a big brother like the United States Air Force to actually develop the aircraft in consultation with us and to leverage their engineering capability to develop new capabilities.

“The EPAF collaboration on the F-16 is in my mind has been the keystone to success in bringing forward F-16 capabilities, to where we are today with an advanced F-16. Indeed, today we have an outstanding offensive weapons portfolio for the F-16.”

This Danish airpower leader emphasized that a major advantage the F-16 program has is the significant number of users, which means that there are significant numbers of airframes in operation, which facilitate investments in modernization of the aircraft. “With the very large number of airframes out there, that allows the cost per tail to be brought down significantly.”

It is therefore not surprising that Belgium continued down this path, but this time with the F-35. Belgian is the 13th country to select the F-35.

Further details on the Belgian decision were provided in an article by Joseph Trevitchik published on October 25, 2018 in The Warzone.

Belgian Defense Minister Steven Vandeput formally announcedthe choice during a press conference on Oct. 25, 2018. 

The Belga News Network in Belgium had previously reportedthe F-35 had won the competition on Oct. 22, 2018, but the country’s authorities and Lockheed Martin both declined to confirm the details at that time. 

The Belgian Air Component, the country’s air force, is now set to eventually receive 34 stealthy F-35As to replace around 50 F-16s with deliveries starting in 2023.

“We have landed! This government is investing heavily in defense,” Vandeput wrote in a Flemish-language post on Twitter. “With the purchase of F-35A fighter planes … we ensure your safety and that of our military.”

The Belgian defense minister subsequently told reporters that the F-35A offer best met the seven criteria the country had laid out, but only identified one, cost. Belgium’s fighter jet replacement program was valued at around $4.14 billion, according to publicly available estimates. Vandeput said that Lockheed Martin’s offer was around $684.5 million lessthan what his government had budgeted, but did not confirm the total figure….

Belgium’s selection of the F-35 does offer multiple benefits beyond the matter of up-front cost. Most obviously, the stealthy jets will offer a significant boost in air combat capability over the country’s F-16s, which it purchased in the 1980s and upgraded to the F-16AM/BM Block 20 MLU standardin the early 2000s.

In addition, the United States and at least six other NATO members are or plan to be flying F-35 variants in the future. In turn, Lockheed Martin has worked with many of them to establish various depot-level maintenanceand assembly facilitiesin Europe. The American defense giant has also indicated that it has offered significant industrial cooperation opportunitiesto the Belgians, which could further offset the F-35s purchase and sustainment costs.

When the Belgian Air Component begins receiving its jets in 2023, it will be able to take advantage of this established and growing support infrastructure, which in turn could result in cost savings on sustaining the aircraft. This is an important consideration, because, while the F-35A’s unit cost may be less than that of the Eurofighter Typhoon, stealth jets, in general, are maintenance intensiveand demanding on logistics chainsto keep them flying.

Belgium’s decision was also likely influenced in part by the need for an aircraft that would support its NATO nuclear weapon sharing requirements. The United States reportedly has between 10 and 20 B61 nuclear gravity bombsat the Belgian Air Component’s base at Kleine Brogel.

During a crisis, the U.S. military could release these weapons to the Belgians, who would then conduct the strikes. Belgium’s F-16s are certified to employ the B61, which includes the addition the necessary equipment to arm the weapons in flight. The U.S. Air Force plans to give its F-35As the capability to carry these bombsin the future.

There are no plans to certify the Typhoon at present, however. This has already posed a problem for Germany, which is looking to replace its Cold War-era Panavia Tornado combat jetsthat it presently uses to fulfill its nuclear weapon sharing obligations. This likely was also part of the problem for Saab when it proposed its Gripen E and would’ve presented a hurdle for Dassault’s Rafale, as well.

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The reaction of President Macron is quite interesting as it raises some key questions about Europe, NATO, defense and threat perceptions.

The reaction of the French President was provided and discussed in an article published on October 26, 2018 published by France 24.

The Belgian government announced Thursday that it would replace a fleet of ageing F-16 jets with the F-35 made by Lockheed Martin, rejecting rival offers to buy Eurofighter Typhoons or Rafales from the French group Dassault.

“The decision was linked to a Belgian procedure and the country’s political constraints, but strategically it goes against European interests,” Macron told journalists during a visit to Bratislava.

Europe won’t be strong unless it is truly sovereign and knows how to protect itself,” he said, citing a need to develop “a genuine European defence capacity”.

“I will do everything possible to promote European offers in future contracts,” Macron added.

Critics said the choice of Lockheed would leave Belgium dependent on maintenance and operational systems firmly in US control, while also assailing a blow to Europe’s efforts to unify its defence capacities.

Belgium justified the decision by saying the F-35s offered better value for money while best allowing it to meet its NATO commitments.

Prime Minister Charles Michel said his country would be purchasing equipment from both US and European suppliers as it bolstered defence spending.

On Friday, the French defence ministry announced that Belgium had confirmed an order for 442 Griffon and Jaguar armoured vehicles for around 1.5 billion euros ($1.7 billion).

The deal had been expected, but the announcement appeared timed to allay tensions between the two NATO allies.

‘Lost opportunity’

Last year the European Union launched its “permanent structured cooperation on defence”, or PESCO, aimed at unifying defence strategies across the bloc and rationalising a fragmented approach to buying and developing military equipment.

The EU itself is planning to vastly expand its defence budget starting in 2021, allocating some 13 billion euros over seven years to research and develop new equipment — up from less than 600 million euros in the current budget.

Most countries see no problem allowing non-EU firms to compete for contracts under the PESCO cooperation, but France is leading a handful which want to restrict their participation.

But Washington has warned that excluding US companies could undermine NATO at a time when tensions are running high with Russia and new threats such as cyber attacks are emerging.

On Friday the European aerospace consortium Airbus also said it took note of Belgium’s decision not to choose the Eurofighter Typhoon with “sincere regret”.

“It is a lost opportunity to strengthen European industrial cooperation in times when the EU is called upon to increase its joint defence efforts,” the company said.

It added that in buying Typhoons, Belgium could have eventually joined the French-German Future Combat Air System, aimed at developing next-generation jets to start replacing current Eurofighter and Rafale jets starting in 2035.

Airbus is one of the partners in the Eurofighter consortium, which also includes companies from Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain.

Macron, speaking at the start of a two-day visit to Slovakia and the Czech Republic, also called on people to reject leaders who seek to “divide Europe”.

“I will fight wherever they are trying to roll back justice, the ability of journalists to work freely, the role of universities, all which makes us European,” he said.

Macron is hoping to counter a surge in support for populist parties and leaders in many European countries ahead of European Parliament elections next May.

The featured photo shows a Belgian Air Component F-16 flying behind a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker from the 100th Air Refueling Wing, RAF Mildenhall, England, before receiving fuel over Germany, Feb. 23, 2018.

The air refueling was part of a large force exercise with NATO allies including the Belgian, Dutch, French and German air forces.


Photo by Senior Airman Luke Milano 

100th Air Refueling Wing Public Affair