During a speech at a conference in December 2013, organised by the Belgian Royal Higher Institute for Defence, the Belgian Defence Minister took a clear stand on the future of the Belgian armed forces and the need to replace the F-16 fighter jets: ‘Defence without the capability of fighter aircraft cannot exist. There absolutely needs to be a replacement for the F-16.’
Belgian F-16s have had a long and productive service. They protected the national airspace and served in such theatres as Kosovo, Libya or Afghanistan. Out of the original 160 bought, fifty-five are left which have been since extensively upgraded. They have, however, reached the end of their airframe life. Since life extension is only a temporary solution, the F-16s need to be replaced by 2020-2025. At the moment the Request For Information (RFI) has been sent out to several foreign government agencies and the upcoming new federal government has intentions to procure forty new fighter aircraft.
Three founding North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) partners (Denmark, Norway and the Netherlands) have already started their replacement procedures, with Norway and the Netherlands selecting the F-35 Lightning II as their future fighter jet.
There are, however, several hurdles on the road ahead. First of all, the defence budget has been one of the biggest victims of the austerity programmes of successive governments in the last decade. There has been a significant reduction in the size of the army but it was the budget for equipment that was hit the hardest. Belgium currently spends around sixty-five percent of the defence budget on costs with personnel, with only 4.5 percent going to investments in equipment, one of the lowest in NATO. Overall Belgium currently spends just over one percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defence, far short of the NATO required standard of two percent.
Additionally the financial and economic situation of the country makes the replacement process a political minefield, with few parties willing to openly defend investments in the armed forces and the socialist and green parties even advocating for the non-replacement of the F-16, the complete abolition of the tactical fighter wings, and investing the funds instead in social programmes.
Any discussion of the replacement of the F-16 needs to be embedded in a wide discussion about the future role of the Belgian Armed Forces. Apart from the F-16, Belgium will also need to work on replacing the navy’s frigates, mine-hunters and supply ship. The land component will also require investments, for example with the on-going ICT integration and with rising demand for C4ISR capabilities. The shrinking Belgian defence budget is already stretched thin and a decision will thus need to be taken on which capabilities will be maintained or not. International cooperation with the Benelux or other European partners will need to be equated, as ‘pooling and sharing’ can help reduce costs without sacrificing the operational independence of the participating countries.
Defence industry participation in the new fighter programme will also be an important criterion. Reports for the Ministry for the Economy have shown that the investment in the F-16s paid off in offsets over the years and helped to consolidate the Belgian defence industry. It is an obvious expectation that new contracts will include similar arrangements. Furthermore the Belgian defence industry is actively urging that offset contracts and technology transfers should be made the most important selection criterion. Therefore among the options being considered there is the possibility of the Belgian defence industry participating in the acquisition and maintenance costs of the new fighter aircraft, to justify the contracts they would earn over the years with the new jets.
Belgium is a medium-sized European country centrally located in Western Europe. The advent of such institutions as NATO and the European Union (EU) has rendered adjacent inter-state conflict unlikely. Nevertheless, all states must maintain a credible deterrent against potential foes, be these national or transnational in character. Additionally, Belgium has a vested interest in being a credible defence actor if it is to preserve the presence of international institutions in its territory – especially such institutions as NATO’s Headquarters or SHAPE.
In discussing air force requirements though, Belgium would be wise not to opt for extremes. To forgo an air force altogether would be tantamount to abdicating from an autonomous foreign and security policy but it also would make little strategic sense for a small actor to overinvest in military aviation without much in the way of an existential threat.
Thus Belgian air force requirements should aim at guaranteeing air space control and some degree of air power projection but not to the extent of equipping to face off against the world’s premier air force establishments. A Belgian airframe should be fast and manoeuvrable to allow it to take off and land from a small territorial area but not as fast as to compete with air superiority fighters whose purpose is to protect larger areas and assume the interceptor role. A credible defence is not equivalent to premier front-line air superiority technology, nor can this be afforded – especially at a time of austerity.
In terms of power projection, Belgium should try and complement its capabilities with some degree of anti-ground operations so as to provide meaningful cover for allied deployments. Empirically, Belgium has been tasked with either the protection of its own airspace, defending the airspace of NATO allies or with complementing allied operations in joint missions around NATO’s periphery.
Given these requirements, it would seem therefore unwise to invest in the currently touted F-35 platform. Such features as advanced stealth or electronic warfare capabilities can be very useful for airframes which are meant to survive an operational theatre with advanced anti-aerial components. All this if, of course, the many doubts concerning the sustainability of the programme are not confirmed, the maintenance of its present already much inflated cost does not rise, not to mention the exceedingly higher operation and lifecycle costs.
However, Belgium is not likely to be in such a position in the foreseeable future. If NATO found itself in the unlikely contingency of having to face a large modern air force in competition for air superiority, it would certainly not be logical to expect a smaller nation like Belgium to provide the muscle for frontline air-to-air dogfighting.
Similarly, twin-engine aircraft such as Boeing’s F/A-18 Hornet, the Eurofighter Typhoon or the Dassault Rafale, provide speed which Belgian aircraft would never really be able to capitalise on in Belgian airspace. The Rafale and F-18 in particular were designed for aircraft-carrier based operations, giving it an excellent operational range but again, a feature which would be inadequate to Brussels’ needs. One of the main advantages of twin-engine airframes is also to improve survivability in case of catastrophic engine failure and this is most useful in inhospitable areas such as maritime or desert environments. Belgium, however, possesses one of the densest networks of highways in Europe and this requirement therefore is not justifiable. The EF-2000 and the Rafale are also marketed in terms of air-superiority features such as advanced electronic warfare, which Belgium, again, would have little use for.
Finally, taking into account the offsets criterion, off-the-shelf products are usually not the best choice because in general it is difficult for small states to secure much in the way of offsets from companies which already have a running production complex elsewhere. The F-35 may be an exception considering its joint-venture nature but Belgium would be a latecomer to that industrial conglomerate. France’s Rafale has also offered great technology transfers to its potential clients but such clients were big states interested in large purchasing orders. It is thus unlikely Belgium would be capable of leveraging the same offsets from the French.
Conversely, a conversation with Sweden would be held on a much more balanced basis. Stockholm’s Saab’s JAS-39 ‘Gripen’ seems especially fit to meet Belgian criteria for a nimble but multi-role jet, inter-operational with NATO forces and capable of short take-off and landing. Sweden has also regularly offered interesting industrial cooperation packages to its European partners and the Gripen entails much lower operational costs. In addition, the Gripen would come with another alluring feature to the Belgian brass: its price-tag.