Number one on the army’s list of concerns, Belgium has no choice but to replace its F-16 fighters

  • General Caelenberge deems that it’s no longer possible to update the current fighters.
  • The budgetary and industrial impact of this upgrade alone will extend beyond the defense sector.

Even if Belgium replaced only half of its present F-16 fleet of 64 fighters at €75 million each, the expense would reach the €2.4 billion mark, almost the entire army budget. What if over the period of one year, all the police officers, firefighter and magistrate salaries, all the Interior and Justice departments expenses were absorbed by a single military purchase such as around thirty F-35 Lightning II fighters? Wouldn’t there be a general outcry?

In spite of this, the Chief of Defense, Lieutenant General Gérard Van Caelenberge, supports the plan in no uncertain terms. “The Belgian F-16 fighters are approaching end-of-life. They will be obsolete in 2025 at the latest.” No more talk of upgrades: “For those who still nurse the delusion that there is a way to perform an ‘end-life update,’ I can tell you that our F16’s are ‘block-15’s’. They are very light with minimal potential growth space. This space has since been filled. There remains no longer any means to install more electronics while preserving the necessary cooling function.” These fighters were purchased during much better times (1975), and now that they are at the end of their lives, is it not at least possible to prevent this expense and select other “niches” for our army? “I doubt that a multipurpose fighter such as the F-16 represents a niche,” observes the general. “For me, it represents the basics of an air force. An air force without a multipurpose fighter jet is not an air force.”

How will such an expense be approached? What is the margin for political maneuvering? Would a government that claims that there is no need to replace fighters necessarily be overstepping its bounds? The chief of defense responds: “I think that if a government told me that there was no need for fighters…well then…we’ll just have to have a little talk with that government” (laughter).

This is the first time that the chief of staff of the Belgian army has spoken out so clearly on the upcoming contract. It was understood a long time ago that the onus of dealing with this contract would be left on the next federal government. The current government, though, requested that the army conduct preliminary studies, and the army will expect an actual decision from the next government, sometime before 2018.   The cost? The four-star general demurs but anyone can do the math. The Netherlands have set aside €4.5 billion for 37 F-35’s, which is the thinly veiled favorite.  

If the army is avoiding naming prices for an optimal number of aircraft, it has “identified the planes that are, or will be candidates” as the replacement in 2020-2025. Based on its experience with the F-16, the army recommends a reliable fighter with solid cost effectiveness. It would be one that can adapt to the specific threat, have the latest technology upon delivery and can hold its value and be upgraded over several decades (by 2050, the F-16 will have held its own for a half a century!). Keeping in mind that the F-16 was a “fourth generation” fighter, General Van Caelenberge only mentions five that can follow in its footsteps: the two “fifth generation” fighters, both manufactured by Lockheed, the F-22 Raptor and the F-35 Lighting II, and the fourth generation and a half, the Eurofighter, the Rafale “and possibly a new version of the Gripen which does not yet exist…”  

The real choice is not quite as broad as it first appears. The F-22 costs €116 million each. It’s the ultimate air supremacy fighter. It has also never been exported by the United States and production financing was interrupted. The “new generation” Saab Gripen remains a fiction. If the recommendation is for a fighter that is at the “technological peak”, it’s clear that the Belgian military is leaning toward the F-35. Is it a done deal? No, parliamentary debate is essential.  How then will Belgium pay the bill?   The general recalls that the “F-16 program generated 2 to 3 time its value in industrial benefits in Belgium. I think that this is a discussion that goes beyond the Defense ministry.”


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One Response to Number one on the army’s list of concerns, Belgium has no choice but to replace its F-16 fighters

  1. Paul says:

    Dear elanlanguages.
    The Belgian Army does not, as far as I know, fly the F-16. The Air Force does. When one, in the English language, wishes to refer to the whole (consisting of “Army”, “Air Force” and “Navy”) of the armed units entitled to defend the integrity of the Nation, the correct term would be “armed forces”. And, why don’t they consider Sukhoi planes? Indeed, parliamentary debate will, undoubtedly, settle the matter “to every one’s satisfaction”. If we advance the cash, who will get the work, the benefits? What is the key to the distribution of the spoils? Interesting debate, of course.

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