Brussels, Belgium — The Belgian government has announced its intention to purchase the F-35A Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) to replace its ageing F-16 fleet.
The Belgian Air Force intends to replace its current fleet of 58 F-16s with 34 F-35As by 2023. The F-35 beat the Eurofighter Typhoon to win the contract. The sale will cost an estimated $6.53 billion, and will include 34 F-35As, 38 Pratt & Whitney F-135 engines, and logistics and maintenance support.
The announcement, however, carries some significant geopolitical residue. The Belgian government’s decision shuns the often-repeated commitments toward a more unified and autonomous European defence and foreign policy. The Belgian Air Force will depend on the U.S. for the maintenance of the F-35’s high-tech electronic systems, as well as other systems. Interestingly, the Belgian government was offered significant incentives by the Eurofighter team (Germany, Italy, Spain, and the United Kingdom). More specifically, it was offered a considerable role in the manufacturing process of the next generation European fighter jet.
Under the agreement, Lockheed Martin will shift some parts of the manufacturing process to Belgium. The intention is to bolster Belgian companies, expand business opportunities, and strengthen the industrial cooperation between Belgium and the U.S. The European country also participates in the academic Industrial Participation Program that involves six high-end Belgian universities that cooperate with the U.S. defence giant.
The Belgian Air Force said in a tweet that the F-35 is the future. It added that Belgium will “remain a small but reliable partner for our allies at NATO, EU, and the U.N.”
For its part, Lockheed Martin issued a statement that highlighted the constant global confidence to the expensive airframe: “With its selection, Belgium becomes the 13th country to join the F-35 program of record, a testament to the government’s confidence in the program and its industrial benefits. Lockheed Martin looks forward to extending the relationship with the Belgian government and industry participants for decades to come.”
The Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel stated that his country is also going to buy European-made military equipment, as well. He singled out the purchase of new frigates, minesweepers, armoured combat vehicles, and unmanned aerial vehicles. Further, he stressed, “The planes and drones are American, the other equipment is European, and Belgium will enjoy the economic benefits.”
But there appears to be another reason behind the decision: Nuclear weapons. The F-35A is designed to carry the B61 nuclear munition. Such nuclear bombs are stored in the Belgian air base of Kleine Brogel.
Whatever the diplomatic background, there is at last some positive news for the troubled and expensive airframe.
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