Belgium Picks F-35 Over European Options for Future Fighter

Belgium has chosen Lockheed Martin’s [LMT] F-35 Joint Strike Fighter for its next fighter aircraft over several potential European options, becoming the 13th country to select the fifth-generation platform.

The purchase of 34 F-35As will replace the country’s current fleet of F-16 fighters, the Belgian government confirmed Oct. 25. The country’s Belga news agency first reported the unconfirmed decision on Monday.

An F-35 Lightning II streaks across the sky while doing maneuvers to the Eglin Air Force Base runway. The 33rd Fighter Wing-owned aircraft is a fifth-generation fighter and used to train pilots and maintainers. (U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)

An F-35 Lightning II streaks across the sky while doing maneuvers to the Eglin Air Force Base runway. The 33rd Fighter Wing-owned aircraft is a fifth-generation fighter and used to train pilots and maintainers. (U.S. Air Force photo/Samuel King Jr.)

“Lockheed Martin is honored by the Belgian government’s selection of the F-35A Lightning II for their future national security needs,” the company said in a statement Thursday, adding: “With each new customer, the F-35 continues to enhance global security, strengthen critical alliances and drive economic growth.”

The State Department approved the potential foreign military sale this past January, estimating a cost of over $6.5 billion. That would include 34 aircraft, 38 Pratt & Whitney [UTX] engines – to include four spares – and assorted electronic systems, training equipment and other support, according to the department’s announcement.  

The Belgian Embassy deemed the investment worth 3.8 billion euros in a Thursday statement, or about $4.3 billion. The 34 aircraft will be fielded beginning in 2023, and are part of a larger package of defense investments, to include two MQ-9B Sky Guardian medium-altitude, long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles, built by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, and a partnership with France for 442 new combat vehicles for the Belgian army, it said in its statement. Together, the new acquisitions will be worth about $6.3 billion.

Belgium announced its intent to replace its F-16s with 34 new aircraft in its “Strategic Plan 2030” report released in 2015. The Belgian Air Force – which morphed into the Belgian Air Component in 2002 – began flying the Fighting Falcons, first developed by General Dynamics [GD] but now under Lockheed Martin, back in the 1970s.

A formal selection process began in March 2017, with a down-select goal in 2018, fielding in 2023, initial operating capability by 2025 and full operational capability in 2030, said Dan Darling, a senior military markets expert at Forecast International, a Newtown, Connecticut, marketing and analysis firm.

By September 2017, the Belgian government received two formal proposals for the program, for the Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft – built in the United Kingdom under a consortium of the U.K.’s BAE Systems, France’s Airbus and Italy’s Leonardo – and the F-35A, he said in a Thursday blog post. The French-built Dassault Rafale, Swedish company Saab’s Gripen E and Boeing’s [BA] F/A-18 Super Hornet were all reportedly being considered but either withdrew or never formally applied.

“The deciding factors for Belgium not only involved the advanced characteristics of the F-35, but concerns over being able to certify a European fighter alternative for the carrying of U.S. nuclear weapons in the event of a hypothetical atomic conflict … and interoperability with neighboring Netherlands with whom Belgium shares joint policing of a common airspace under the Benelux arrangement,” Darling said. “Furthermore, the F-35 offers the smoothest possible transition for F-16 operators as it was designed as a replacement for the ‘Fighting Falcon.’”

The Joint Strike Fighter has won every competition it has participated in to date, with the last successful competition completing in 2016 for Denmark’s next-gen fighter. South Korea was the most recent FMS customer to join the program in 2014.

“The F-35 acquisition continues to display Belgian commitment to international security and the strong partnership with the USA,” said the Belgian Embassy in a statement Thursday. It added that the two countries are engaged together in operations in the Baltic countries, in Afghanistan as part of Operation Resolute Support, in Mali as part of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission (MINUSMA) and in the framework of the Coalition against ISIS, among other areas.

Belgium’s selection of the F-35 didn’t come as a surprise to analysts, who noted the country’s need for interoperability with its NATO allies and priority on value for cost.

Smaller European countries “don’t have a significant industrial stake; they’re just looking at value for money and strategic factors, and nothing more,” said Richard Aboulafia, vice president of analysis for the Teal Group.

While larger countries such as France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy may want to boost their own aerospace industries – even as the United Kingdom and Italy are also F-35 international program partners – there is “a very good chance that all of their potential smaller partners will just go F-35 and be done with it,” Aboulafia said.

Timing is also a factor, he noted. Countries including Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and now Belgium who have chosen the F-35 all have aging F-16s, “so they are going to fall out of the sky by the time a European alternative comes around,” he said.

“Given the timing requirement … it’s hard to see how anyone else would have much of a chance,” he added. A Rafale or a Typhoon would cost about the same as an F-35A including procurement and sustainment, he noted.

François Heisbourg, who chairs the Switzerland-based foundation council of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, said in a tweet Wednesday that with Belgium selecting the F-35, all countries slated to conduct NATO nuclear missions – the Netherlands, Italy, the United States, Belgium and Turkey – will have chosen the Joint Strike Fighter.

“Expect U.S. pressure to build on Germany,” he added.

Aboulafia said that Germany is a large enough player in the defense market that it may continue to opt out of the F-35, especially as it plans to develop a new next-generation fighter aircraft with France. The two countries’ defense ministers announced the future combat air system (FCAS) effort this past April at the ILA Airshow in Berlin, with Dassault Aviation and Airbus Defence and Space agreeing to cooperate on the program.

As Belgium is a dual-member of the European Union and NATO, its selection of the F-35 is likely to affect the impact of the FCAS, Darling noted.  

There remain opportunities for European manufacturers including Dassault and Eurofighter to sell their aircraft as Middle Eastern companies look to boost their fighter fleets, Aboulafia said.

Nations such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt “can’t get the F-35 right away and want an alternative arms supplier,” he said. The United Arab Emirates is another potential customer for the Typhoon or Rafale, he added.  

However, the recent outcry following the murder of Saudi-born, U.S.-based writer Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul could impact those opportunities, Aboulafia noted. U.S. lawmakers have drafted several bipartisan bills that would ban arms deals to Riyadh as evidence points to the involvement of high-level Saudi officials, including the Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. Germany announced earlier this week that it would halt all arms sales to the Gulf country until further notice.

“Khashoggi is … a hugely important event for Eurofighter,” he said. Saudi Arabia committed to procuring 48 Typhoon aircraft in a memorandum of understanding this past March, after purchasing 72 aircraft in 2006. That program could be worth tens of billions of dollars, according to reports at the time.

European companies can also expect to sell aircraft to their home countries as gap fillers until the next-generation aircraft comes online, Aboulafia added.

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