PARIS --- France’s decision to make a last-minute, unsolicited offer to Belgium of a strategic partnership based on the Rafale combat aircraft is a gamble, pushing the issue into the political arena and away from purely technical considerations.
Although the Belgian government tried to ensure a fair competition by dealing with governments, instead of directly with the bidding companies, its Request for Government Proposals could not hide the fact that operational requirements were written by its air force, where many consider the F-35 a desirable aircraft despite its long history of ballooning costs and technical problems.
Politicians generally tend to trust their military, and so support their recommendations because they do not have the knowledge to double-guess them or to realize whether specs were slanted.
This pro-F-35 slant is the reason for Boeing’s withdrawal from the Belgian competition, while Sweden pulled out in June because it was not prepared to support Belgian fighters on foreign operations.
Slanted requirements are also the reason Dassault did not compete the Rafale in Denmark, where the competition was so partial that Boeing is now suing the Danish government.
The real question: go Dutch or go French?
But whether the Belgian competition is fair or not is beside the point. From the outset, the only question is whether Belgium wants its air force to go Dutch or French.
Over the past decade or two, Belgium has merged its navy with that of The Netherlands, its northern neighbor, and the two have recently launched a joint naval shipbuilding program.
As for the army, Belgium in June chose to buy the same new-generation armored vehicles that France is developing under the Scorpion program, and said it would invest billions of euros to buy and operate them in close cooperation with the French army.
Now, decision-time has arrived for its air force.
Belgium currently operates F-16s like the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway, with which it acquired them in a joint buy; all three have already opted for the F-35.
If Belgium wants its air force to closely cooperate or more closely integrate with France’s Armée de l’air, it will buy the Rafale. This would give it access to French airspace, training, joint operations, as well as allowing Belgium to share in the definition of the next variant of Rafale. Its aerospace industry would also gain access to the Rafale supply chain, and possibly more.
If it wants to go Dutch – and half of Belgium speaks Dutch, while the other half speaks French – then it will choose the F-35, and prolong their relationship they have on the F-16. But it would not have access to many of the benefits offered by France.
Nor would it benefit from maintenance and overhaul work on its own F-35s, as this work has been assigned by Washington to The Netherlands, the UK and Norway.
There is, however, one other significant factor.
Some of Belgium’s F-16s are assigned a nuclear strike role by NATO, using B-61 free-fall tactical bombs provided by the United States. The current government plans to continue this capability, although public opinion is opposed, and only the F-35 would be allowed to carry the B-61 and its successor, the modernized B-61-12 that the US is developing.
The likelihood that an aircraft carrying a free-fall bomb would reach its target is extremely remote, and this mission could well be phased out in the mid-2020s, a NATO official suggested a few months ago. But Belgium apparently wants to keep its options open, even though this was not a formal requirement.
Politics trumps capabilities
But, whichever aircraft wins, the sad fact is that Belgium’s final decision will be barely influenced by operational aspects, and even less by whether the aircraft it buys is suited to its needs and capabilities.
So, why bother to hold long, expensive and bothersome competitions at all?