PARIS --- The future of Belgium’s competition to select a new fighter aircraft is uncertain today, after the government was accused yesterday of hiding from Parliament that a cheaper upgrade option was available, and of misleading Parliament by wrongly claiming an urgent purchase was required.
The Belgian government has always maintained that a service life extension was not feasible, and that the F-16s would have to be retired beginning in 2023, to explain its decision to launch a €3.6 billion competition to replace the F-16s.
However, several Belgian newspapers -- La Libre, la Dernière Heure et De Standaard -- on Tuesday morning reported that Lockheed Martin on April 26, 2016 had submitted a study to the Belgian air force stating that “the average aircraft can fly for over 8,000 hours. (….) On average, the aircraft can remain in service for six additional years.”
The air force kept this option under wraps and did not tell the government it existed, Defense Minister Steven Vandeput said Tuesday. He said “the managers of the F-16 fleet made a serious error of judgement,” and denied any knowledge of the upgrade option.
According to La Libre, a second Lockheed report, dated Feb. 12, 2018, updates the previous one, but “adds to the confusion by saying that, theoretically, the extension could be of up to 27 years.”
No urgency for F-16 replacement
Any talk of an extension program is however ruled out by the minister, who according to La Libre told the lower house’s defense committee on Tuesday afternoon that, before deciding to buy a new fighter, the government had studied all possible scenarios allowing it to maintain the required operational capabilities.
But the two Lockheed studies reveal that there is no urgency to replace the F-16s, and that Belgium can wait until 2029 -- and not 2023, as claimed by the government -- to begin to retire them. According to the newspapers, extending their service life would cost about €1 billion, or about one-quarter of the cost of buying new fighters.
Having examined both documents, Defense-Aerospace.com can add that, with a simple “Soft SLEP” upgrade, 20 of Belgium’s F-16s could remain in service until 2035, although one of the studies mentions a possible life extension of 27 years.
In fact, the first report states unequivocally that “When evaluating the force structure projection based on a goal of 8,000 Equivalent Flight Hours, on average, the Belgian Air Force Block 15 fleet can remain in service for an additional 27 years, with the first aircraft projected to attain 8,000 EFH in 2037” providing each aircraft is “equipped with a flight recorder and the IAT system must be compliant with AN-SB-09-001.”
Political parties call for stopping the competition
In an Opinion piece published this morning by Le Vif, former Belgian defense minister André Flahaut said that “since last July, I have been wondering whether our country should replace part or all of its F-16 fighters. In addition to the financial cost, which could durably unbalance defense spending, this replacement begs the question: Do we really need it?”
The newspapers added that Lockheed’s study had been seen by two political parties, the French-speaking Socialist Party and the “sp.a,” the Flemish Socialist party. John Crombez, sp.a’s president, said in an interview that the competition “was manipulated.”
“I don’t know if the minister has read the report…...but he should have known about it. Vandeput told Parliament two things that are not true”, Crombez continued: that the F-16s need to be replaced urgently, and that no study existed about a life extension program.
The Walloon Socialist party says the SLEP would cost about €1 billion, and its leader in the House, Ahmed Laaouej, said that given Belgium’s “problematic” financial circumstances, “the colossal cost of the F-16 replacement” is a tricky issue. Nominally, the replacement budget is €3.6 billion, but when all the other program costs are added the bill “increases to €15 billion over 40 years.”
Lockheed hired minister’s deputy chief of staff
As the issue unfolds, more information is surfacing. La Libre, for example, reported Tuesday night that last year Lockheed had approached Vandeput’s deputy chief of staff, Simon Put, to offer him a job. When he found this out, Vandeput fired Put, as he was afraid of that public perceptions of such talks. Put, according to La Libre, is now employed by Lockheed, and apparently the company’s conduct in this respect has not raised any eyebrows.
In a round of interviews later Tuesday morning, and in urgent testimony before Parliament’s defense committee in the early afternoon, Vandeput repeatedly stated that he knew nothing of the Lockheed study until it was reported on Tuesday morning, and that the Chief of the Defense Staff had likewise not been informed.
However, he maintained that he saw no reason to cancel the competition, although the government should take this development into account if it was confirmed.
Vandeput tweets his position
Vandeput’s spokeswoman, Laurence Mortier, stated the minister’s position in four tweets posted during his appearance before the defense committee. (The tweets were posted in Dutch, and translated by Bing)
-- I had no knowledge of the report quoted by the CAO until I got it in my mailbox this morning. I have never deliberately withheld information, neither for the Government nor for Parliament, says minister @svandeput in the Defence Committee
-- Minister @svandeput: Study Lockheed-Martin teaches us that apparently not every flight hour F-16 counts for an hour. The effective use of each individual aircraft determines how quickly it wears out. Some aircraft thus wear out faster or slower than other
-- Minister @svandeput: The fact that the information has not come up is a serious error of judgement which I [will] have thoroughly investigated. After the examination I will take the appropriate actions
-- Minister @svandeput: F-16s to fly longer to 2034 can cost up to 2.2 billion euros extra. Is that the choice we want to make? Knowing that we are then operational no longer relevant?