PARIS --- After a series of hearings in Parliament last week, and new revelations that have further undermined Defense Minister Steven Vandeput’s credibility, Belgian opposition parties are calling for the government to pause the competition to replace its F-16 fighters and launch a parliamentary inquiry into the proceedings.
Vandeput is generally considered to have mismanaged revelations that his staff hid technical reports showing that the service life of the F-16s could be extended into the 2030s. He is also widely seen as wanting to push through the selection of the Lockheed F-35 before the NATO summit due to take place in Brussels July 11-14, so as to deflect criticism from the United States and NATO that Belgium is woefully underspending on defense.
The Belgian minister’s credibility was further dented when, on May 15, he admitted to the Lower House’s defense committee that an upgrade was technically feasible, but that it was not worth pursuing because extending the F-16s’ service life would cost €271.1 million more than buying new aircraft -- a claim that was greeted with derision by the opposition.
“The minister tells us tall tales,” Georges Dallemagne, a member of parliament for the CDH opposition party, said in a May 17 radio interview. “There is clearly no need to hurry a decision through.”
Vandeput has also failed to explain how Belgium would be able to afford buying 34 F-35s costing $6.53 billion (worth about €5.35 billion) when it has only budgeted €3.6 billion, also given than an additional €1.2 billion will be required to operate them.
Conversely, he was quick to say in December that France’s offer to supply the same number of Dassault Rafale fighters for less than €3.6 billion, including wide-ranging industrial benefits, “is too good to be true,” six months before France finally detailed its offer last week. (see below)
Ministerial credibility questioned
Another opposition lawmaker, Dirk Van der Maelen of the SP.A opposition party, threw more suspicion on the replacement process on May 16, when he brandished a new e-mail during a hearing of Parliament’s defense committee showing that the minister knew about the F-16 upgrade option as far back as September. The memo, addressed to Lt. Gen. Claude Van de Voorde, Vandeput’s chief of staff at the time, and also copied to Vandeput, cautioned that there aren’t enough grounds to justify replacing the F-16s, and advised waiting for the results of a study into the upgrade option.
As for previous memos saying the competition was premature, Van de Voorde and Vandeput claimed they had not received this latest e-mail, spurring Van der Maelen to reply that “We were deceived, the population was deceived, and your majority partners were deceived."
For the Socialist opposition, and some other minority parties, these claims and counter-claims must be cleared up before moving forward with the replacement of the F-16s. "Shouldn’t we appoint a commission of inquiry? Without that, things will not be clear. Confidence is completely broken," said Socialist lawmaker Julie Fernandez-Fernandez.
In the eyes of the SP.A Flemish Socialist party, the truth is even more cruel for the government, L’Avenir reported May 16: “since 2012, the military hierarchy has worked behind the scenes to push the political executive to choose the F-35, from the US group Lockheed Martin, to replace the F-16, and it has been successful” to date.
The opposition favors suspending the fighter competition until the facts are firmly established, while the Flemish N-VA party, to which Vandeput belongs, favors the F-35 while playing lip service to the need for an in-depth competition. MR, the French-speaking reformist party of Prime Minister Charles Michel, generally favors the French offer of a strategic partnership around the Rafale, but has not yet officially taken a stand on the issue against its NV-A coalition partner.
In any case, the opposition has little political weight, as the government coalition of NV-A, MR and smaller parties has 85 seats out of 150 in the Lower House. But general elections are due by May 26, 2019, so it is generally considered that unless a new aircraft is selected by the cabinet before early July, it will be pushed off for the new government to handle.
France details Rafale partnership offer
Talk of ministerial and military shenanigans to manipulate the competition in favor of the F-35 were also highlighted by the minister’s icy reaction to a French government delegation which, also last week, went to Brussels to explain France’s proposal of a strategic partnership on the Dassault Rafale and its Franco-German SCAF successor aircraft.
The French team came to Brussels at the request of Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, who said he wants to have all relevant information at hand before any decision is taken, but its offer was immediately shot down by Vandeput’s spokeswoman.
"We have heard nothing new compared to the letter received (from Ms. Parly--Ed) on September 6, 2017. There is nothing more concrete," Laurence Mortier told reporters after the meetings, even though the French offer was detailed in a 40-page memo that clearly went much further than the original 3-page proposal made by France in September.
Belgium is interested in a possible participation in the European Future Air Combat System (SCAF) program, currently negotiated between France and Germany, Mortier said, but sees no link with the ongoing competition.
France is offering Belgium a much wider strategic partnership that Vandeput wants to consider. Briefing reporters in Brussels after their meeting, the French delegation said Belgium would be integrated into several functional areas of Rafale operations if it chose the French fighter, such as training, operational sustainment, joint air space operations.
France also offered to provide some Rafales in the “M” naval variant, which would allow Belgium to base them on the French aircraft carrier and so take part in allied deployments.
"It's an option we are offering to our colleagues, which no one else can offer, but it's not an obligation," one of the French officials told the daily Le Vif.
The French offer also relates to the future development of the Rafale, which is being offered in its latest F3R version but which may evolve into the F4 standard around 2024. This, according to Paris would give Belgium a weight in the future evolution of the Rafale "incommensurate with what can be envisaged" for the other competing aircraft.
Participation in SCAF would follow on from that, as Rafale is due to remain in service well into the 2040s or even later.
Previous coverage of the Belgian fighter competition
Calls to Suspend Belgian Fighter Tender After Upgrade Option Is Revealed (March 21, 2018)
Belgian Fighter Competition Hinges on Legal Opinions (Dec 17, 2017)
Belgian Fighter Competition: Three Down, Two to Go? (Sept. 8, 2017)