PARIS --- Belgium’s decision to buy Lockheed Martin F-35 fighters is a textbook demonstration of how a government can manipulate billions of euros of public investment towards a pre-selected candidate, while ostensibly conducting a transparent international tender.
It is also a spectacular failure of Europe’s joint defense, and illustrates how Belgium, like other European countries, is quite happy to play lip service to initiatives such as the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO) as long as they promise additional cash for its defense industry and R&D, but is not prepared to let it interfere with its procurement decisions.
Belgium’s selection of the F-35 is also a clear failure of the French government’s marketing strategy, which was based on bypassing Belgium’s official Request for Government Proposal (RfGP) procedure and instead offering a bilateral “strategic partnership” based on its Dassault Rafale fighter.
Finally, the shenanigans that marked the Belgian “competition” beg the question of why an aircraft that is claimed, like the F-35, to be far superior to all existing fighters needs overwhelming pressure from the United States and NATO, as well as manipulation and backroom scheming, to win a competition.
And, although the Belgian government shrugged it off, Lockheed Martin’s hiring of the Belgian defense minister’s deputy chief of staff in January does not inspire a high degree of confidence in the impartiality of the entire process. “This points to a possible conflict of interests, and a manipulation of a public procurement,” Belgian lawmaker Marco Van Hees said during an Oct. 24 parliamentary debate.
A custom-made competition
In an attempt to avoid renewing past defense procurement scandals, the Belgian government set up a competition called Request for Government Proposals (RfPG) to solicit offers for new fighters directly from governments, and side-stepping both manufacturers and their agents. The rules of the competition, and the operational and technical requirements, were set out in a document made public in March 2017, when the process was formally launched.
It soon became clear, however, that the RfGP had been tailor-made for the F-35, prompting Boeing to pull out, Saab to decline to make an offer and France to try to bypass the procedure, leaving only two of the original bidders in the running: Eurofighter and the Lockheed Martin F-35.
Real selection criteria were secret
A detailed exposé by the Flemish weekly Knack revealed on Oct. 8 what many suspected: that Belgium had in fact selected the F-35 in 2013.
But what no-one could suspect is that the RfGP didn’t even mention the real criteria on which the new fighter would be selected: the capability to carry the US-made B-61-12 nuclear bomb, and the capability to carry out Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses missions, for which Belgium had secretly promised NATO several years earlier that it would buy a “stealth” aircraft.
Since only American aircraft will be allowed to carry the B61-12, and since it is the only “stealth” aircraft, the F-35 alone could allow Belgium to meet its secret commitments to NATO.
French offer ruled out
Wanting to sell its Rafale, but convinced the RfGP competition was skewed to favor the F-35, the French government adopted a strategy that, ultimately, led to its being ruled out of the competition.
France’s handling of the Belgian tender was complicated by the election of a new president, Emmanuel Macron, in May, followed by parliamentary elections, a new government, and new appointments at the defense, finance and foreign ministers as well as at the Directorate-General of Armaments (DGA).
Then, after the August holidays, when Europe grinds to a stop, the new French authorities belatedly realized the deadline for responding to Belgium’s RfPG was Sept. 7 – just a week later.
Instead of submitting an offer, France offered Belgium a strategic partnership which included Rafale fighters, joint training, spares and support, a role in the development of the next-generation combat aircraft and an offset package worth as much as €20 billion.
France’s offer took the form of a 3-page letter from Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly to her Belgian counterpart, Steven Vandeput, on Sept. 6, 2017 – the day before the deadline for RfGP bids. It also was written in French, not in English – the official language of the competition – and no Dutch translation was provided – a diplomatic faux-pas in a country where languages are a major political issue.
During an Oct 24 hearing in Parliament, it developed that a second, more detailed offer was sent in October 2017 through the French Embassy in Brussels, but Belgium reacted to neither one. Eventually, six months later a French MoD team was sent to Brussels in mid-May to explain the offer in greater detail but the meeting was inconclusive because the Belgian side was unconvinced that the French proposal was legal.
Shortly after Prime Minister Charles Michel promised his French counterpart on June 18 that he would weigh the French proposal as well as those for Eurofighter and F-35, France offered to submit a detailed, 3,000-page offer that it had prepared if Belgium signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) to protect the highly classified information it contained.
Belgium declined to sign the NDA, however, which prevented France from submitting its offer. To break the deadlock, Parly in August sent an unclassified version of the French offer to Belgian defense minister Steven Vandeput’s office, but as no-one was willing or available to sign for it, it was returned to sender.
This neat trick allowed Michel to state, during his Oct 25 press conference, that since France had not submitted an offer, he could not keep his promise to examine it in detail. “I would have been delighted if the French had submitted an offer, but even today I still don’t know the price of the French aircraft,” he said, and so could not be blamed for France’s failure to do its job.
Michel also claimed that there has been no political pressure from the United States to buy the F-35, which is manifestly untrue as is shown by public statements by Defense Secretary Jim Mathis, Ambassador to NATO Kay Hutchinson and Ambassador to Belgium Ronald Gidwitz as well as other senior diplomats and, of course; President Donald J. Trump.
The final nail in the coffin of the French proposal were the legal opinions provided by the legal office of the government’s public procurement service and by the Stibbe law firm, one of Belgium’s best-known, which the government used to justify its refusal to consider France’s offer. These were explained to lawmakers during the Oct 24 hearing.
Both opinions concluded that the French offer did not include anything markedly different than what Belgium was looking for with its RfGP, namely a new combat aircraft, with partnership and military cooperation, operational and technical support, pilot training, and follow on development support. There was thus no legal justification for France to have made an offer outside of the competition, the lawyers concluded.
And, as the French offer did not comply with the mandatory format required by the RfGP’s Proposal Guidelines, and did not answer the RfGP’s 164 mandatory questions, it could not be evaluated without seriously penalizing the other two competitors, whose offers did follow the required format.
“When you don’t submit an offer, when you don’t provide the technical characteristics of your product and services, and when you don’t provide a price, you obviously make it impossible to open negotiations and to ask for a final offer,” Bruno Lombaert, a partner with the Stibbe law firm, told Belgian MPs during an Oct. 25 hearing.
This, more than anything else, describes how France let itself be manipulated and lost a competition that it had a decent chance of winning had it been handled otherwise.