How will we replace our F-16 fighter-bombers? Experts and industry officials suggest that a single criterion contained in the specification - the ability to carry a nuclear bomb - may swing the competition to favor the American F-35 over its four potential competitors.
"If the nuclear requirement is included in the Request for Proposal, the tender that the Defence ministry must issue in the autumn), the door is wide open for the F-35,” an industry officials told the Belga news agency.
Of the five aircraft currently competing to replace, from 2023, the aging F-16s (Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II; Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet; Dassault Aviation Rafale F3R; Saab JAS-39E/F Gripen and Airbus Group Eurofighter), only the F-35 will be able to operate the nuclear strike mission carrying the American B-61 nuclear free-fall bomb.
For decades, Belgium has assumed nuclear missions within NATO, but these were gradually reduced to one, assigned to fighter-bombers stationed at Kleine-Brogel air base (F-84E, F-104G and since 1982 the F-16A). These aircraft are able to carry and drop the American B-61 nuclear bomb, although the presence of these weapons on Belgian air bases - ten to twenty bombs, according to unofficial estimates - is generally "neither confirmed nor denied."
The current Minister of Defense, Steven Vandeput (N-VA), suggested last month that the precise requirements to be answered aircraft to succeed the F-16 will be identified in the strategic plan that he is preparing to submit to the government cabinet in the coming weeks.
"The technical specifications depend on the level of commitment, and we will define in the strategic plan exactly what is expected of the new fighter," he told the Parliamentary Defense Committee, without however providing any further clarification.
If Belgium decided to retain its only remaining nuclear task, and if the RFP confirms this requirement, only the F-35A - the conventional take-off and landing version of the new American Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) will be compliant.
This aircraft was designed for a dual role (conventional and nuclear) and should be able to carry the B-61 nuclear bomb later in its development, probably after 2022. This is not the case for the other contenders for the Belgian competition, with the exception of the French Rafale.
The Boeing F-18E Super Hornet is not nuclear-capable, Hans Kristensen, a nuclear expert at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) told Belga on Thursday. The Swedish government for its part prohibits any Gripen sales that could involve a nuclear role. As for the Airbus Group’s Eurofighter, it was conceived as an interceptor and is only acquiring attack capabilities very slowly. No European user (Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain and Austria) has however considered giving it a nuclear capability.
There remains the case of the French Rafale. This aircraft, which its manufacturer describes as "omnirole," is capable of carrying a nuclear weapon, this is the ASMP-A missile (improved medium range air-to-ground missile), developed in France for France’s nuclear forces, and thus not easily exportable. As for the integration of the American B-61 on the Rafale, it appears as politically unrealistic and financially costly, say industrialists and experts.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Some observers say the Belgian defense staff is using the nuclear argument to push its preferred fighter, the F-35, without appearing to meddle in the selection process.
Others say that the nuclear issue is a red herring, and that the decision rests on whether the Belgian government wants to align its air force with the Netherlands (F-35) or with France, in which case it would go with Rafale.
In both cases, aircraft performance and price are likely to have very little influence on the final decision.)