The SP.A (Flemish Socialist) party on Wednesday released copies of e-mails that it says were written by the nation’s top military officers, and which it alleges prove that Vandeput lied to Parliament when he said he had no knowledge that the service life of the Belgian Air Force’s F-16 fighters could be extended, the Belga news service reported May 30.
The Ministry of Defence immediately questioned the e-mail’s authenticity, questioned the credibility of SP.A and accused it of being manipulated.
“Pathetic,” tweeted Vandeput’s spokeswoman Laurence Mortier, adding that “a grievous error in one of the e-mails” [which mentions Block 20 F-16s, while she maintains Belgium operates only Block 15s—Ed.] proves “Credibility nil; top ten #FakeNews.”
Appearing on the “Terzake” television show Wednesday night, Vandeput said this and previous e-mails “is fabricated material,” and added that “I don’t know any ‘Block 20 F-16s’, either.”
In fact, and embarassingly for the minister of defense and his staff, "Block 20" is the official designation for F-16 aircraft that have been upgraded under the Mid-Life Update (MLU) program, like Belgium's. It is surprising that neither he nor his staff were aware of this, even though that designation is used in the e-mail photographed here:
Dit is het zogenaamde bewijs dat @svandeput gelogen heeft. De schrijver van de mail weet zelfs niet dat onze f-16's van block 15 zijn. Geloofwaardigheid nihil, pathetiek ten top #FakeNews pic.twitter.com/ZEl431HADr— Laurence Mortier (@LaurenceMortie1) May 30, 2018
SP.A president John Crombez also released several other e-mails he had previously brandished in Parliament to support a no-confidence motion he has tabled calling for Vandeput’s resignation. Parliament is to vote on this and eight other motions in plenary session Thursday afternoon (after our deadline—Ed) , according to the House of Representative’s website.
It is highly unlikely that the motions will succeed, as the ruling coalition has a solid majority in Parliament, but they could influence public opinion and ultimately persuade the government to postpone a decision for fear of losing voter support in the lead-up to the May 2019 general elections.
Crombez maintains that Belgium’s military hierarchy has manipulated the F-16 replacement issue for years, “in complete collusion with the minister,” to ensure Belgium buys the Lockheed Martin F-35.
The latest e-mail released by SP.A, and dated April 2017, was allegedly sent to the minister’s then chief of staff, Claude Van de Voorde and copied to Vandeput. It mentions “the replacement of Belgium’s “F-16 Block 20” fighters, and according to Crombez proves again that the military and Vandeput hid the F-16 upgrade option from Parliament.
“This is simply pathetic,” Vandeput’s office also told Belga, questioning the e-mail’s authenticity since it mentions Block 20 fighters whereas Vandeput’s office said Belgium only operates Block 15s.
Accusation backfires on Minister Vandeput
In fact, the F-16A Block 15 that Belgium currently operates were updated under the NATO-wide Mid-Life Update (MLU) program, after which their designation was changed to Block 20, as clearly explained in this history of the program posted by Lockheed Martin, its manufacturer.
Mortier apparently ignored this inconvenient fact, which negates her attack on the credibility of the e-mail tabled by SP.A, and does not reflect kindly on the competence of Minister Vandeput’s staff.
It also reinforces the accusations of partiality and incompetence made by opposition lawmakers, who maintain that the F-16 upgrade option was initially hidden from Vandeput, who has been accused of subsequently lying to Parliament to cover up his role in the lackluster management of the competition to replace the F-16s.
But Vandeput continues to maintain he had never seen the e-mails released by SP.A. “This is fabricated material,” he said Wednesday night appearing on the “Terzake” television show. “The name of the author of the e-mail is not mentioned, nor is the person for whom it is intended and, furthermore, the language used is not the way the military speak,” adding that “I don’t know any ‘Block 20 F-16s’, either.”
In fact, the 160 General Dynamics (now Lockheed Martin) F-16A/Bs ordered by Belgium in the late 1970s were all delivered as Block 1, Block 5, Block 10 Block 15 and, for the final 44 aircraft, Block 15OCU.
They were subsequently all brought up to Block 15 standard, and were officially redesignated F-16AM / BM Block 20 after going through the MLU process.
Airframes good for at least 10 more years
Interestingly, Lockheed’s document also confirms that the lifetime of Block 20 aircraft is 8,000 flight hours, making a Service Life Extension Program cost-effective; this seriously undermining the defense ministry’s claims that the F-16 replacement was operationally urgent.
According to the latest figures we have obtained, as of May 2015 Belgium’s F-16s had flown, on average, about 5,500 flight hours, with the lowest-time aircraft having logged 4,184 hours and the highest-time aircraft having logged 5,886 hours.
As each aircraft averages about 220 flight hours per year, their airframes still have a useful life of at least ten years, even before a hypothetical service life extension program which Vandeput has said is technically not feasible.
In fact, their service life could be extended to 2025-2032, depending on the airframe condition of each individual aircraft, as stated in previous e-mails, because the Belgian Air Force has used them rather gently.
As modern combat aircraft have a production cycle of about three years, this means that Belgium could delay contracting for a new fighter – and paying the €3.7 billion earmarked for the program -- until at least 2022, and possibly later, without any loss in operational effectiveness.
A delay would make it impossible for Vandeput to steal the limelight by announcing the investment at the NATO Summit meeting in Brussels in July, as he is said to want.
It could also be seen embarrassing by Belgian Air Force commanders, whose pilots would continue to fly F-16s while their European colleagues would fly spiffy new, if very imperfect and hugely expensive, Lockheed F-35s.
But these are minor questions of ego which should not be allowed to pollute the final decision.
-- May 31 at 16:00 CET: made minor editing changes.