PARIS --- In a major policy reversal, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel on Friday announced an abrupt change in the process to select a replacement for the Lockheed F-16s operated by the Belgian Air Force.
At a press conference held after the Cabinet meeting, Michel said that Belgium will thoroughly evaluate the French offer based on the Dassault Rafale, as well as the possible upgrade of the F-16s. He also postponed the decision until mid-October.
This is a complete disavowal of the position of Defense Minister Steven Vandeput, who insisted that upgrading the F-16 was clearly not realistic, and maintained that he could not evaluate the Rafale offer because France had not followed the procedures set out in the Request for Government Proposals (RFGP) released in March 2017.
"The government will request more information on the French proposal and will then examine it in all its aspects," Charles Michel said.
Belgium to weigh three options
Michel also outlined three options: the service life extension of the F-16s; the purchase of one of the two aircraft participating in the ongoing RFGP competition, i.e. the Eurofighter and the Lockheed Martin F-35, as well as a third option, the French proposal to buy Rafales and join the development of the fighter of the future.
"We must make a serious and meticulous analysis," said the Prime Minister. Defense Minister Vandeput, who was also present, did not speak. "We will have to watch this," he shrugged he left.
The opposition parties were clearly happy with Michel’s decision.
“Better late than never,” opposition MP Georges Dallemagne said about the decision to evaluate the French offer. “The defense minister’s absurd position was becoming untenable, as he could no longer justify simply dismissing the French offer of an in-depth, strategic partnership.”
“The government will now take the time to openly debate what defense we want for our country…It is an opportunity for the Prime Minister to transparently examine all of the options, and to debate them in Parliament. This program is worth billions of euros, and the people are entitled to know how their taxes are spent, said Dirk Van der Maelen. He is a member of the opposition SP.A party which first released documents proving that the F-16s could be upgraded.
At present, the government does not have detailed information on what France has to offer. Consultations took place between Vandeput’s staff and representatives of the French Minister of Defense, who explained that Belgium could join France and Germany for the development of a new generation of fighter jets; that France can deliver 34 Rafale within the planned budget envelope of €3.6 billion and that, in this case, Belgium could also operate from the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.
But technical details on the Rafales themselves, and more specifically the version being offered to Belgium, are not available at the moment. They are being kept by the defense ministry, MP Georges Dallemagne tweeted June 13, and other Belgian government departments have not been allowed to view them.
Deadline postponed to October
It is striking that the unofficial deadline of 11 July, the date on which a NATO summit meeting will open in Brussels, is now completely debunked. "The offers of the Americans and the British under the RFGP are valid until mid-October," Michel said, so there is no harm in postponing a decision until then.