BRUSSELS --- Belgium said Thursday it would buy US-made F-35 fighters over the Eurofighter Typhoon to replace the F-16s now in service, and that it would pay a lower price than Italy and the Netherlands.
According to figures provided Oct 24 to a closed session of the Belgian Parliament’s defense and finance committees, and leaked to the daily Le Soir, Belgium will pay €76.3 million for each of its 34 aircraft, including training and weapons, for a total of €2.594 billion. Belgium will also pay about €1 billion to upgrade its air bases, and pay for other related training expenses.
This unit cost, provided to the committees by Col Harold van Pee, head of Air force procurement and of the Air Combat Capability Program (ACCaP) which is managing the fighter competition, works out to $86.7 million at today’s exchange rate.
Quoted price is implausible
It is about 3% lower that the latest F-35A unit price ($89.2 million including aircraft, engine and fee) announced Sept. 28 for aircraft bought in Lot 11, and about 50% lower than the $6.53 billion cost notified to Congress on Jan. 18 by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), and which did not include weapons.
It is also lower than the €3.8 billion (including a €200 million contingency reserve) that Belgium has budgeted for the program.
But the most surprising aspect is that the Belgian F-35s, which will be delivered beginning in 2023, will perforce be Block 4 aircraft, benefiting from a major improvement package whose cost and schedule the Pentagon is keeping secret for “proprietary concerns,” Inside Defense reported today.
Developing Block 4 (now known as Continuous Capability Development and Delivery, C2D2) will cost $10.8 billion through FY 2024, the head of the F-35 program, Admiral Mathias Winter, told a March 7 hearing of the House Armed Services (HASC) tactical air and land forces subcommittee.
Winter told reporters after the hearing that this $10.8 billion only covered development, and that an additional $5 billion would be needed for procurement, Inside Defense reported March 7.
On the basis of a planned buy of 138 F-35s, the United Kingdom is expected to pay 4.5% of Block 4 costs, according to the House of Commons Defence Committee said in a Dec. 19 report. Belgium, which is buying one-fourth as many aircraft as the UK, can expect to pay about 1.1%, or about $176 million – adding at least an extra $5 million per aircraft.
This makes the unit price of €76.3 million claimed by Belgium even less plausible.
Worse than a slap for European defense?
Critics called the decision to buy "very bad news" for a more autonomous EU defence strategy, which got a boost after Brexit and US President Donald Trump's election.
Lockheed Martin said it looked forward to ties with "the Belgian government and industry for decades to come," according to a statement on its Twitter feed.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel sought to head off his critics when he said Belgium was looking to both Europe and the United States to meet its defence needs.
Belgium is also buying drones from the United States, but plans to buy frigates, minesweepers and armoured vehicles "within the framework of NATO and European defence," Michel told a news conference.
"The planes and drones are American, the other equipment is European and Belgium will enjoy the economic benefits," Michel added.
Foreign Minister Didier Reynders said the US offer "was the best from the price and operational standpoint."
The F-35 ran against a bid from the Eurofighter, developed by a European consortium that also comprises Italy's Finmeccanica and Airbus.
Jean-Dominique Giuliani, who heads the Robert Schuman Foundation, a European think-tank, lamented the decision.
"It's not a European choice. It's worse than a slap, it is dreadful for European defence," Giuliani told AFP. "It is very bad news."
The F-35 requires a whole maintenance and operational system that depends "on the control of the United States," he added.
"Muddy the waters"
Marking a move away from Europe's decades-long reliance on the United States for its defence, Brussels last year launched "permanent structured cooperation on defence", known as PESCO.
The aim was to unify European defence thinking and to rationalise a fragmented approach to buying and developing military equipment.
France was also likely to be unhappy with the decision.
The United States, acting on behalf of the F-35, and Britain, pushing for the Eurofighter, responded formally to the bidding process Belgium launched in March 2017.
However, the French government took a different tack in September last year by proposing "in-depth cooperation" with the Belgian air force in addition to supplying Rafale fighters, built by the French firm Dassault.
Defence Minister Steven Vandeput said France had ruled itself out with its approach.
"We regret that France voluntarily withdrew from its obligation to present a bid in the framework of our transparent competitive process," he said.
Christophe Wasinski, professor of international relations at ULB University in Brussels, said the announcement of plans to buy 400 French armoured vehicles amounted to government spin.
"It sought to muddy the waters by saying it would buy not just American materiel when the star of these purchases is in fact the F-35," Wasinksi said.
According to Pentagon figures earlier this month, 320 F-35s have been delivered globally, mainly to the US but also to Israel and Britain.