Expert opinions

F35: Hard choice for Belgian authorities

Switching from one weaponry to another has always been a complicated exercise as users of one military system are generally by instinct attracted by new systems of the same supplier. Keeping this in mind, issuing requirement specifications, which opens the door to competition, is a delicate exercise.

The Belgian Defense General Quarters have tried that exercise for replacement of aging F16 aircraft around years 2025-2030. This was for the first time ever published in Internet in March 2017. It described operational military requirements and not the product requirements. Manufacturers from all over the world were contacted through their respective governmental agencies: two American, one French, one Swedish, and one British.

Three agencies declined to bid before initial bid submission date: one American representing the F18 from Boeing, one French representing the Rafale; both having doubts concerning the objectivity of the requirements as mentioned in the Belgian defense document. The third agency to decline was representing Sweden, a neutral country and not a NATO member, who wanted to avoid any undesired interference with NATO missions carried out by Belgium.

In September 2017, merely two candidate offers meeting the Belgian requirements remained: the one submitted by JPO (Joint Program Office) for the F35 from Lockheed Martin and the one from the British agency representing the four nations program (UK, Germany, Italy and Spain) for the Eurofighter.

Simultaneously with those negotiations between the Belgian Ministry and the two above candidates, France proposed a strategic partnership which was outside the scope of the normal procedure. This caused anxiety and concern among Belgian government between those who were willing to consider the French partnership and those who wanted to stick strictly to the RFGP (Request for Governmental Proposal) procedure.

This RFGP anticipated a BAFO (Best and Final Offer), and by early February 2018 only the Americans and the British submitted one, with France remaining outside the framework of this competition. This further stirred the negotiation atmosphere in Belgium. Consequently Belgium was not in a position to either make a decision prior to the July 2018 NATO Summit or prior to the local elections in October 2018. It is only in late October 2018 that the Government announced its choice and expanded its requirements, intending to also procure drones (American), tanks (French), and ships (Dutch/French) to show parity between the Atlantic links and European ones.

In the nowadays context, the US isolation policy stirs doubts of its strategic support to Europe. Even more than that, if a military intervention is required, the question of the real European strategic autonomy comes up: do we really want it, or will Europe continue to depend on the USA through our NATO membership.

Today, when European Union starts thinking about defense programmes, Belgium joins the group of countries under US influence – UK, Italy, Holland, Norway and Denmark – which already decided to equip their defense forces with F35s regardless of the fact that European defense can not be conceived without European control of defense technology. American materials such as drones and aircraft, even paid for by European taxpayers, will always stay under Pentagon control. If Europe really wants to balance its partnership with the USA, it is mandatory that within NATO, France and Germany agree on a future program to produce their own European air fighter with the support of the other European nations.

Necessary budgets could be financed at European level by taxation of multinational companies escaping national tax authorities of Europe.

Reverting to Belgium, the industrial service organizations, research organizations, and others concerned about economic returns of this F35 purchase, should mobilize to transform the actual purchase into an investment. In light of its value (around €4 bln at the beginning and some €20 bln over the entire program period) payable to American suppliers, this is the least to be expected.

By Michel Milecan

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