Last week the Belgian government decided to join the military campaign against the Islamic State (IS). With overwhelming parliamentary support, it deployed six F-16 fighters to Jordan with a view to conducting reconnaissance and strike missions against IS targets on Iraqi territory. With this context in mind it is worthwhile reconsidering some of the claims put forward by Christophe Christiaens and Miguel Nunes Silva on Belgium’s F-16 fighter-jet replacement.
Christiaens and Nunes Silva make an articulate case that the F-16 replacement constitutes a key ingredient in the modernisation of the Belgian armed forces. Their analysis that the Belgian government has a continuing need for an interoperable and multi-role fighter platform largely speaks for itself. The fact that the current engagement against IS has won the support of the staunch parliamentary opponents of the F-16 replacement speaks volumes about the true political attractiveness of this capability.
At the same time, the future of the Belgian armed forces depends on much more than the F-16 replacement alone. As I have argued elsewhere, the Belgian force structure must include not only a multirole fighter platform and transport aircraft, but also vessels suitable for ocean-going escort and mine-countermeasure functions as well as light airborne forces and meaningful combined arms capabilities. In the present geopolitical climate, no coherent strategic case can be made for scrapping one or more of these core capabilities. It therefore bears emphasising that the F-16 replacement can only be decided upon in the context of a broader reflection about the future force structure. Providing one specific answer to the F-16 replacement question – as Christiaens and Nunes Silva do with their preference for the Saab Gripen – constitutes a case of putting the cart before the horse.
Moreover, the opening stages of the anti-IS campaign provide additional grounds for questioning some of the assumptions made by Christiaens and Nunes Silva. In particular, their hypothesis that smaller nations cannot be logically expected to provide frontline airpower muscle is disproven. As past air campaigns over Kosovo and Libya already demonstrated, the European F-16 flying nations effectively constitute a spearhead of Alliance airpower. It remains altogether unclear to what extent Belgium could continue to play such a role when flying jets built by a non-NATO state and unproven in actual combat. This does not mean the Belgian air force should not consider alternatives to the F-35 platform. In recent days the French Armée de l’Air again demonstrated the capabilities of the Dassault Rafale. The fact that Belgium turned to the UK for information about the Eurofighter Typhoon (rather than to Germany) underscores the importance Belgium attaches to the air-to-ground role. The prudent approach is therefore not to jump to conclusions before all relevant information is collected and analysed.
Finally, Christiaens and Nunes Silva avow great concern for the price tag of the replacement ‘at a time of austerity’, but fail to recognise a more important strategic reality. As a result of firmly established budgetary trends (lowering defence spending and postponing investments) the Belgian armed forces have been hollowed out to a very substantial degree. Replacing the F-16 with a less capable platform would only perpetuate the trend of lowering ambitions and disregarding the security interests of the next generation. Unless these budgetary trends are halted – as all Allies collectively agreed at the Wales Summit (see para. 14) – the Belgian force structure will continue to crumble. At times of increased geopolitical rivalry and instability this is something that the next Belgian government can truly not afford.
Vol. 6, No. 74 (2014)
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