06:55 GMT08 August 2020
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    BRUSSELS (Sputnik) - Belgium has opted for US F-35 Lightning II to re-equip its Air Force rather than Europe-made jets, provoking dissatisfaction of European partners and leaving experts split in their assessments of the choice.

    On Thursday, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel officially announced that Brussels would buy 34 US fighter jets. He later said that the offer of US manufacturer Lockheed Martin Aeronautics was more beneficial than that of its competitors.

    The US fifth-generation fighter was chosen over the Typhoon Eurofighter built by a UK-German-Spanish-Italian consortium, the second participant of the tender. France’s Dassault Aviation SA also sought to promote its Rafale, by making a counteroffer outside the tendering procedure.

    According to the Belgian Defense Ministry, one F-35, including its equipment and pilots' training, costs 76.3 million euros ($86.8 million). Thus, the total cost of the rearmament will amount to 2.5 billion euros, while the government planned to allocate 3.6 billion euros for the implementation of the program.

    Because the F-35 is cheaper than budgeted, the government put parts of the surplus aside for an investment in a future European fighter.

    US Pledges Return in Economic Activity

    The Belgian government believes that the purchase costs of the F-35 would return to Belgium in the form of economic compensation worth some 3.7 billion euros ($4.2 billion), which is as much as the jets cost.

    "The offer from the United States provides an economic activity with an estimated turnover of 3.7 billion euros," Belgian Deputy Prime Minister Kris Peeters said.

    Belgian Defense Minister Steven Vandeput similarly stressed that the estimates were even "conservative," adding that "we have very concrete commitments for 30 export projects. "

    Some representatives of the industry, however, voice certain doubts. Belgium’s technology industry federation, Agoria, warned that the government’s assessments could be overoptimistic, noting that potential economic compensation was still uncertain.

    "The sum of economic compensations that the minister announces is still highly uncertain. Just about all Belgian companies in the aviation industry have been contacted by Lockheed Martin in recent years with vague agreements and promises … But they will soon have to be converted into a real contract. And that is by no means evident. Control is needed, so that all the nice talk does not become empty promises," Agoria CEO Marc Lambotte told Sputnik.

    Economist Geert Noels doubted that the orders for the US company with a branch in Belgium constituted an economic compensation for the country.

    "The minister speaks about rising sales. But that is not the same as added value. You have to look: are new jobs and investments coming in thanks to the F-35 for Belgian companies? If an American company with a branch in our country increases its turnover thanks to this purchase, it is not yet economic compensation for Belgium. It is true that the technological sector in Belgium would benefit from investments in new technologies such as cyberdefense and drones. Our companies can then take the lead internationally and capitalize on their knowledge to get markets abroad," Noels said.

    Best Price-Quality Ratio

    Retired Col. Luc Gennart, a former F-16 pilot, who he ended his military career as commander of Belgium’s Florennes Air Base, however, believed that the F-35 had deservingly won the tender.

    "The government had published an official Request for Government Proposals (RFGP). Two nations responded, the British with the Eurofighter and the Americans…. [with the F-35s]. The RFGP had 164 questions. We can always regret that France has not bowed to this great exercise in transparency by making an offer with the Rafale. The latter country has preferred to make a general industrial counter-offer but without wanting to disclose the price," he specified.

    According to Gennart, both offers have been very interesting and can meet the defense needs of the country, while the US offer has the best price-quality ratio.

    "The choice of the government focused on the best military offer, offering the best export market and social return, the F35. Belgium is part of Europe and its defense strategy is defined through its alliances. Thanks to this aircraft, its contribution to NATO is guaranteed at a high level and in the long term. A fifth-generation fighter bomber justifies itself entirely. The economic compensation obtained is important in view of the size of the market," he said.

    Gennart also recalled that some EU nations had similarly opted for the F-35 to replace the aging F-16.

    "Several European countries have already decided to equip themselves with the F35, including the Dutch, Danish and Norwegian with whom we already share the same F16. But also the British and the Italians and probably others soon," he pointed out.

    Bids to Sweeten the Pill for Europe

    It is noteworthy that the Belgian government’s concurrently announced both its decision to buy the F-35 fighters and the choice to purchase 442 French armored vehicles.

    This timing seems to be a signal that Belgium wants to preserve its relations with France, whose offer of Dassault, voluntarily placed outside the official procedure of selection of the new plane, remained a dead letter.

    It can also be regarded as a message that Belgium, despite the choice of the F-35, is no more Atlanticist than pro-European and remains committed to the development of European defense.

    Yet, the step has already faced certain criticism. Jean-Dominique Giuliani, the chairman of the Robert Schuman Foundation think tank, for instance, said that "It's not a European choice, it's worse than a slap, it's hopeless for Europe of defence."

    Moreover, French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday expressed his regret over Brussels’ decision, arguing that this move "strategically goes against European interests."

    The statement came after Paris unsuccessfully sought to influence Brussels’ decision, urging it to take into account the development of a Franco-German project for new fighter jets and the prospect that it could be extended to Belgium.

    Nevertheless, Belgium is not the first EU country to choose the F-35 to replace the F-16 inventory. The list also includes the Netherlands, Denmark, Italy and Norway. According to Brussels, the manufacturer of the F-35 just made a more beneficial offer, so business is business.

    Belgium after all has historical ties with Lockheed Martin. The Air Force has flown for a long time with the F-16. For that plane, the compensation arrived as promised. But the difference is that Belgium was involved in the development of the F-16 from the beginning, which is not the case with the F-35.

    The views and opinions expressed in the article do not necessarily reflect those of Sputnik.


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