Blog AnalysisAviationEU Defense (Doctrine)

Right wrong. When Charles Michel defends the F-35, are his arguments judicious?

(B2) Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel intends to defend his government's position on the choice of the American F-35 aircraft. While some arguments are intelligible and must be taken seriously, others are (much) more debatable

Charles Michel at RTBF The first in front of Rachel Crivellaro explains Belgium's choice of the F-35 (credit: RTBF stream – B2 selection)

In this affair, widely commented on, between the cries of horror of certain commentators who discover the souls of European activists only because a French product was refused export, the thick fabric of smoke, erected with blows of A grid of arguments by Belgian officials and the political guerrillas which pit the majority and opposition against each other, it is difficult to see clearly. B2 put the Prime Minister's statements made last Friday on RTBF through the 'true-false' sieve.

The betrayal of European Defense. To say that Belgium has betrayed Europe is “ ridiculous. »

  • Talking about betrayal is therefore probably a bit exaggerated. There is no European preference obligation. And we don't take the path. But it is at the very least a serious dent in European projects and in the commitments made within the framework of permanent structured cooperation (1). Rather than a betrayal, I will speak of a 'missed opportunity'.
    On the subject read also: Belgium prefers the American F-35 to its European competitors. A kick in defense Europe?

Belgium also buys European. “We choose other European materials ».

  • Exact. The choice of other European equipment by Belgium is the reality. If there is a country that has often chosen European (and not just national) equipment, it is Belgium. This was the case for the Airbus A400M land transport aircraft or the future A330 MRTT tankers, mine hunters or naval frigates (purchased jointly with the Dutch) or land equipment (German or French which equip the Belgian army). Now the purchase of a fighter plane is both more structuring in economic terms (amount invested) and more significant in strategic terms than other purchases.

Terrestrial partnership. « The European partnership is very developed in the context of rolling stock (NB: land), it will be in the context of the navy. This extremely efficient rolling stock will be the starting point for a European industry which will have a major impact on European Defense »

  • Exact. Belgium signed a mega contract for the supply of land equipment (1,6 billion euros) to France, a contract which does not just consist of purchasing equipment, but also concerns the maintenance, organization and management of equipment. We are thus heading towards a 'real' techno-political overlap on both sides of Quiévrain which will undoubtedly facilitate joint commitment.

A step forward for European defense. " Thirty percent of components manufactured in Europe is a step forward towards a Europe of defense »

  • False. Totally False. This response is very illustrative of a desire to mix genres. It is not because an aircraft manufactured abroad produces certain benefits in one or two European countries that it is a step for European defense. It's quite the opposite. The principle of European defense is, in fact, to master the production process and control of military equipment. This is not the case with the F-35 which depends on the pace of American production, remains subject to US decisions whether for future updates and even the use of certain weapons. With this kind of arguments, there would not only be no defense Europe, but no Europe at all. There would no longer be any European industry of its own, just subcontractors. It would therefore be better to buy a Boeing 747 than an Airbus A400M, or to buy only an Airbus A300, or to use GPS Us rather than the European Galileo. It is bullshit.

US pressure. « In no case is there any (American) pressure to which we would have yielded ».

  • A big doubt. There was real American pressure, expressed on several occasions, on several levels. Subliminally by Donald Trump, very clearly by Jim Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, who sent a letter to this effect to his Belgian counterpart, without forgetting the more discreet but effective steps, or the reminders of his obligations from country that hosts the Atlantic Alliance. Without forgetting the various lobbying efforts undertaken by both the manufacturer and the US ambassador. But each competitor has engaged in such lobbying. It is a fact: American lobbying was the most effective. To say that Belgium did not give in is therefore false, since ultimately it agreed with this opinion. In 2003, American pressure on Belgium was undoubtedly at least as strong for it to side with the interventionist countries in Iraq. Belgium was also led by a liberal (Guy Verhofstadt) and had not given in.

A choice of other countries. " Most European countries within NATO have chosen the F-35. The Belgian decision is not extravagant. This allows it to be interoperable. »

  • Exact. The Belgian decision does not seem alone, but it is not entirely comparable to that of other countries. Some countries (United Kingdom, Italy, Denmark) participated in the development of the device. Others (Norway, Denmark) do not participate in the European Union's 'Defence' project. Read also: Fighter. Europeans love to buy American. Why ?

Participation in the plane of the future European. " We can do it. 360 million euros are reserved precisely to allow Belgium to participate in the plane of the future. And we would like to have more information on this plane of the future”

  • To see. It remains to be seen whether first of all the French and the Germans will agree to a minimum participation of the Belgians. While they will no longer have the possibility of purchasing, being 'rinsed' by the purchase of the F-35. It is then necessary to define whether this amount is sufficient to make a difference. A priori no. So it looks more like a sideline clearance.

The procedure. " Lhe procedure was transparent as never before in matters of military purchases in the history of this country [..] In the past, our country has faced corruption scandals in military procurement. »

  • very exact. The Prime Minister touches a sensitive point here when we know Dassault's background in the Agusta Dassault affair which marked Belgian political life. The modernization of the F-16 by the French manufacturer at the end of the 1990s gave rise to a serious case of corruption, mainly affecting the socialists and leading to a series of resignations, including the Secretary General of NATO at the time, Willy Claes! NB: we can note that certain countries (France) when it came to renewing their air or maritime fleet did not carry out calls for tender. Which is not obligatory in terms of strategic equipment.

The best value for money. " The F-35 appears to be the best value for money. The F-35 offer was the most attractive »

  • To see. It all depends on what you mean by quality and price. It is true that the current Rafale like the Eurofighter are aircraft that were designed in another era and are not of the same generation as the F-35. Even with a discount, the substantial price of the F-35 as well as the performance that remains to be demonstrated for an aircraft that has not yet been tested remains to be proven.

No Rafale price. " I would have been delighted if the French would introduce an offer, but to this day I still don't know what the price of the French plane is. When I buy a car, before I sign the purchase order, I want to know what the price is. »

  • A problem if so. I asked for confirmation from the French. The response is slow...

No participation of the French in the procedure. " The French did not make an offer as part of this transparent procedure, there was a proposal but it did not correspond to the criteria of our request »

  • The strict reality. The French choice to withdraw from the call for tenders at the last moment, while maintaining an offer, is difficult to understand. Either we did not participate in the call for tenders and we presented another offer. Either we withdraw but not at the last moment (as Boeing did with the F-18, Saab with the Gripen)

Belgium, a bad student of NATO. " Belgium is not a good student in terms of defense, we are even penultimate within NATO. Even with the investments decided on Thursday, we will probably not be in line with the average of European countries present within NATO. »

  • very exact. This diagram amply illustrates it. Belgium is one of the worst performers both in terms of spending and in terms of equipment. Only Luxembourg (but with a different geographical location) is behind.

Were the dice loaded? « The opposition parliamentarians went so far as to say that the dice were loaded, I challenge them to go and present a file to the King's prosecutor. It is very serious to make such comments, it is defamation. »

  • A (very) questionable statement. Parliamentarians were not the only ones to say that the dice were loaded. The two manufacturers (Boeing and Saab) who threw in the towel very quickly said it more or less directly. “ We regret that after reviewing the application, we did not see the opportunity to compete on a truly level playing field with the F/A-18 Super Hornet." the American group notably indicated in April 2017 (2). The industrialist Dassault also claims to be “not not surprised by this decision of the Belgian government whose preference of certain actors for the F-35 has been manifest for a long time ».
  • Then there can be an 'orientation' of a call for tenders towards an offer which favors it without necessarily having a criminal act reprehensible (worthy of the prosecutor).
  • As for defamation, which is subject to strict conditions, I am not sure that it is applicable to comments emanating from MPs in the context of a political debate which must guarantee that speech is free.

(Nicolas Gros-Verheyde)

(1) We can note commitment no. 16 of PESCO which provides for “ consider as a priority a collaborative European approach to fill capacity gaps identified at national level and, as a general rule, only resort to an exclusively national approach after having carried out such a review. »

(2) See in particular on the RTBF

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).

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