The Netherlands is reducing its airborne effort in fighting the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) forces in Iraq. According to sources in The Hague the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) will start sending its F-16s home from the operations base in Jordan.
Due to the increasing need for maintenance, costs and worries about the combat capability (read: lack of training for other missions) continuation of the entire RNLAF contribution to the international military effort to fight ISIS was in doubt.
The military and political leadership of the Netherlands now opt to reduce the number of F-16s dispatched to Jordan from the current six to four, plus two fighter jets in reserve. Plans call to keep the mission going until the end of June 2016 and there seems to be a majority in the Dutch parliament supporting the decision.
Belgian Air Component
There are still Dutch hopes for a rotating deployment in cooperation with Belgium. The Belgian Air Component currently flies six F-16s separately from the same base in Jordan as the RNLAF does, but Brussels says there is no money left to continue the mission after June.
But the Dutch decision that will be made public on Friday might influence the Belgians to reconsider sending a quartet of F-16s (plus two reserve) in October for a 3 month deployment, to be taken over by the RNLAF again in January 2016. High-level talks on this matter have already been done prior to the decision making.
The Belgian Air Component’s three Agusta A109 utility, armed scout and armed escort helicopters are wrapping up their bilateral exercise with the Czech armed forces on 10 April 2015. Exercise South Plains saw action of the rotary wing and ground forces of both countries from the beginning of April. Base of operations: Námest in the Czech Republic.
Beauvechain Air Base is normally the home for the A109s, but not for three lucky ones and their crew that were involved in a ten-day exercise in the Czech Republic. They were engaged in night flying missions, low altitude flying, close air support, and training for joint missions (COMAO – Composite Air Operation). The helicopters stayed mainly close to Námest, but used the Libava Military Training Area for live air-to-ground firing practices.
The Belgians were welcomed in style, landing in quite snowy conditions on the 1 April. Námest is home to the Czech Air Force’s 22 Wing (22.Základna Vrtulníkového Letectva (22.zL)), operating the Mil Mi-24V and Mi-35 “Hind” attack helicopters, as well as the Mil Mi-171Sh “Hip” assault/transport choppers.
The next exercise involving both Belgian and Czech helicopter units is planned for May this year during the Tactical Helicopter Procedures Update which will take place at the Belgian Beauvechain Base, then again in June in Italy during the Italian Blade Exercise, followed by the Trident Juncture Exercise in Spain in September.
Belgium and the Netherlands closed a deal on Wednesday 4 March, in which both countries will share Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) duties. Also involved is Luxembourg, which has no air force of its own. The agreement was in the works for a long time already, as reported here on Airheadsfly.com.
The Belgian Air Component and the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) will in turn provide a QRA-capability for the whole airspace over Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Until now, both countries had their own QRA. Over the last year, NATO’s QRA fighter aircraft had their hands full intercepting nosy Russian aircraft.
By the end of 2016, the shared QRA should be in full swing. According to the Dutch Ministry of Defense, the arrangement frees up pilots and aircraft for other missions. That’s especially important, given the replacement of the current 67 F-16s with just 37 Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightnings from 2018 onwards.
Denmark was considered “a waste of time”, but Belgium is a different story. Sweden has decided to join the race for the next-generation multi-role fighter jet for the Belgian Air Component.
The Swedish Defence and Security Export Agency (FXM) confirmed it submitted a background document to the Ministry of Defence of Belgium on 15 December 2014. “In June this year, FXM received a request on joining a feasibility study for the country’s future combat aircraft procurement. FXM accepted. The request applies to the next generation of SAAB Gripen, the Gripen E,” a press release reads.
Interesting detail in the Belgian communication about the current process is that Brussels calls it the Gripen R. Sweden is not the only country in the race. Belgium is also requesting information from France for the Dassault Rafale, from the United Kingdom for the Eurofighter Typhoon and from the United States for the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II and Boeing (McDonnell Douglas) F/A-18 Hornet. Judging the current climate in Belgium we at Airheadsfly.com believe that the finale will be between the F-35, Rafale and Gripen, in that order of choice. Dassault already sent in its papers.
Since 1979, Belgium has been flying the Lockheed Martin (General Dynamics) F-16A/M which is due to be fully replaced by 2028. The Belgian Air Component officially has 54 of the F-16s left, but not all of them are operational. With the increased co-operation in a joint air defence with northern neighbour the Netherlands, the F-35 might be a most logic, but also an expensive choice. The Netherlands already buy 37 F-35s to replace their F-16s.
How many new fighters Belgium will buy is not decided yet. The base need is four fighter jets for Quick Reaction Alert, a maximum of 10 fighters deployed in two operations abroad, plus a number of jets for immediate ground support and longer term air defence in case of a threat/conflict at home.
‘Power is not a problem’. The words, spoken in a briefing room at Beauvechain airbase, are met with a grin by the crew of a Belgian Air Component NH90 Tactical Transport Helicopter (TTH). In an hour or so, they’ll be practicing confined area landings. In a hover between 100ft tall trees, it’s comforting to know that the NH90 is Belgium’s most powerful helo so far. But while the sun shines gloriously on a perfect November day, there’s also some worries.
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Worldwide, the 218-strong NHIndustries NH90 fleet has amassed close to 70,000 flying hours since deliveries began nine or so years ago. Of those, well over 620 have been clocked up by the four Belgian NH90 TTHs, with the oldest – delivered in 2012 – responsible for 314 hours. At Beauvechain, student NH90 pilot Richard Jorissen is about to add another two hours to that, in the company of a cabin operator and instructor pilot Ralph Claussen – who’s not Belgian, but German. During the flight, the crew will land at designated spots in the woods and hilly areas near Namur. It requires a team effort, and also a sharp look out for runaway cows, as told during the briefing.
In total, there are now six qualified Belgian Air Component pilots on the NH90, with Jorissen and five more colleagues on their way. “I have six hours on the NH90 now and expect to be operational in two months”, says Jorissen. “It’s a big transition from the Agusta A-109 I flew before, especially with the addition of a cabin operator as a third crew member. Also, the automated systems on the NH90 take some time to get to know completely.”
Helping out are Ralph Claussen and another German instructor pilot. “With the help of the European Defense Agency, European nations flying the NH90 are assisting each other in training. In Germany we have been flying the NH90 for much longer, and I myself have 400 hours on type now. The Belgians are doing really, really well.” The two German instructors will likely head back to their homebase of Bückeburg in Germany by January.
At Beauvechain, the helicopters are operated by 18 Smaldeel (squadron), where they are hoping the reach Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in March, with Full Operational Capability (FOC) projected for 2016. The NH90s role will be to deliver a company sized force into the field, a capability the Belgian forces lacked thus far. With armed A-109s serving as escorts, the Belgian Air Component offers a believable package that is also suited for international missions.
However, not all is well. Earlier in November, news of significant military budget cuts reached all ears in Belgium. Tension is being felt at Beauchehain, too. “The NH90 seems to be safe, but there are worries in the A-109 community, despite that helicopter being vital to our concept”, says Pieter Vereycken, who starts NH90-conversion before the end of the year. “A lot is happening now in the world, but nothing is for sure with these budget cuts . We’ll have to wait and see what happens.”
One thing that is certain, is that the grey coloured Belgian NH90 NATO Frigate Helicopters (NFH) based at Koksijde will be maintained at Beauvechain, and that cuts will likely effect Koksijde. The based 40 Smaldeel has already been placed under the authority of 1 Wing at Beauvechain. Two NFH versions already operate from Koksijde, with another two to follow in 2015. Belgium then will operate four green TTH and four grey NFH versions, and say good bye to its trusty, well known search-and-rescue Sea Kings.
It means extra work for the maintenance folk at Beauvechain, were an old hangar was refurbished for the NH90’s arrival. “With the TTH-version, we manage to have two available for flying most of the time. Any problems are mostly electronics or software related. Quite often, we can resolve it by just powering down the whole system and waiting for it to be reset. These difficulties will likely disappear in the future. Mechanically, they are very sturdy helicopters. A little too sturdy, sometimes. A lot of parts and screws are covered in paint, presumably to prevent rust. Because of the paint, it takes a lot of time to replace parts and repaint them.”
These minor issues are not enough to prevent the Belgian Air Component being a happy NH90 user. “We are perhaps the most intensive user of the NH90, the Belgian ministry of Defense said earlier in November, during the delivery of the final NH90 TTH at Beauvechain. Vereycken: “It’s well known that other operators are experiencing some difficulties, for example the problem with rust on Dutch helicopters. These issues are probably the result of the multi-national effort that is NH90, and of course the Belgian press inquired about our helicopters. But the truth is, we are simply quite happy with our NH90s.”
On the flightline, student pilot Jorissen and German instructor Claussen nod in unison. “We’re quite comfortable in this helicopter”, they say prior to taking off for their confined area landing training. A few moments later, a powerful green beast lifts off. Those cows better make way.