Belgium’s F-16 jets are to keep flying until 2028, when the last will be replaced by a yet to be determined new fighter jet. According to reports in Belgium, the first new fighter jet should enter service in 2023. For five years, the new jet will operate alongside the F-16, after which the curtain will fall for the latter.
The Belgian government in Brussels has put aside 3.5 billion EUR to replace 54 F-16 with a total of 34 new jets. Candidates are the Lockheed Martin F-35, Dassault Rafale, Saab Gripen, Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and Eurofighter Typhoon. The F-35 is widely regarded as the most likely choice for the Belgians. A final decision is expected in 2018.
Of the original European Participating Air Forces (EPAF) in the seventies, Belgium will use the F-16 the longest. The other participating countries – the Netherlands, Norway and Denmark – all already selected the F-35 as their F-16 replacement. Norway is expected to loose its F-16 by 2021, with the Netherlands following in 2023. Denmark should not be far behind.
Belgium back then was actually also the very first European nation to receive the F-16. The first jet was delivered on 29 January 1979 after being assembled by SABCA
The Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) is currently not able to fulfill all of its tasks, especially when it comes to operations with its F-16 fighter jets. According to Tom Middendorp, commander of all Dutch armed forces, RNLAF pilots especially need additional training to sharpen their air-to-air skills.
Years and years of flying air support missions over Afghanistan and most recently, Iraq and Syria, have caused RNLAF pilots to loose certain skills that may be required again in light of increased Russian interest and involvement in Europe.
Dutch pilots need to become well trained again in all areas of air combat, including intercepts of other aircraft and actual air-to-air engagements, says Middendorp. The RNLAF earlier stated it needed time to perform maintenance on its tired F-16 fleet, plus additional training for its crews.
Extra training is currenty being undertaken in the US. In February, Airheadsfly.com will report on RNLAF participation in large scale military flying exercise Red Flag at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas.
Dutch F-16s are currently also deployed to Lithuania as part of NATO’s Baltic Air Policing Mission. From Šiauliai airbase, Dutch pilots now get to intercept actual Russian aircraft operating near the Baltic states.
Not other operational RNLAF F-16 deployments are foreseen for the near future, giving more time for extra training. Also, the Dutch are slowly but surely preparing for the arrival in 2019 of the first F-35 Lightnings in the Netherlands.
Donald Trump’s executive order to ban immigrants from seven, largely muslim countries in the Middle East and Africa, casts uncertainty of Iraqi Air Force F-16 training in Tucson in the US. According to various sources, US and Iraqi diplomats are working on ways to exempt Iraqi student pilots from the ban.
The Iraqi Air Force is in the process of receiving 36 Lockheed Martin F-16 jets purchased in 2011. Pilot training on these advanced jets is done in Tucson, Arizona, where the first Iraqi aircraft arrived over two years ago. Since then, pilots from Iraq stayed in Tucson to learn to fly the F-16.
According to critics, the ban that was announced on Friday has all the marks of an executive order that was not thought out properly. It took the US State Departement and the Pentagon by surprise.
According to officials, an agreement on continued Iraqi F-16 training seems likely. US servicemen and Iraqi personnel have been working together closely for the last few year, not in the least to defeat so-called Islamic State forces in Iraq.
Poland is looking at possible solutions to replace ageing Sukhoi Su-22 Fitter and MiG-29 Fulcrum jets. According to an analysis made by the Polish MoD, one such solution could be the purchase of up to 96 second hand F-16s from the US. Wether this will trully materialize, remains to be seen. Poland currently operates 48 advanced F-16C/D jets.
It’s no surprise that the Polish are looking to replace their Soviet-era Sukhois and MiGs for something more suited to operate alongside the F-16. This could very well be F-16C/D aircraft previously used by the US Air Force, although these jets would require extensive updates to fit them into the existing Polish F-16 fleet. Also, while the US is to put aside many F-16s in the years to come, a substantial number of those will end up us remote controlled QF-16s.
Poland has been mentioned before as a country that may very well purchase the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lighting II at some point in the future. According to Warzaw, the jet is to expensive now, plus industrial offsets seem out of reach.
Perhaps Poland has started manoeuvring itself in a more favourable position for a future F-35 purchase by saying it is willing to expand its capabilities by buying a Lockheed Martin product, but not at any costs. In that light, the announcement on Friday 13 January that Lockheed Martin is close to a deal with the US government about reduced F-35 costs, may be welcome news for Poland.
Time will tell wether we indeed see more F-16 in Polish colours, or F-35s.
© 2017 Airheadsfly.com editor Elmer van Hest
The year 2017 will be the year that for the first time in history sees joint air defense over four European countries. Not only are Belgium and the Netherlands operating a combined Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) since 1 January 2017, starting this summer the Czech Republic and Slovakia will do the same. The latter countries today agreed on cooperation.
The joint efforts are quite remarkable in a time of increasing international tension, although the combined effort of Belgium and the Netherlands has been on the cards for quite some time already. Whereas until last year both countries each had four F-16s on constant standby, they now take turns in keeping an eye out for airliners gone astray or potential threats, thus saving costs. Being small countries, they apparently can afford slighly longer transit times for the F-16s to get close to the action.
Czechs and Slovaks
The Czechs and Slovakians also talked about joint air defense before, but mostly in light of Slovakia maybe also leasing Saab Gripen fighter jets, as does the Czech Republic. While Slovakia for now continues to operate older MiG-29 Fulcrums, both countries today still agreed to keep a watch over each other’s skies. The agreement should be officaly ratified and come into effect later this year.
Meanwhile, it will be interesting to see what effect the cooperation between Belgium and the Netherlands has on the former’s selection of a new fighter jet to replace the F-16. The Netherlands has already opted for the F-35 Lightning II, but Belgium is still undediced. The Belgians are looking at the F-35, Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, Saab gripen and Dassault Rafale.