The F-35 Is the Wrong Choice for Belgium
The stealth fighter is complex, expensive and unreliable
Belgium reportedly has chosen the American-made F-35 to replace its old F-16s.
The F-35 is a technological marvel, with radar-absorbing skin coatings that help it to avoid detection.
But it’s also complex, expensive and unreliable. Unable to fly as frequently as the F-16 can do, and too expensive to buy in large numbers, the F-35 despite its impressive technology actually represents a backward step for the Belgian air force.
In buying a small number of F-35s to replace a much larger fleet of F-16s, Belgium is repeating the mistake that the The Netherlands and Denmark made years earlier when they, too, chose the F-35 over a less expensive fighter such as the Gripen or even an upgraded F-16.
News agency Belga first reported the Lockheed Martin-made F-35’s victory over the Eurofighter — a joint British, German, Italian and Spanish warplane — in a long-running competition to replace more than 50 F-16s that Belgium acquired in the 1980s and upgraded with new weapons and software in the early 2000s.
Belgium reportedly will buy just 34 F-35s for $4.1 billion, with deliveries beginning in 2023. The air force operated 56 F-16s, also built by Lockheed, until an accident in early October that resulted in one F-16 firing its gun during maintenance, destroying a second F-16 and damaging a third.
A new F-16 with the latest enhancements costs around $70 million. By contrast, each F-35 sets back taxpayers $120 million.
But maintenance costs account for most of a fighter’s overall expense. Owing to its complexity and the cost of maintenance to its stealth coating, the F-35 costs as much as $28,000 per flight hour, according to Forbes. An F-16 costs just $8,000 per flight hour.
Worse, the F-35 is unreliable. In 2017, just half of the U.S. Air Force’s F-35’s were flyable at any given time, according to official figures that Air Force Times obtained. Seventy percent of single-seat F-16s were flyable.
At top — a Dutch F-35. Dutch military photo. Above — a Belgian F-16. U.S. Air Force photo
With just 34 F-35s, Belgium could rapidly run out of air power. Around half might be flyable on any given day. Of those 17 flyable jets, most will be busy on training flights. A handful will be deployable for war. Denmark, which is paying $3.1 billion for 27 F-35s, has stated a goal of deploying four jets to a war zone for a year at a time every three years.
Belgium might manage to deploy five F-35s. And the pilots of those five jets will be less skilled than they might have been had they trained with a more reliable aircraft. Owing in part to the lack of flyable aircraft, U.S. Air Force fighter pilots fly on average just 16 hours per month in 2018, according to Air Force Times.
They need to fly as many as 25 hours a month to maintain fighting skills, according to John Venable, a former F-16 pilot who is now an analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation.
F-35s aren’t reliable enough to support intensive training. That could cost lives during wartime. The F-35 “will needlessly spill the blood of far too many of our pilots,” warned Winslow Wheeler, a former analyst with the Center for Defense Information in Washington, D.C.
If Belgium chose a simpler warplane — a new F-16 or Sweden’s Gripen — it could buy more of them and fly them more often than it could do with the F-35. That likely would mean a larger deployable force with better pilots.
In reportedly choosing the F-35, Brussels seems to be betting that the plane’s ability to avoid detection by enemy forces is worth its higher cost and lower reliability. But stealth is just one way a warplane wins in battle. Superior sensors and weapons, pilot prowess and even sheer numbers can also mean the difference between victory and defeat.
Moreover, stealth in essence is a countermeasure targeting specific types of sensors. The F-35 is designed to defeat the kinds of X-band radars that other warplanes and some ground-based air-defenses use to detect enemy jets.
To sidestep the F-35’s design attributes, countries such as Russia, China and Iran are developing radars that emit at lower frequencies — and also adding infrared and visual sensors to their air defenses. It’s for that reason that Pierre Sprey, co-designer of the F-16, called stealth a “scam.”
New sensors could eliminate the F-35’s sole advantage over cheaper and more flyable planes. If and when that happens, Belgium will be left with an air arm that’s smaller and less reliable than it was just a few years earlier, with no technological advantage to justify those liabilities.
The F-35 is the wrong choice for Belgium.