MILAN and STUTTGART, Germany — The Belgian government has hinted it is open to joining a multinational European sixth-generation fighter program, despite its previous commitment to the U.S.-led F-35 program.
Over the last few months, the Belgian defense industry has called for the government to decide which sixth-generation combat aircraft program it intends on joining and in what capacity.
Belgium has been in talks with stakeholders of the Future Combat Air System program regarding an “observer status for the time being,” rather than fully acceding to the program, a German aerospace industry source told Defense News.
The FCAS program is led by France, Germany and Spain, and heavily involves the defense companies Dassault Aviation, Airbus and Indra.
The CEO of Dassault Aviation, Éric Trappier, has made it known he’s against expanding FCAS to include other countries involved in the F-35 program, even if they are European. However, he has not ruled out the possibility of governments joining as observer nations.
“I hear about the Belgians’ [interest in FCAS]. That’s all very well,” Trappier said at a hearing session on France’s 2024-2030 Military Programming Law held last month. “I don’t really see the point in putting more F-35 countries into the program. Why would I make room in my factory, in my design office, for people who have chosen the F-35?”
“People say we could give jobs to Belgian companies straight away,” he added. “No. If it’s imposed on me, I’ll fight [it]. I don’t see why I would give jobs to Belgians today.”
In response to Trappier’s comments, Belgian Defence Minister Ludivine Dedonder told Defense News that she was not surprised by such remarks.
“I heard in his words the frustration that the past may have left behind. But the stakes are much higher than the comments of a company boss,” she said. “The fighter of the future, whether it is the FCAS or the [U.K.-Italy-Japan Global Combat Air Program], will be a structuring program for our defense. It is therefore important that our companies are integrated into the one that will be chosen.”
Choosing a fighter
An observer status for Belgium should not worry Trappier, nor other FCAS industry partners, as it wouldn’t immediately involve industrial participation, the German industry source explained, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal discussions.
Moreover, Belgium opted to purchase the F-35A five years ago, “and thus has no need for a new or further fighter aircraft system in the next 30-plus years,” the individual said.
Belgium placed an order for 34 F-35A aircraft in 2018 to replace its fleet of F-16 Fighting Falcons. The first two aircraft are scheduled for delivery this year; two additional aircraft scheduled for 2023 were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The country is expected to receive the full order by 2030.
Alain De Neve, a researcher at the Belgium-based Royal Higher Institute for Defense think tank, agrees it is highly unlikely the participation of a European country in an American-led fighter program could justify its definitive exclusion from any European defense project like FCAS.
He noted that both Germany and Spain — two FCAS members with equal shares — have either already opted for the F-35 or have been strongly considering it as a fighter replacement. Yet, this has not generated similar protests from Dassault.
Although there has been no official word from Belgium that it is joining the FCAS program, there is at least one big player that has already signaled support for such as move. The CEO of Safran, Olivier Andriès, expressed his desire for Belgium to join FCAS, rather than the Global Combat Air Program, during an interview this week with French media.
There are little to no details known at this time on what an observer status would entail for partner countries. But there is motivation to join FCAS, according to De Neve.
“The main purpose of a country’s participation in a research program like FCAS is to offer its national industry the opportunity to contribute to the development of the envisioned system, primarily through providing niche technological solutions, like in Belgium’s case,” he said.
However, a state’s observer status may preclude it from having access to information deemed sensitive, such as proprietary data, which could hinder such goals.
It remains to be seen, should the program expand to other countries, whether further delays would ensue from new rounds of negotiations. The FCAS project was in a holding pattern for some time due to industrial infighting over workshare agreements.
Dassault did not respond to several requests for comment. Defense News has reached out to Indra for comment.
A spokesperson for Airbus declined to comment on the possibility of Belgium joining the program, stating that the addition of new members remained a political decision between the three partner nations of France, Germany and Spain.
Elisabeth Gosselin-Malo is a Europe correspondent for Defense News. She covers a wide range of topics related to military procurement and international security, and specializes in reporting on the aviation sector. She is based in Milan, Italy.
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.