The decision will bring the total number of Belgian troops in Afghanistan to 560, of which the bulk is still guarding KAIA, Kabul International Airport. Of the four committments in Afghanistan, the operation from Kandahar involving the six fighter bombers is the sole combat mission, with the F-16's flying in a CAS role every day.
Theoretically the Belgian F-16's are old, but it would be totally wrong to assume they are therefore lacking in operational capabilities. Belgium purchased 116 of them in the late seventies, however, the contract, referred to here at the time as the "contract of the century" stipulated that the planes would be licence-built by SABCA in Gosselies (near Charleroi) and Haren (near Brussels). Together with Fokker in the Netherlands, SABCA was responsible for final assembly in Europe of all "European-purchased" F-16's. The early F-16 production was really a Belgian/Dutch enterprise, with Fokker, apart from its final assembly work, also buiding a.o. fuselage center sections, leading edge flaps etc., and Belgium's SONACA building the aft fuselage, MBLE the APG66 radar, and SABCA again the wing structure box and the complete wings. I remember a visit from my student days, now twenty years ago, when we visited the Haren SABCA plant and watched with astonishment how the thin, frail F-16 wings were entirely milled from thick, massive aluminium slabs rather than formed otherwise in order to eliminate tensions. FN (Fabrique National, more known for its small arms) in Herstal, near Liege, constructed the F100 engines for all four initial European customers, i.e. The Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark and Norway.
The first "European" F-16 left the assembly line at SABCA's Gosselies plant in late 1978, and was accepted by the Belgian Air Force in January 1979 - thirty years ago. Since then, the planes have constantly undergone updates, the most significant series of them starting in the nineties. Most Belgian F-16's are now at Mid-Life Update Tape M4 (MLU-M4) software and hardware standard. This means that they are among the most modern and most capable combat jets of the world today. As for the airframes themselves, two years back I had the occasion to talk to an accomplished F-16 pilot himself, a certain Peter C., also author of several aviation books, who claimed that in our current F-16's perhaps only 5% of the original components was left.
Still, while hailing the technological prowess of our companies and the Air Force for hammering the best compromises out with regards to keeping the planes up to date - despite being hamstrung in the tightest of budgets - Belgium Air Fighter arm is missing its rendezvous with the future. Absolutely no debate is taking place regarding the F-16's reeplacement, and vicious resistance from Belgium's socialists blocked our entrance in the F35-project, here in Europe more commonly referred to as the JSF - the Joint Strike Fighter. Our northern neighbors, The Netherlands, showed more sanity in that regard and will possibly purchase the F-35 in 2011 or 2012. Still, there too, it's always the socialists obstructing the necessary course to take.
Now, back to the Kandahar detachment. While during the earlier 2006 mission the planes were still equipped with the LANTIRN pod, they now sport its successor, the AN/AAQ-33 PANTERA (Precision Attack Navigation and Targeting with Extended Range Acquisition), procured in 2006.
The PANTERA, actually the export version of Lockheed Martin's so-called sniper pod, is an advanced targeting pod that will complement, not replace, our existing AN/AAQ-14 LANTIRN (Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infra-Red for Night) pods, which the Belgian Air Force purchased in 1997, even though it performs substantially better. The PANTERA's third generation high-resolution FLIR (Forward Looking Infra-Red) and daylight CCD-TV camera, combined with an almost rock-steady stabilisation system, give the pod an unparalleled long-range target detection, identification and designation accuracy from altitudes of up to 40,000 feet (3 to 5 times better than a LANTIRN!). As a result, the pod can be operated from distances outside the firing cones of most ground-based air defence systems, as well as outside jet noise ranges for urban counter-insurgency operations. Also, its built-in digital data recorder allows saving images and for further analysis, an absoulte plus in a combat environment where identifying the foe has become an order of a magnitude more difficult when compared to any Cold War situation.
And so, ironically, in the eighth year of the War on Islamic Terror, Belgium's contribution to that conflict is finally becoming somewhat substantial. I would even wager that if the goverment can stay steady for a couple of years, limited participation of combat troops on the ground should not be ruled out. The moodswing regarding military committment has everything to do with the absence of the Flemish socialist party, the SP.a, in the Belgian government. I say Flemish, because the unbelievably chaotic political situation that begun in spring 2007, finally spawned a hybrid government that contained Flemish Christian Democrats, Flemish liberals, Walloon liberals, Walloon Christian Democrats... and Walloon socialists. Curiously though, the Parti Socialiste, the "Party of 1,000,000 scandals", seems paralyzed and does not offer any real opposition to the government's Afghanistan-related decisions. That government is currently headed by the Flemish Christian Democrat Herman Van Rompuy, who took over after his predecessor, Yves Leterme, also a Flemish Christian Democrat, had to step back in the wake of the so-called Fortisgate scandal. By doing so new elections could be avoided, and one of the good things that came out of this course of events, is that the Minister of Defense, the Flemish Christian Democrat Pieter De Crem, is still on his post.
The Belgian scenario actually offers a perfect study in microcosm of what happens when the left is forced from power, even if only partly or temporarily. Not only is it suddenly possible to employ six combat aircraft dropping real bombs on islamofascists 8,000 kilometers away, but on the domestic front too, benefits are tangible. Like every other western industrialiwed nation, Belgium, too, has felt the effects of the financial turmoil which started with the subprime crisis in the States. Some things will never be the same. And in a development not directly linked to Lehman Brothers & Co., Belgian steel manufacturers and car makers feel the bite - seriously so. But the locomotive behind the Belgian economy has for a very long time been constructon, and to tackle the crisis, the Belgian government passed a bill in February that temporarily (during 2009) lowered VAT on construction of new houses from 21% to... 6%. To be sure, only for an envelope of 50,000 EUR VAT excluded. But the reaction was overwhelming! Last March, one third more building requests were noted than a year previously. As a result, for the time being, the Belgian economy is chugging along relatively well. A small business owner in construction myself, I can testify that, since my order book is full till half November (knocking on wood here, of course). It is striking what a difference the presence in the government of people, who are not ideologically opposed to corporations, can make. That is of course not to say that those in charge are all free market zealots, far from. But having ministers in charge who harbor not per se hostile feelings towards companies guarantees a sea change compared to the nineteenth and twentieth century rhetoric and methods offered by Labor, the Socialisische Partij, the PvdA and whatever name the leftist scum prefers to march under. As a sad reminder, the Spanish example is now plain for everyone to see. There, the Spanish traded a successful rightwing government for a near communist collection of ecobozos in 2004... and are now facing a terrible crisis with unemployment skyrocketing towards 20%. The Spanish got themselves lured in 2008 again when a last-minute 600 EUR "tax break" - actually a check to buy votes - sufficed to keep Zapatero in power for another four years. But these checks are nothing but volatile sweets which evaporate after satisfying a simple need and leave nothing but yet another gaping hole in the government budget - as America will find out soon...
P.S.: Photos via the BAHA website.