The peculiar thing is that, since Belgium currently has a caretaker government, a vote in Parliament was needed to get the operation going. Indeed, following the May 25 elections, negotiations between center rightwing and centrist parties to form a workable coalition keep dragging on.
But as it was, the first two fighter-bombers hung already in the air as debate in the Kamer was still not over.
I consider myself a democratic person, but in this case, I couldn't care less whether the deployment followed the rules to the letter. It was a bygone conclusion anyway, since even before today's vote it was known that the mission had broad support - with the exception of some of the socialist fractions and virtually all of the greens.
VTM Nieuws this evening sported the following video:
At the moment of writing (Friday evening 11.15pm) the six jets are already on the Greek Air Force base of Araxos. From there they will tomorrow fly further to the Jordanian base of Mufaq Salti, whence they will conduct the bombing and strafing missions against Islamic State - but solely over Iraq, not in Syria.
That the Belgian Air Force is still capable of simultaneously conducting figher bomber operations in Afghanistan and over Iraq, albeit with small six-plane squadrons, is a miracle of sorts. After all, the Belgian military is operating on less than a shoestring budget - actually less than the widely reported figure of 1.3 per cent of GNP, courtesy the socialists and greens. For instance, vice PM Johan Vandelanotte (Flemish Socialists) last year made no secret of his wish to even further reduce the armed forces budget to around 0.75 per cent of GNP, while pushing the budget for Development Aid to 1.3 per cent - a net reversal of the respective envelopes usually dedicated to both portfolios. It is well known that leftists generally hate the military, with a possible exception when the military of the enemy is involved. It is equally well known - and researched and documented - that the so-called Development Aid is actually counterproductive, but let that be no problem for our moral betters: the important thing, as always, is that they feel good about themselves.
Anyway, one of the results of having to operate with minimal resources has been that the Belgian Army, Navy and Air Force have learned to do the most with the least. A reflection of this is found in the deployment of only 120 ground personnel to operate the six jets, whereas The Netherlands, which also sends six F-16s, have their contingent accompanied by 250 ground personnel, more than double the Belgian number! Not wanting to boast, but despite this the BAF is succeeding quite fine in achieving its objectives. Three years ago, another six of its jets operated from the Greek Air Force Base of Araxos against Gadhafi. In 448 missions over Libya, 365 bombs were released, and 97% of those hit the designated target, which translates in a hit percentage higher than any of the other seven countries which operated fighter aircraft in the region.
In Afghanistan, yet another six F-16s have been active in a combat role uninterruptedly since 2009, logging close to 20,000 flying hours thus far. Apart from some minor engagements between our ground troops and Taliban, the air operations have been the only 'hot' zone for the Belgian military in the War on Terror until now. But the pilots and their planes have done very well, and in the process amassed a wealth of experience. The following video shows two BAF F-16s refueling from a US KC135-tanker somewhere over AF:
Personally, I am a bit at a loss to assess the F-16 in any meaningful way. All my life I have heard it being described as a marvellous tactial fighter, but I don't recall any theater where they were actually able to prove it - for the simple reason they never have seemed to have had the 'luck' to meet a worthy adversary.
Which leaves the ground support role, recce mission etc. I'm not an expert, but I gather the F-16 boasts woefully few hardpoints for ordnance compared with other designs. And its 20mm cannon is, I assume, but a bleak contemporary compared to, say, and A-10's 30mm.
That said, I guess that when the lifetime of the F-16 is over, in the absence of fighter vs fighter engagements, this Late Cold War design will indeed be most favourably remembered for its pinpoint ground attack missions against well-defined tactical targets - buildings, AFVs, planes on the ground, small troop concentrations and so on. And in those cases where it was equipped with hi-tech pods - Lantirns or, even better, Panteras - the accuracy in this area of combat will have been exemplary, I have no doubt.
Let us hope our pilots operating from Jordan against ISIS from tomorrow on will be able to contribute to that reputation.