Friday 2 December 2022

Size Ain’t All: Luxembourg’s Air Component

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg boasts a small yet well-equipped military that since 2020 also includes an Air Component. Despite not actually being an independent service branch of the Luxembourg Armed Forces, it constitutes world's most modern air arm by virtue of its sole current aircraft (an A400M), which was delivered as recently as 2020. Setting aside this underwhelming feat, Luxembourg has in recent years further expanded its Air Component through the acquisition of two Airbus H145M helicopters, one Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) and RQ-11 Raven, RQ-20 Puma and RQ-21 Integrator unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The acquisition of additional aircraft and helicopters for tactical airlift and maritime surveillance is also planned in the near future. [1]
The purchase of a single A400M military transport aircraft in 2001 marked the first time that Luxembourg was to operate aircraft again since 1968, when the country retired its three Piper PA-18 Super Cubs used for aerial observation and liason duties. [2] Due to development delays suffered by the A400M programme, it would ultimately take until October 2020 until the Luxembourg Armed Forces could finally take delivery of the aircraft, 52 years after retiring its last aircraft! The A400M is jointly operated with the Belgian Air Force's 15th Air Transport Wing based at Melsbroek Air Base near Brussels. Though a government air hub at Luxembourg's Findel International Airport is currently under consideration, the Luxembourg Armed Forces currently lacks its own dedicated airport space. [2]
With Luxembourg's A400M stationed in Belgium, the A330 MRTT (which is scheduled for delivery by 2024) that is to be stationed at either Eindhoven air base in the Netherlands or at Cologne Airport in Germany, and with Luxembourg's UAVs being launched either by hand or pneumatically, there is arguably little need for a dedicated airport space, at least until the acquisition of medical evacuation and maritime surveillance aircraft. Despite not having its own air base, the Luxembourg Air Component does sport its own roundel based on the country's banner of arms. This roundel is also applied to NATO's fleet of 17 E-3A Sentry AWACS aircraft that are registered in Luxembourg.

Luxembourg's roundel as seen on the country's A400M.

Since its delivery in 2020, the A400M (CT-01) has been deployed in support of Luxembourg's EUTM Mali mission by flying soldiers and their equipment to the country and back, and has been used to transport military equipment donated by the Luxembourg Armed Forces to Ukraine, to Poland. [3] The landlocked country of Luxembourg has long desired the capability to transport personnel and cargo in support of military deployments and humanitarian missions, and once even eyed the acquisition of a landing platform dock in cooperation with Belgium. A series of cost increases and a decline in Belgian defence expenditures ultimately led to the cancellation of the project in 2003. [4]
Even as the chances of a renewed interest in a seaborne transport capability appear slim, the Luxembourg Armed Forces did become a founding member of NATO's Multinational A330 MRTT Fleet in 2016, committing to 200 flight hours each year. In 2020, Luxembourg committed to an extra 1,000 hours by providing funding for a ninth aircraft by exercising an existing contract option. [5] Despite not actually owning any fast jets that can be refuelled in the air (though the country's A400M has a removable refuelling probe), Luxembourg is the third largest participant in NATO's MRTT Fleet, and can significantly contribute to NATO's operations by offering its flight hours to other member states.

Considering Luxembourg's obvious lack of potential to raise a large standing army with a population of less than 650.000, a case could also be made for increased financial participation in joint NATO projects by Luxembourg. This could for example entail a significant financial contribution to the replacement of NATO's E-3A Sentry AWACS fleet, allowing for more equal burden-sharing between NATO member states while not having to expand its own military to accomplish this goal. Luxembourg has so far been reluctant to raise its defence spending to 2% of its GDP, instead aiming to increase its annual defence spending to 1% of its GDP by 2028 - or close to €1 billion. [6]

An A330 MRTT touches down at Eindhoven air base in The Netherlands. Luxembourg has provided funding for a ninth aircraft that will be part of NATO's Multinational A330 MRTT Fleet.

A capability that was lacking in the inventory of the Luxembourg Armed Forces until 2020 was a dedicated rotary wing force. Previously relying on a single MD902 Explorer in service with the Grand Ducal Police and two MD900s used by Luxembourg Air Rescue, in 2018 the Luxembourg MoD ordered two H145Ms for use with the Armed Forces to carry out surveillance and counterterrorism missions. Both helicopters operate in the markings of the Grand Ducal Police, which can also make use of the H145Ms to conduct law enforcement tasks. [7] The acquisition of larger helicopters to provide additional tactical airlift capabilities is also envisaged to take place in the coming years. [1]

An area in which the Luxembourg Armed Forces surprisingly excels is in its unmanned aerial systems capability, with the Duchy operating a drone force that exceeds the capabilities and numbers of several larger European countries. This fleet currently encompasses twelve RQ-11 Ravens, an unknown number of RQ-20 Pumas, four RQ-21 Integrators and Atlas Pro hand-held UAVs. [8] [9] [10] Luxembourg is also a member of NATO's Alliance Ground Surveillance Fleet, which flies five RQ-4D Phoenix HALE UAVs fitted with synthetic aperture radar (SAR) and EO/IR sensors.
The Luxembourg Armed Forces are currently considering whether to join further aerial surveillance programmes in cooperation with partner nations or instead to purchase the necessary aircraft or UAVs and data analysis capabilities by itself. [1] The introduction of larger surveillance UAVs such as the MQ-9B SkyGuardian (which has also been acquired by Belgium) or the Hermes 900, which both can be equipped with a wide range of advanced payloads, could deliver a significant contribution to NATO's capabilities while requiring relatively little investments in manpower.
As the lack of airspace that comes with a nation as small as Luxembourg would significantly hinder, if not prevent, regular operations or even training with large UAVs, the possibility to team up with a partner nation such as Belgium could be an especially attractive option for Luxembourg. The introduction of a maritime surveillance capability would also necessitate the acquired aircraft to be stationed outside of the landlocked country, protecting Luxembourg's maritime flag in murky waters such as those of the Gulf of Aden or assisting Frontex in the Mediterranean.
While the procurement of larger UAVs or even maritime surveillance aircraft would secure its airborne reconnaissance capabilities, Luxembourg has also ventured into space through the launch of a government-owned communications satellite – GovSat-1 – under a public-private partnership in 2018. GovSat 1 is a multi-mission satellite using military frequencies (X-band and military Ka-band) to provide high-powered and steerable spot beams for multiple government-specific missions. The satellite covers Europe, the Middle East and Africa. The Luxembourg government has pre-committed to a significant amount of capacity on the new satellite, with the remaining capacity made available to other governmental and institutional customers. Depending on requirements, the Luxembourg MoD will consider the merits of gradually deploying a constellation of satellites over the coming decade. [1]
Whether in the air or in space, manned or unmanned, there is certainly more to the Luxembourg Armed Forces' Air Component than initially meets the eye. Though only just resuscitated from its half-century furlough, with an impressive number of acquisitions planned for the upcoming decade it is expanding fast in capabilities, allowing Luxembourg to support NATO by investing in crucial areas such as aerial surveillance/reconnaissance, refuelling and transportation. If continued, its investments will see it fly into the future as a valuable NATO member, proving that dedication trumps size as the true measure of ability.

[4] Navire de transport stratégique belgo-luxembourgeois (NTBL) - Command, Logistic Support & Transport (CLST) 
[8] Matériel - UAV