Wednesday 20 September 2023

Shared Threats, Unequal Efforts: Belgium’s Free-Riding Approach To NATO’s Defence

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
Belgium is often considered the black sheep of NATO due to its relatively low expenditure on defence. The country's free-riding approach to the security of other NATO member states and of itself is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that in 2014 Prime Minister Di Rupo declared his country's intention to commit 2% of its GDP to defence spending by 2024, only for Prime Minister De Croo to do the same in 2022, but with the date to achieve this pushed back by eleven years to 2035. [1] Even amidst the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War, Belgium's defence budget for 2023 witnessed an increase of only 0.01% compared to 2022, reaching a total of 1.19% of its GDP. [2] In fact, Belgium's defence expenditure as a percentage of its GDP is the second lowest within NATO, trailing only behind Luxembourg. [3]

Not only does Belgium allocate a relatively low budget to its military, but it has also garnered surprisingly limited returns on its investments in terms of military capabilities. This discrepancy becomes evident when comparing Belgium's defence spending to that of countries like Denmark. Despite Belgium spending nearly 1.5 times as much on defence and boasting twice the population of Denmark, the latter manages to offer a more substantial and better-equipped military. [4] Arguably even worse, Belgium has shown minimal effort in the integration of its ground forces with neighboring countries to improve interoperability. Despite purchasing a large number of French AFVs, there is a notable absence of concrete plans for unit integration with France. In contrast, the Netherlands has fully integrated its Army with the German Army, a feat achieved despite the diverse array of equipment employed by both forces.

A notable concern plaguing the Belgian Armed Forces is its lack of serious recognition, most notably within Belgium itself. Over time, the Belgian Armed Forces have found themselves taking on the role of an educational institution for Belgian youth and serving as a channel to funnel defence expenditures into local industries. The ongoing trend of diverting focus away from the Belgium Armed Forces' core task of defence has been further exacerbated by the current Belgian government, with Defence Minister Ludivine Dedonder at the forefront. Recent examples include decisions such as diverting €100 million intended for defence projects to the European Space Agency (ESA) for sending a Belgian astronaut into space and investing €360 million into potential collaboration in the French-Spanish Future Combat Air System, despite the fact that Belgium is still awaiting the delivery of its first F-35 aircraft. [5]

These investments become even more baffling when one takes into account Belgium's current lack of air defence capabilities. Belgium doesn't have outdated or ineffective air defence systems; rather, it lacks any type of ground-based air defence system. This places Belgium among a trio of NATO countries without air defence systems—joining Luxembourg and Iceland (the latter of which lacks a military altogether). This remarkable situation is the outcome of years of poor strategic decisions and underfunding that had eroded the Belgian Armed Forces to the point it could not even afford to operate a few man-portable air-defence systems (MANPADS), leaving an entire army without any form of ground-based air defences since 2017. Although the Belgian Ministry of Defence recently announced plans to (re-)establish an air defence capability, it will take until at least 2030 for these plans to come to fruition. [6]

Relatively inexpensive and therefore found in the military arsenals of nearly every country worldwide, the ongoing operation of MANPADS nonetheless proved too costly for the Belgian Army, leading to their retirement without replacement in 2017. In 2023, a platoon equipped with these weapons systems will be raised to provide an interim air defence capability until 2030. [7]

Revealed in February 2022, Belgium's military vision materialises as the STAR (Security, Technology, Ambition, and Resilience) Plan. This strategic blueprint outlines an investment of €10.2 billion for enhancing military capabilities and raising the defence budget to 1.54% of Belgium's GDP by the year 2030. [8] Despite this pledge, there seems to be a lack of urgency in transforming these commitments into concrete investments. Notably, Belgium, one of four NATO countries without heavy artillery (the others being Albania, Luxembourg, and Iceland), currently relies on 14 French 105mm LG1 towed howitzers to provide fire-support to ground forces. In 2022, an order was placed for nine 155mm Caesar SPGs from France for their replacement. Instead of acquiring a Caesar variant already in production, Belgium opted for a Caesar 6x6 variant that is still in the developmental phase. Consequently, the country will have to wait until 2027 to receive its first systems. [9] In comparison, the time span from Denmark's procurement of 19 8x8 ATMOS 2000 SPGs from Israel in March 2023 to the arrival of the initial systems amounted to just five months. [10]
Undoubtedly prompted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Belgium later raised its future requirement for the Caesar 6x6 NG SPGs from 9 to 28. [11] However, Belgium is yet to sign a contract for the additional 19 units, as the Belgian government has not yet earmarked any funds for their immediate procurement. [11] Although the (future) acquisition of 27 Caesar 6x6s seems like a significant capability enhancement, particularly by Belgian standards, the actual capabilities that 27 wheeled SPGs bring with them will still leave Belgium with one of the weakest artillery arsenals within NATO. Taking into account the duration required for the entire complement of Caesars to achieve operational status and for crews to undergo training, most likely by the early 2030s, the process of acquiring, training, and operating a modest selection of 27 wheeled SPGs will extend over a complete decade. By way of comparison, Poland successfully placed an order for and received 24 K9 SPGs from South Korea in slightly over six months. [12]

While Belgium is to enhance its artillery capabilities, it will still end up with one of the weakest artillery arsenals among NATO member countries. Pictured is the Caesar 6x6 NG, nine of which are currently on order.

In its pursuit of bolstering its military capabilities, the Belgian Army is confronted with a number of challenges. First, it must address the consequences of decades of underfunding all while the governmental body tasked with rectifying these consequences appears to lack a genuine interest in doing so. Secondly, Belgium is still grappling with a number of perplexing procurement decisions made over the past decades. Amongst these, the acquisition of the Land Component's Piranha IIC DF90 fire-support vehicles stands out as a particularly notable example. Purchased during the tenure of former Defence Minister Flahaut (1999-2007), the Piranha IIC DF90 was intended to replace the aging Leopard 1A5BE MBT. The procurement process was marked by peculiarities right from the outset, most notably, Flahaut's decision to opt for a 90mm cannon, a calibre not employed by any other NATO member state. Concerns also emerged regarding the cannon's effectiveness (or lack thereof) against targets like tanks and hardened structures.
Moreover, only a single factory had the capability to provide 90mm cannons, and likewise, only one factory could meet the demand for the necessary ammunition. This led the Belgian Ministry of Finance to revoke the purchase approval on two separate occasions in 2005. [12] Nonetheless, Flahaut eventually got his way and succeeded in placing an order for 40 Piranha IIC DF90s in 2006. 18 vehicles had already been contracted when Pieter De Crem, who succeeded Flahaut as Minister of Defence in December 2007, immediately cancelled the order for the remaining 22. [13] Around that same time, the Belgian Army appears to have come to the realisation that it actually had to operate the Piranhas for at least 20 years, and a sense of buyer's remorse set in on their part as well. [13] The Belgian Army then offered the 18 vehicles that had already been received for sale while hoping for a more suitable replacement vehicle. [13] Unfortunately for the Belgian Army, this move failed to attract any interested parties and it eventually found itself forced to accept the 18 vehicles anyway to be able to provide at least some fire-support to its troops.
Those assuming that the tale of the Piranha IIC DF90 came to an end at this point are in for a surprise. The concerns raised regarding the 90mm cannon's performance revolved around its insufficient anti-tank capabilities when employing anti-tank munitions. Upon the availability of such ammunition, it was discovered that the Piranha IIC DF90s were incapable of firing them. [13] After a 10-year-long effort to address this issue, the Belgian Army decided in 2019 that it simply wasn't worth trying anymore. [13] As of today, the Piranha IIC DF 90 continues to lack an anti-tank capability. The financial consequences of this saga were substantial, with a cost of €70 million for the acquisition of the vehicles alone, and an additional sum exceeding €5 million dedicated to ammunition—some of which proved incompatible with the very vehicles it was intended for. Attempts to mitigate the deficiency in anti-tank capabilities were partially addressed in recent years by retrofitting 32 Piranha IIC DF30s with two Spike-MR ATGMs. However, this measure remains insufficient in rectifying the shortcomings in the country's fire-support capabilities.

The Piranha IIC DF90, just one of the many controversial acquisitions of the Belgian Armed Forces over the past decades.

The Piranha saga is not an isolated incident; rather, it is just one chapter in a long history of peculiar decisions and corruption that has plagued defence procurement in Belgium since the 1980s. Historically, defence procurements in Belgium were regarded as a means for political parties to generate funds through bribes from defence manufacturers. [14] In response to this issue, Belgium implemented a law in the 1990s whereby political parties receive government subsidies based on their electoral performance, with the intention of discouraging parties from accepting bribes from (defence) companies. [14] Many of the politicans embroiled in previous corruption scandals were never brought to justice because the extent of the corruption was so pervasive that any political party in power, when carrying out an investigation, would inevitably also uncover instances of defence corruption within its own ranks. [14]
Due to the corruption, major defence contracts were often granted to companies that were willing to provide the largest bribes, resulting in instances where the Belgian Armed Forces had to settle for subpar equipment. While these corruption scandals have mostly become a thing of the past, a situation persists in which the Belgian government appears inclined to acquire equipment not based on its quality but rather to appease neighbouring countries or to secure political favours. While this phenomenon is common in most European countries, its proportion in Belgium's procurement efforts appears to be significantly higher. The culmination of all these factors has given rise to a long-term procurement strategy that has been described by some as being ''shorter than the range of a cannon'', with the resulting failures in procurement decisions described as ''a blunder book the size of an encyclopedia''. [14] 
One major blunder involved the SLEP/ELU (Service Life Extension Program/End Life Upgrade) performed on 38 Pandur intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance (ISTAR) vehicles in 2019 at the cost of €31 million. After the upgrade was completed, it was discovered that the additional armour and equipment installed inside meant that four out of the five crew members could no longer be taller than 1.70 metres to operate the vehicle. [15] Given that the crews of the 38 vehicles were specifically trained to operate the Pandur and its reconnaissance equipment, replacing them with approximately 150 new recruits shorter than 1.70 metres (in a country where the average male height is 1.81 metres) would of course be an impossible undertaking, especially during a period of significant manpower shortages. Remarkably, this was nevertheless the solution proposed by the Belgian Army. [15] Additionally, further issues emerged with the braking systems after the upgrade. This was particularly tragic, as in 2007, a Belgian Pandur plunged into a ravine in Lebanon due to brake issues, leading to the death of three soldiers. [15] The precise method by which the Army ultimately resolved the issues remains unknown. However, it is probable that the company conducting the SLEP/ELU had to undertake several adjustments to bring the Pandurs back into working condition—a scenario that might have been preventable with better oversight from the Belgian MoD.

A photograph showcasing the revamped interior of one of the 38 Pandurs that underwent an SLEP/ELU. The interior modifications rendered it impossible for four out of the five crew members taller than 1.70 metres to effectively operate the vehicle. This is evident in the photograph, where the driver's legs are shown pressing against the steering wheel.

Undoubtedly the most significant strategy and procurement blunder has been Belgium's decision to rid the Army of its heavy weaponry, with the last M109 SPGs leaving the service in 2008 and the Leopard 1 MBTs in 2014. This decision, made during Defence Minister Flahaut's tenure in the mid-2000s, was primarily motivated by financial factors, as wheeled AFVs are cheaper to operate than their tracked counterparts. Even so, the Belgian government didn't even allocate the necessary funding for a proper execution of this programme. On one hand, Belgium rushed to retire tracked AFVs, phasing out 64 M109 SPGs right after upgrading them in what was essentially a giant waste of money. On the other hand, Belgium continues to operate tracked armoured recovery vehicles and bridgelayers due to a reluctance to invest in their replacement with wheeled counterparts. It's expected that the full transition from tracked to wheeled won't occur until the early 2030s, nearly 25 years after the plan to do so was conceived!
Until the early 2000s, Belgium operated a fleet of Leopard 1A5BE MBTs, supported by AIFV-B-C25 IFVs, AIFV APCs, and M109A4BE SPGs across two mechanised brigades. Additionally, there was a fleet of CV(R)T tracked reconnaissance vehicles and APCs. In the early 2000s, the CV(R)Ts were the first to be retired, followed by the AIFV IFVs and APCs, which were replaced by Piranha IICs. Subsequently, the M109A4BE SPGs were retired without replacement, despite having just undergone an expensive modernisation programme. Due to the entry into service of only 18 out of the intended 40 Piranha IIC DF90s, and these lacking anti-tank capabilities, the Leopard 1A5BE MBTs continued to see service until 2014. In contrast to countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, and France, which have increased the proportion of wheeled AFVs in their inventories while retaining smaller numbers of tracked AFVs, Belgium's attempt to replace all tracked AFVs with wheeled AFVs was arguably poorly thought out and even more poorly executed.

After completely refurbishing and upgrading 64 of its M109s, Defence Minister Flahaut sold the SPGs for the rock-bottom price of €15,000 each (including spare parts) to the Belgian private defence company FTS.

What remains within the Land Component is a motley collection of wheeled AFVs currently concentrated within a single, large-sized Medium Brigade. Despite its size, the Brigade currently lacks any air defence capabilities and relies solely on 14 105mm towed howitzers with a range of just 14km for fire-support. The actual inventory of wheeled vehicles is hardly any better, with a hodgepodge of vehicle types that aren't particularly well-suited to their intended roles. In their quest for replacements, the Belgium joined the French Scorpion programme in 2017, which resulted in an order for 60 EBRC Jaguar wheeled reconnaissance vehicles and 382 VBMR Griffon wheeled APCs. While highly capable vehicles in their own right, these will do little to enhance the actual firepower of the Brigade (though they will introduce a significant improvement in system networking). Despite a growing demand for heavily armed and armoured tracked AFVs in NATO, which have once more proven their superiority over wheeled AFVs in Ukraine, Belgium is set to become one of just three NATO countries that do not operate tracked vehicles alongside Iceland and Luxembourg. Just to reiterate, Iceland does not possess a military and Luxembourg has just over 300.000 citizens.
Perhaps contrary to popular belief, reintroducing tracked AFVs wouldn't necessitate a large fleet to be effective. Denmark, for example, currently operates a fleet of 44 Leopard 2A7 MBTs and 44 CV9035DK IFVs, along with some two dozen tracked support vehicles. While one could question the utility of such a modest fleet, it would enable the transformation of the Medium Brigade into a Heavy Brigade, extending its capabilities to engage a broader range of targets during wartime without the necessity to rely on other NATO member states to provide support. Nonetheless, the possibility of Belgium acquiring tracked AFVs remains exceedingly unlikely, largely owing due to the indecision and lack of vision that appears ingrained in Belgian defence planning and the lack of funding provided by the Belgian government. In fact, the pace of decision-making in strategy and procurement is so sluggish that it gives the impression that Belgium is equipping itself as though the Russian invasion of Ukraine never occurred.

The EBRC Jaguar Armoured Reconnaissance Vehicles (Left) and VBMR Griffon Armoured Personnel Carrier (Right) are set to become the backbone of the Belgian Army.

In addition to the Medium Brigade, the Belgian Army also maintains a Special Forces Regiment. However, both the Belgian Army and the STAR Plan envision training and equipping these forces for missions typically associated with conflicts in Africa, rather than focusing on NATO's Eastern Flank. An illustrative example of this is the planned procurement of eight transport aircraft and eight heavy transport helicopters dedicated to special forces operations, augmenting seven transport aircraft already in service. [8] While possessing such capabilities is valuable, one must question whether a force tailored for special operations over countries not possessing air defence systems aligns with NATO's current priority needs. While there is a compelling argument for acquiring up to eight CH-47 heavy transport helicopters, the acquisition of an additional eight transport aircraft will result in Belgium possessing four distinct types of transport aircraft (excluding VIP aircraft), while lacking weapons systems such as tracked AFVs and MRLs. Examples like these appear to indicate that the Belgian MoD is struggling to catch up with the ongoing global developments and is facing a notable misalignment of priorities in relation to NATO's requirements.

In fact, the leadership of the current Minister of Defence Dedonder, is becoming increasingly associated with misplaced priorities. While Belgium has yet to finalise a contract for 19 additional Caesar SPGs, lacks an air defence capability and struggles with ammunition shortages due to funding constraints, Dedonder managed to push through a €360 million investment into the French-Spanish Future Combat Air System (FCAS) within a span of two weeks. [16] After opting not to participate in the F-35 programme in the early 2000s, Belgium missed out on the advantages of industrial participation, yet another short-sighted decision that can be attributed to former Defence Minister Flahaut. Given these circumstances, participation in the FCAS programme early on appears logical. However, the FCAS is intended to replace France's Rafale and Spain's Typhoon fighter aircraft from the 2040s onwards, while Belgium is currently anticipating its F-35s to remain in service well into the 2060s. Considering Belgium's reluctance to invest in even the most basic military assets, the prospect of the country procuring the FCAS and operating two distinct types of fighter aircraft from the 2040s onwards seems highly improbable and completely unnecessary.

That is, assuming Belgium indeed stands to gain from its industrial participation in the FCAS programme. France's industry still harbours resentment over Belgium's 2018 choice of the F-35 over the Rafale. Given that the Rafale cannot accommodate the B61 nuclear bomb, of which some 20 are located at Belgium's Kleine-Brogel air base as part of NATO's nuclear-sharing agreement, the Rafale, despite being the preferred option, effectively had no opportunity to be selected. The CEO of Dassault, who leds the FCAS programme, left no room for ambiguity when addressing Belgium's potential for industrial collaboration in the programme, stating: ''I don’t really see the point in putting more F-35 countries into the programme. 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. No. If it’s imposed on me, I’ll fight. I don’t see why I would give jobs to Belgians today''. [17] In short, Belgium is allocating €360 million to participate in a fighter programme it's unlikely to ever procure and might not even gain (significant) industrial participation from. 

Prior to receiving the initial delivery of its planned 34 F-35 aircraft, which are projected to stay in service until the 2060s, Belgium has already committed to participating in a second stealth fighter programme scheduled to enter service from the 2040s onwards.

What makes these investments particularly puzzling is that, should a war break out in the near future, Belgian soldiers would find themselves inadequately equipped, lacking air defence capabilities, sufficient ammunition and the means to engage ground targets beyond an abysmally meager 14-kilometer range. Nonetheless, this hasn't stopped Defence Minister Dedonder, entrusted with the task of properly equipping Belgium's soldiers, from diverting a staggering €460 million away from the military to (possibly) boost the Belgian economy and to send a Belgian astronaut into space. This apparent lack of concern for the well-being of Belgian soldiers can only be described as deeply concerning. Equally concerning is the absence of a resounding public outcry in Belgium concerning these facts, especially the prospect of Belgian soldiers entering a conflict without even the most basic equipment to defend themselves. If a nation is to be evaluated by its treatment of its soldiers, Belgium should indeed hang its head in shame.

Besides the absence of essential military capabilities, the Belgian Armed Forces faces a substantial shortage of personnel. While this issue has affected various Western European countries, where conscription has either been abolished or put on hold, Belgium faces an added challenge with nearly 40% of its active-duty personnel reaching retirement age in the early 2020s. [18] Efforts to attract more personnel have not yet succeeded in addressing these manpower shortages. In September 2023, they even lowered recruitment standards for pilots and special forces. [19] Addressing these manpower challenges is a top priority for Belgium. That's why it's particularly puzzling that Defence Minister Dedonder has assigned the role of an educational institution to the Belgian Army. [20] In 2023, Dedonder directed the military to enroll an initial group of 200 unemployed youths in a six-month programme focused on teamwork and sports. These individuals won't undergo any military training and won't become part of the army; they will solely receive education from the army. According to Dedonder, 'it's the military's societal role to provide young, inexperienced, and less qualified individuals with an opportunity to enter the job market'. An argument could be made that this is precisely not the role of the military. On the contrary, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Dedonder's attempt to integrate the role of an educational institution into the Belgian Army's mission, given the context of manpower shortages and capability disparities compared to other NATO nations, is fundamentally misguided.

In its attempts to evade its defence obligations, Belgium is also severely undermining NATO. While most NATO members strive for a 2% GDP allocation to defence, Belgium appears to be deliberately stretching this timeline until 2035. The country seems to bank on a return to stability in Ukraine by the late 2020s, presumably hoping that these circumstances will somehow make it acceptable for the country not to fulfill its 2% commitment after all. While it is possible to present arguments for Belgium's expulsion from NATO, such an outcome is unlikely and not in the alliance's best interest. Nevertheless, it's worth considering whether Belgium might find benefits in opting for a voluntary withdrawal from NATO. Given Belgium's consistent attempts to undermine NATO by failing to provide capabilities commensurate with its economy and population, and its reluctance to meet the 2% benchmark, it becomes increasingly apparent that Belgium's foreign and defence policies are no longer aligned with those of NATO.

One might question why NATO isn't applying stronger pressure on Belgium, particularly given that NATO's headquarters is located in Belgium. First and foremost, Belgium is a challenging country to reach agreements with, not the least because the nation doesn't have just one government; it has six. Secondly, as long as other countries have not yet met the 2% threshold, they are less likely to criticise or take action against those who haven't. Thirdly, there is also reason to suspect that Belgium is employing a clever approach to downplay the severity of its capabilities deficit by presenting alternative niche capabilities. An example of this is Belgium's aspiration to equip its future two frigates with missiles capable of intercepting ballistic missiles. [21] While this may seem overly ambitious for a country currently lacking even MANPADS, Belgium can achieve this capability by procuring only a limited number of missiles, thereby presenting NATO with a sophisticated capability that most other member nations do not possess.

Belgium's desire to possess the capability to intercept ballistic missiles in space is quite astonishing, particularly given that the country left its ground forces without any form of air defence for six years.

Belgium's free-riding approach to NATO's defence has repercussions for other countries as well. The Dutch and Belgian navies have a close working relationship and operate under a unified command, which also extends to joint procurement of naval vessels. In the 2010s, it was determined that Belgium would oversee the minehunter replacement project, while the Dutch side would take charge of the M-class frigate replacement programme. This choice was not originally the Dutch preference but was necessitated by personnel shortages within their defence materiel organisation. [22] Subsequently, the Belgians chose a bidder that resulted in all industrial involvement going either to France or Belgium, including a mine-removal toolbox that performed poorly during Dutch Navy testing. [22]

However, that's not all; the Dutch-led M-class frigate replacement programme, calling for two frigates for each country, had to be scaled down due to Belgium's unwillingness to increase its budget for the vessels after initial cost overruns. This led to a smaller ship design than preferred by the Dutch Navy. Still, even this proved too costly for Belgium, prompting a plan to fully outfit only one ship while leaving the other fitted for but not with (FFBNW). [23] The Dutch eventually opted to expand the ship design back to its original (larger) specifications. While the Belgian government increased military spending during that period, it refused to allocate additional funds for the frigates. [23] In June 2023, a decision was made by the Netherlands to invest €355 million in Belgium's industry to offset the resulting cost escalation and enable the frigate replacement programme to proceed. [24] Going Dutch, no more.

The Dutch Anti-Submarine Warfare Frigate, two of which will be acquired by the Belgian Navy to replace its two M-class frigates.

Belgium's failure to fulfill fundamental responsibilities extends to its military assistance to Ukraine. In its attempt to conceal its lack of support, Belgium has resorted to providing a seemingly endless stream of excuses and even outright lying. Although a significant portion of this show of shame was previously covered in our dedicated article from August 2022, it is enlightening to revisit some of the events that have occurred since. [25] As previously mentioned in this article, Belgium phased out nearly all of its heavy weaponry during the 2000s (and the 1990s). While some of these assets were sold to foreign buyers, most remained stored in Belgian depots when Russia invaded Ukraine in February, 2022. However, these depots did not belong to the Belgian Army, but rather to private defence companies. Contrary to most other countries, Belgium quickly sold off retired equipment to defence companies at almost scrap value to avoid having to pay for their storage costs until a proper buyer was found. After just completely refurbishing and upgrading its M109 SPGs in 2008, the Belgian government sold them for the rock-bottom price of €15,000 each (including spare parts) to FTS. [26] The M109s underwent upgrades with the intention of increasing their appeal to potential buyers, making it all the more perplexing that they were sold for a mere €15,000 each. [27]
When in April 2022 the Belgian government attempted to buy back some of the 28 remaining M109s that hadn't yet been sold to Indonesia in 2016, FTS charged their normal price for each SPG, more than ten times the price the Belgian government had sold them for several years prior. [26] Despite the financial setback, at a price of $150,000, these assets would still be exceptionally inexpensive. As the Belgian government attempted a final round of negotations with FTS regarding the price of the M109s in May 2022, they were told that the SPGs had already been sold to another party, which later turned out to be the United Kingdom, which stepped in and bought the SPGs for the same price tag they been offered for to Belgium. [26] Considering the urgency with which the Ukrainian Army needed artillery systems like the M109A4BE, the Belgian government's lack of any urgency to seal a deal because it didn't want to pay ten times the price out of principle (a conundrum entirely of their own making) can only be described as utterly shameful. Perhaps even more disgraceful was the response from Defence Minister Ludivine Dedonder, who claimed that although deal had fallen through 'the main thing was that Ukraine now had the Belgian M109s'. [28]

Fortunately for the Belgian government, it had the opportunity to make amends with the acquisition of over 30 Leopard 1A5BE MBTs, 38 Gepard SPAAGs, which are in high demand by Ukraine, and numerous AIFV and M113 IFVs and APCs still stored in the depots of private Belgian defence companies. As may not come as a surprise by now, Belgium has categorically declined to purchase any of these assets, citing its unwillingness to pay the current market price for equipment that it once sold for scrap value. Although the increase in price may seem exorbitant, these defence companies are essentially pricing these assets based on the market value, including additional expenses incurred for storing and maintaining this equipment over many years, sometimes even decades. Since then, a significant portion of this equipment has been purchased by other NATO countries, notably the United Kingdom, who have stepped up to fulfill their responsibility. Belgium eventually acquired 40 M113 APCs on behalf of Ukraine, but only in collaboration with the Netherlands and Luxembourg, for a meager total sum of €12 million. [29] However, Belgium didn't source these vehicles from its own companies; instead, they acquired them from a company in Italy.

In its attempts to mask its categorical refusal to procure equipment from Belgian private defence companies, the Belgian Ministry of Defence has resorted to outright lying its explanations for why the equipment cannot be repurchased. A striking example is the case of the 38 Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft gun (SPAAGs) currently owned by the Belgian private defence company OIP Land Systems. [30] When asked by a journalist why these SPAAGs had not been acquired on behalf of Ukraine yet, a defence spokesperson claimed that Belgium had made every possible effort to restore their operational status, but without success. [30] Apparently underestimating the journalist's investigative prowess, the reporter promptly contacted the owner of the Gepards for an explanation. In response, OIP clarified that there was no issue in restoring their operational status; however, Belgium was unwilling to meet the owner's price of €2 million per Gepard. [30] Instances like these appear to confirm the impression that the Belgian MoD opts for lying rather than offering a genuine explanation for its decision not to acquire the equipment. Disregarding the possibility for journalists to reach out to the company's owner for clarification and to unveil any falsehoods portrays the Belgian MoD's press office as immature and displaying a severe lack of professionalism.

Tens of Leopard 1A5BE MBTs, Bergepanzer 2 ARVs, Leopard 1-based driver training tanks and AIFV-B-C25 IFVs and M113 APCs stored at the OIP's facility in Belgium. The Belgian MoD refused to buy these systems out of sheer pity. 30 Leopard 1A5BEs were eventually purchased by Germany while an unknown number of AIFV-B-C25 IFVs was procured by an unknown party.

Belgian Gepard B2s and B2Ls in storage at OIP. These could be made operational again at a cost of roughly €2 million each, offering Ukraine a system that, while less advanced than the Gepards already in Ukraine, could still serve as an effective means to counter Russian helicopters. [31]

This is not to imply that Belgium has refrained from acquiring equipment from private defence companies in Belgium and further abroad. In September 2023, the Belgian MoD issued a press release announcing the purchase of eight(!) RIM-7 surface-to-air missiles from Germany on behalf of Ukraine, each priced at €7,000. [32] Around the same time, Denmark announced a new military support package for 2023 and 2024 worth €2.45 billion, in addition to the €1.5 billion in military support already provided to Ukraine since February 2022. [33] Danish military aid to Ukraine has already included 85 tanks, 54 APCs, 24 SPGs and soon, 19 F-16 fighter aircraft. [34] In comparison, Belgian military aid to Ukraine stands at just under €300 million. [35] Nevertheless, the Belgian government has described its military support to Ukraine as having done 'everything possible to support the Ukrainian Armed Forces'. [35]
While Belgium's support to Ukraine has been notably lacking, a prominent contribution is the forthcoming delivery of €111 million worth of FN MAG machine guns. This donation represents close to half of Belgium's military aid provided since February 2022. However, there is a significant caveat: the entire cost of this donation is covered by the Netherlands as part of the €355 million compensation package due to cost escalations in the Dutch-operated ASWF frigate program. [24] Although one might argue that Belgium's governance by six different governments hampers decision-making, the fact that Belgium has engaged in negotiations with various private defence firms and has no qualms about purchasing missiles from Germany at €7,000 each indicates that the issue is primarily related to Belgium's reluctance to allocate the required funds. Funds that Belgium should have in abundance: Belgium possesses an asset that no other country has. It collects interest on the Russian assets parked at the Euroclear clearing bank in Brussels. Throughout 2022 alone, Belgium earned €821 million in interest from the Russian assets at Euroclear. [36]

The largest military support package from Belgium to Ukraine comprises €111 million worth of FN MAG machine guns, a donation fully funded by the Netherlands.

When addressing the reason behind Belgium's supposed inability to supply F-16s to Ukraine, the Belgian MoD initially claimed that it required the F-16s for its own operational needs until it receives enough F-35s, further stating that the F-16s would be fully worn-out by the time Belgium no longer needs them. [36] Additionally, according to Chief of Defence Michel Hofman, Belgium needs to prioritise addressing its own deficiencies in ammunition and infrastructure before it could provide additional military assistance to Ukraine. [37] Apart from the essential distinction that Belgium's defence budget and the funds allocated for Ukraine are in fact separate financial resources, the acknowledgment of ammunition and infrastructure shortages makes €460 million investment in a Belgian astronaut and the FCAS programme all the more perplexing, if not unforgivable. An investigation that surfaced less than two weeks after Michel Hofman's claims, suggesting that Belgium may indeed be capable of delivering F-16s to Ukraine after all, seems hardly surprising given the consistent pattern of lies and deceit originating from the Belgian MoD. [38]

Indeed, the consistent theme across all these narratives is that Belgium not only falls short of the expected level of military support for Ukraine but also, instead of seeking solutions, seems to resort to excuses. Instead of requesting an expedited delivery of its ordered F-35s from the US, sending F-16s that have exceeded the 8000-hour mark with the condition that Belgium would no longer be responsible for them upon arrival in Ukraine (like the Netherlands already does for all the equipment it sends) or even exploring options such as offering its F-16s for spare parts, technical airframes, or even decoys, Belgium appears unwilling to seek any solutions that could aid Ukraine. In 2022, when Ukraine requested the delivery of YPR-765s from the Netherlands, the Dutch Army struggled to envision the usefulness of these aging APCs on the battlefield. [39] Nevertheless, Ukraine expressed its interest, resulting in the donation of 196 units. Interestingly, Belgium appears to possess a stronger conviction about what Ukraine requires than Ukraine itself. If Ukraine expresses a desire for older F-16s, who is Belgium to assert that these aircraft wouldn't be of any use to Ukraine? The fundamental motivation seems to be Belgium's reluctance to provide fighter aircraft.

Taking all these facts into account, it seems crucial for Belgium to clarify the extent of support it is willing to offer to Ukraine and communicate this clearly to the public. While one may criticise Hungary for not providing any military support to Ukraine despite being a NATO member, at least its position on Ukraine is unambiguous. Belgium, on the other hand, appears to convey full support for Ukraine, but in practice, its actual support falls short. Instead of resorting to lying when questioned about not supplying a particular type of equipment to Ukraine, the Belgian MoD would make a sounder decision by clarifying its actual reasons for not providing that specific type of equipment, whether it's due to cost considerations or concerns about escalating the conflict. In March 2023, the Dutch MoD announced its decision not to donate six CH-47s to Ukraine but to instead sell them to a private company. [39] In its announcement, the Dutch MoD also provided the reasons behind this choice. Offering an explanation that might be unpopular with some is generally a wiser course of action than resorting to lying, especially for a government.

An F-16 belonging to the Belgian Air Force. Whether Ukraine will receive any of them from Belgium, either as combat-ready aircraft or as sources of spare parts, remains uncertain.

While it's simple to point out Belgium's defence missteps, it's only fair to propose several solutions that consider both the limited funding available and the weaknesses that appear inherent to the Belgian MoD and decision making. As it's highly improbable that the Belgian Army will ever reintroduce tracked AFVs, suggesting the return of tanks and tracked infantry fighting vehicles is merely wishful thinking. However, it's essential for Belgium's Medium Brigade to have the capability to operate autonomously in wartime without relying on other NATO member states. This necessitates the acquisition of various weapon systems that are currently absent from the Belgian Army's inventory. This includes SPAAGs, SAM systems and long-range fire assets like MLRS. This aligns with the efforts of countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, both of which are procuring systems like MLRS, mobile SAM systems and SPAAGs to enable their brigade(s) to function independently from other NATO armies during wartime conditions.
To secure a strong level of interoperability and maintain cost-efficiency, close collaboration can be pursued with nations such as the Netherlands, France, and Germany. The presence of predominantly French AFVs and artillery within the Belgian Army presents excellent prospects for deep integration with the French Army, and this potential should be thoroughly examined and utilised. Given Belgium's historical absence as a maritime nation and its existing challenges in crewing its current inventory of ships, any expansion of the Belgian Navy seems impractical and unnecessary. In the event that Belgium requires maritime capabilities that are currently lacking, cooperation can be sought with the Royal Netherlands Navy, which possesses a more comprehensive range of maritime capabilities.

Belgium is scheduled to receive a total of 34 F-35s, allocated between two air bases, one in the French-speaking part and the other in the Dutch-speaking part of the country. With 17 F-35s assigned to each air base, there's ample space for additional F-35s. When combined with stand-off weapons such as air-launched cruise and anti-radiation missiles, Belgium has the opportunity to significantly augment the capabilities of its existing weapon systems. This enhancement can be achieved not by introducing entirely new weapon systems but by increasing their quantities or by acquiring new armament options for them. The Belgian Air Force is to receive four MQ-9B SkyGuardian MALE UAVs. While there is a possibility of arming these drones, the Belgian government presently opposes operating armed drones. Nevertheless, outfitting these drones with weaponry could enable them to take over foreign deployments typically undertaken by manned fighter aircraft, thus freeing up more F-35s for other missions.
This list below documents ongoing or forthcoming equipment acquisitions equipment acquisitions by the Belgian Land Component, Air Component and Naval Component. This list focuses on heavy weaponry and doesn't include ATGMs, MANPADS, trucks, radars and ammunition.

Army - Belgian Land Component

Armoured Reconnaissance Vehicles (Future Quantity: 60)

  • 60 EBRC Jaguars [To be delivered from 2025 onwards] (To replace 18 Piranha III DF90 AFVs and 32 Piranha III DF30 IFVs)

Armoured Personnel Carriers (Future Quantity: 382)

  • 382 VBMR Griffons [To be delivered from 2025 onwards] (To replace ~135 Piranha III APCs and 218 Dingo 2 IMVs)

Infantry Mobility Vehicles (Future Quantity: 322)


Artillery (Future Quantity: 28 SPGs and 12 SPMs)

  • 9(+19 As Option) 155mm Caesar NG 6x6s [To be delivered from 2027 onwards] (To replace 14 105mm LG1 towed howitzers)
  • 12 120mm Griffon MEPACs [Planned Acquisition] (To replace some two dozen 120mm 120 RT heavy mortars)

Air Defence Systems

  • Missing flag.png Programme For C-UAS/C-RAM & Very Short Range Air Defence (VSHORAD) Systems [Planned Acquisition]
  • Missing flag.png Programme For Short-Range SAM Systems [Planned Acquisition]
  • Missing flag.png Programme For Long-Range SAM Systems [Planned Acquisition]

Air Force - Belgian Air Component

Fighter Aircraft (Future Quantity: 34)

  • 34 F-35As [Will be delivered from 2024 onwards] (To replace 40+ F-16s)

MALE Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (Future Quantity: 4)

  • 4 MQ-9B SkyGuardians [Will be delivered from 2023 onwards] (Will not be armed in Belgian service)

Transport And Tanker Aircraft (Future Quantity: 2 Tanker Aircraft And Up To 15 Transport Aircraft)

  • European Union 1 Airbus A330 Multi Role Tanker Transports (MRTTs) [Will be delivered from 2034 onwards] (Will supplement 1 A330 MRTT already in service. Stationed in the Netherlands)
  • Missing flag.png 3 Medium Tactical Transport Aircraft [Planned Acquisition] (The C-295M is believed to be the favourite contender)
  • Missing flag.png 5 Special Operations Aircraft [Planned Acquisition] (The C-208 is believed to be the favourite contender)

Trainer Aircraft

  • Missing flag.png Programme For New Turboprop Trainers (The Diamond Dart 550 is believed to be the favourite contender) (To replace 32 SIAI-Marchetti SF.260 trainers)

Helicopters (Future Quantity: 15 Utility Helicopters, 12+ Transport Helicopters, 5 ASW Helicopters and 4 SAR Helicopters)

Navy - Belgian Naval Component

Frigates (Future Quantity: 2)

Patrol Vessels (Future Quantity: 3)

  • 1 Castor-Class [Planned Acquisition] (To Supplement 2 Castor-class patrol vessels already in service)

Minehunters (Future Quantity: 6)

  • 6 City-Class' [Will be delivered between 2024 and 2029] (Will replace 5 Tripartite-class minehunters)
Special thanks to Kasper Goossens and Stoonbrace for providing the inspiration for this article and their valuable prior research on Belgian defence topics, which significantly contributed to the content of this article.
[2] Defensiebudget stijgt met amper 0,01 procent: België wordt ‘paria binnen de NAVO’
[3] Slechts zeven NAVO-landen geven 2 procent uit aan defensie, België bengelt onderaan 
[4] For Queen & NATO: Listing Denmark’s Recent Weapons Purchases
[5] Hoe creatief omspringen met 235 miljoen euro België haar astronaut opleverde
[6] België koopt Mistral-raketten en stapt als observator in SCAF-project voor nieuwe gevechtsvliegtuigen
[7] De Kamer van Volksvertegenwoordigers - Schriftelijke vraag en antwoord nr 55-517 : Aankoop luchtafweersystemen. - NAVO-integratie.
[8] De heropbouw van Defensie gaat verder met het STAR-plan
[9] Belgische en Franse ministers van Defensie tekenen CaMo 2 en de aankoop van negen CAESAR NewGeneration
[11] Belgische artillerie krijgt 19 bijkomende Caesar-kanonnen
[12] A 21st Century Powerhouse: Listing Poland’s Recent Arms Acquisitions
[13] Tientallen miljoenen gekost, maar Belgische pantservoertuigen kunnen niet vuren
[14] ‘De langetermijnvisie bij legeraankopen is korter dan het schootsveld van een kanon’
[15] De Pandur RECCE. Het ongewenste kind van het RECCE 2001 debacle.
[18] Leger loopt leeg: komende vijf jaar gaat bijna helft van alle Belgische militairen met pensioen
[19] Voortaan ook gevechtspiloten met bril of lenzen: Defensie versoepelt aanwervingsregels om vacatures te vullen
[20] 300.000 jongeren hebben geen werk: vrijwillige legerdienst moet hen aan een job helpen
[21] België investeert in raketschild en (het leggen van) zeemijnen
[22] Information gathered through discussions with members of the Dutch Navy.
[23] 'Waarschijnlijk' meer geld voor nieuwe Nederlands-Belgische fregatten - Belgische Defensieminister
[25] A Show Of Shame - Belgian Weapons Deliveries To Ukraine
[28] La Défense n'a pu récupérer ses anciens obusiers, qui semblent bien partis vers l'Ukraine
[29] Entre revalorisation en formation, John Cockerill mobilisé pour soutenir l’Ukraine
[30] België is erg fors met woorden, niet met daden in de Oekraïense oorlog 
[32] Belgium to Deliver Eight Sea Sparrow Surface-to-Air Missiles to Ukraine 
[34] Denmark Reporting For Duty: Danish Military Support To Ukraine 
[37] Chef Defensie Michel Hofman: "Ondenkbaar dat we onze F-16's leveren aan Oekraïne"
[38] België is wél in staat om F-16's naar Oekraïne te sturen, in tegenstelling tot wat Defensie beweert  
[39] Information gathered through discussions with members of the Dutch Army.
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