Leaked cable spills Belgium’s plans to buy F-35s

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A newly-leaked US diplomatic cable provides the first public evidence of the Belgian government's plan to purchase the Lockheed Martin F-35 without a competition.

A meeting between the US ambassador to Brussels and Belgium's defence minister Pieter De Crem on 16 October 2009 was described in a cable revealed earlier this month by the Wikileaks organisation.

The cable notes that De Crem raised the subject of the F-35 during the meeting.

"He thinks that the [Belgian government] should purchase some of the aircraft 'off the shelf' from the partners as they become available, perhaps in the 2020 timeframe," the US embassy wrote.

In the late-1970s, Belgium joined with the Netherlands and Norway to jointly purchase Lockheed F-16A/Bs. Belgium's 50 F-16As and 10 F-16Bs range in age from 29.4 years to 19.8 years, according to Flightglobal's MiliCAS database.

Those F-16s are projected to be retired from service between 2015 and 2025, according to the cable.

The Netherlands and Norway signed up in 2002 to participate in the development of the F-35. However, Belgium did not join them.

De Crem "recognized that Belgium is too late to enter the production process of the aircraft as a partner", the cable noted.

There was no indication in the embassy's cable that Belgium planned to solicit bids from rival fighter manufacturers.

Although Norway and the Netherlands invested and helped develop the F-35, both countries solicited bids before making a formal decision to buy the Lockheed stealth fighter.

Two years later De Crem is still in office, but it is not clear if Belgium's plans have changed. Since the October 2009 meeting with the ambassador, the US government has announced two major delays and restructurings of the F-35 programme. These have delayed the end of the development phase by at least three years and pushed hundreds of planned fighter purchases beyond 2015.