Belgium's air force ceased to be an independent service on 2 January, becoming the army air component or COMOPSAIR (Command Operations Air). The air force has been shrunk progressively over the past decade with its combat fleet reduced to six squadrons operating 72 Lockheed Martin F-16s.

The single command structure for the air force, army and navy is the latest restructuring by defence minster André Flahaut, who says "the armed forces will specialise in humanitarian activities". The defence budget has been kept at its 1991 level and the latest changes have been described as a "restructuring to fit the budget".

Most of Belgium's defence budget - 75% - covers salaries, while 20% is spent on training, leaving 5% for equipment procurement.

As a result, the army will lose its armour and artillery, becoming "specialised in direct fire" as its three remaining armoured brigades will be reduced to two mechanised rifle brigades.

Belgium has opted out of the Joint Strike Fighter programme, meaning its F-16s will have to soldier on until at least 2015. The country has, however, joined the pan-European Airbus Military Company A400M programme, committing to seven of the transport aircraft for "humanitarian operations". These will replace 11 ageing Lockheed Martin C-130H Hercules.

In a farewell speech in mid-December, retiring chief of the air staff Lt Gen Michel Mandl warned the "armed forces can be reduced to the point where they cease to be the instrument of foreign policy they are meant to be".

Source: Flight International