Herman De Wulf/BRUSSELS


The Belgian Government plans to create a unified command structure for its armed forces. It will abandon its system of independent air force, army and navy staffs, which was established in the 1940s.

Belgian defence minister André Flahaut has asked the three chiefs of staff to recommend a scheme to abolish their positions and set up an integrated structure workable within NATO's separate air, land and sea command structure.

Flahaut suggests that the army will provide the senior commander and that the army ordnance board will become responsible for air force and navy procurement.

The move has caused a new furore in Belgium following a dispute between the government and the armed forces over falling defence spending.

Part of the rationale behind the unified command scheme is to save money - although analysts warn that it could cost BFr6,000 million ($148.7 million) as Belgian law does not allow career officers to be made redundant.

Most of the money would be used to pay redundant officers' salaries until they reach retirement age. It also includes "golden handshakes" to entice others to leave and take up civilian jobs.

Controversy over local defence spending has reached new heights in recent weeks. Belgian chief of the joint staffs, Adm Willy Herteleer, sparked the dispute when he warned that "the freezing of the defence budget at 1990 levels has resulted in the present sorry state of the armed forces to an extent that they have become a danger to our allies. Unless the defence budget is increased, the armed forces face bankruptcy".

His solution, a short-term manpower cut of 6,000 "to free funds for remaining forces to stay operational and to finance the replacement of obsolescent equipment", was rejected by Flahaut, who retaliated with the unified command proposal.

Further problems stem from Flahaut's request in December that the government agree to join the US-led Joint Strike Fighter programme, to ensure Belgian industry involvement in the programme. This was rejected by members of the ruling party who are more interested in procuring additional transport aircraft.

A decision has been postponed and a parliamentary debate on military commitments is planned for this month.

Source: Flight International