The Belgian air force has been given Government clearance to upgrade a further 24 Lockheed Martin F-16s to the mid-life update (MLU) standard in addition to the 48 fighters already earmarked for the upgrade.

The Government is providing BFr 3.5 billion ($105 million) for the additional work. It is also considering adding a further 18 aircraft to the programme, with a decision to be taken after 1998.

It is eventually hoped to include all 90 aircraft which were retained in service following the 1991 political decision to reduce the number of aircraft to be allocated to the NATO support role from 144 to 72. As part of the 1991 plan, 35 of the remaining aircraft were to be sold, with the intention being to upgrade 48 F-16s only .

The air force has since waged a campaign to convince the Government that it would not be possible to put 72 aircraft at the disposal of NATO because part of the fleet would be unavailable: the aircraft would either be undergoing the mid-life update or be withdrawn from service to be fitted with the Dassault Electronique Carapace electronic-warfare system.

In addition, the service argued, it would be nonsense to have some of this fleet not brought up to the MLU standard when co-operating with the allies within NATO. In terms of logistics it would also be more expensive to operate two different standards of aircraft.

In March 1996, Paul Poncelet, the then-new defence minister, who is more sympathetic to the air force argument, started to extend upgrade commitment to the remaining 90 aircraft. It took the Government ten months to approve the plan. The 35 F-16s which were destined for sale have been mothballed and are kept in stock at Weelde AB. It is probable that they will be kept as sources of spare parts for the 90 aircraft in service until 2010.

Source: Flight International