European aerospace manufacturers Airbus and Dassault Aviation publicly lamented a decision by the government of Belgium to purchase the Lockheed Martin F-35A as a replacement for the country’s fleet of F-16s.
The companies claim Brussels' choice to buy an American-made rather than European-made aircraft would harm the region's industrial base and future development of an indigenous fifth-generation fighter. Lockheed Martin’s F-35A Lightning II defeated the Typhoon, manufactured by the Eurofighter joint-venture made of Airbus, BAE Systems and Leonardo, as well as Dassault’s Rafale.
Belgium plans to purchase 34 F-35A aircraft for $4.33 billion (€3.8 billion), with deliveries expected to begin in 2023. The country’s air force is the 13th customer for the stealth fighter, joining European NATO allies such as the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Italy and Turkey.
Belgium’s interest in the F-35 had been widely known for some time, so Airbus says it was not surprised by the decision.
“However, Airbus Defence and Space remains firmly convinced that the offer submitted by Team Eurofighter, consisting of the industrial partners of United Kingdom, Germany, Italy and Spain, would have represented a superior choice for the country both in terms of operational capability and industrial opportunities,” the company says. “The Eurofighter solution would have resulted in more than €19 billion ($21.66 billion) direct contribution to the Belgian economy.”
The defence manufacturer also calls Belgium’s decision a missed opportunity to participate in the planned development of a European-made fifth-generation fighter.
“This partnership could have also laid the path for Belgium to join the Franco-German Future Combat Air System programme, which Airbus is currently defining with its strong industrial partner Dassault Aviation,” the firm says.
For its part, Dassault expressed similar regrets.
“Dassault Aviation is not surprised by the Belgian government decision – some actors’ preference for the F-35 had long been clear enough,” says the French manufacturer. “The choice of the F-35 is a bad signal for the construction of a European defence. Once again, we can see an American preference prevailing in Europe.”
The decision comes as French President Emmanuel Macron tries to rally fellow European Union member countries to a common security and defence policy.
Speaking in Bratislava, Slovakia, Macron criticised the Belgium government’s decision, saying that "strategically it goes against European interests", according to a report by Agence France-Presse.
"Europe won't be strong unless it is truly sovereign and knows how to protect itself," he says. “I will do everything possible to promote European offers in future contracts."