The Ukrainian government of President Volodimir Zelensky spent months asking, demanding, begging its Western allies to give it F16 fighter jets, made by the American company Lockheed Martin.
The first excuse for not doing it was that the Ukrainian pilots would not know how to handle them. But they have been training for months and the first groups of pilots are ready.
The second excuse was that since they were American-made planes, Washington had to issue re-export permits. Washington gave the permits. European governments ran out of excuses.
The Dutchman was one of the first to announce that he was starting to ship up to 24 F16 aircraft. Ukraine received the announcement with applause, which did not reach Brussels when Belgium said that of the 24 F16s it planned to send, it would send none. Because? According to the Belgian Defense, the planes have already exceeded their useful life in years and in flight hours and if Belgian pilots are not allowed to use them for security reasons, it does not seem appropriate to deliver them to Ukraine either.
An explosion over kyiv, after a Russian bombardment, at the end of August. Photo: REUTERS
The Belgian media report that the Dutch F16s being shipped to Ukraine are in fact older and have more flight hours than the Belgian ones.
Experts say to the contrary that the Belgian F16s, still old, are in better shape and have more safety measures for the pilots than the even older Soviet-made Mig-29s that Ukraine had in its arsenals at the start of the war and that continues to use sporadically. And that Ukraine does not put its pilots at unnecessary risk, whom it considers precious pieces of its gear and which it is sending in groups to Western countries to learn to drive F16s. They are not interested in risking their lives uselessly.
That leaves two explanations: either Belgium doesn’t want to endanger Ukrainian pilots with old planes and the Netherlands got rid of those planes they no longer wanted, or Belgium actually has planes in good condition that it doesn’t want to send because they don’t want it yet. It has received most of the combat ships that should replace those F16, the American F35 that the Dutch Defense did already receive.
Explanations and doubts
In an interview with the Belgian newspaper Le Soir, the expert Joseph Nenrotin, editor-in-chief of the specialized magazine ‘International Defense and Security’, assures that although the argument of the Belgian Defense is correct, the decision cannot be technical but political.
Belgium and Denmark, according to this analyst, are in a similar situation: commitments to NATO operations, an aging air force waiting to receive the new F35s, and a geographic position in the Baltic or North Sea with increasing military activity. But Denmark gives Ukraine half of its combat planes and Belgium none.
Ukrainian President Volodimir Zelensky clamored for the dispatch of fighter jets. Photo: AFP
The expert says that most of the Belgian planes are able to fly even though they are ending their useful life and that even those that cannot fly are useful because parts can be removed to repair those that fly.
The Belgian media denounce that the country is one of the countries that has sent the least military aid to Ukraine, usually alleging a lack of material. But that clashes with what other governments have done. Neither Luxembourg nor the UK had 122mm howitzers in their arsenals (for the Soviet-made rocket launchers Ukraine had), but they bought them from countries around Russia and shipped them to Ukraine.
The Dutch even bought former Soviet T-72 tanks from their eastern European neighbors for delivery to Kiev before the western Leopard (German), Challenger (British) and Abrams (American) tanks began shipping.
The same expert tells how Ukraine will prefer planes that have little useful life left than no plane, because for a short time that they can use them, what is important right now is the immediate effect that they can have on the war scene.
There is another aspect that differentiates the way of seeing these devices between Ukraine and countries like Belgium. The Belgians continue, according to these experts, with the “NATO in peacetime” mentality. That means expensive military parts like fighter jets are cared for and maintained to last at least 40 years.
In a war mentality like the one that the Ukrainians have now, these planes are tools to achieve military objectives and therefore it is understood that they are consumables.