A Belgian Air Force F-16 was turned into a ball of fire recently after a mechanic accidentally opened fire on it while servicing another aircraft. An additional F-16 suffered collateral damage, but did not catch fire. The incident occurred at a time when the Belgian government is planning to buy F-35 jets from the U.S.
“Apparently, the cannon was loaded… This aircraft had just been refueled and prepared together with another F-16 for an upcoming afternoon sortie. After impact of the 20mm bullets, [it] exploded instantly and damaged two other F-16s… Thankfully, nobody got killed, only one technician incurred hearing impairment,” Air Force Times quotes Dutch aviation magazine Scramble.
The two mechanics involved in the accident were treated for hearing impairment soon after the blast. An investigation into the matter has been initiated by the Belgian Aviation Safety Directorate. Prior to the incident, Belgium had about 54 F-16 jets in its arsenal.
Many people were actually relieved that the accident did not cause any further damage. As reported by ABC News, Col. Didier Polome said: “You can’t help thinking of what a disaster this could have been.”
Switching to the F-35
Belgium has been planning to replace its aging airplanes for quite a while, and the country has reportedly decided to upgrade to Lockheed Martin F-35 jets. “The F-35 offers transformational capability for the Belgian Air Force and, if selected, will align them with a global coalition operating the world’s most advanced aircraft,” Lockheed spokeswoman Carolyn Nelson had said to Reuters.
The multi-billion dollar deal will see Belgium buying 34 F-35s. A final decision will be made by the end of October. The total cost of the purchase is expected to be around US$4.14 billion. If Belgium fails to agree to a deal by October 31, Washington has warned that the price of the jets will increase.
Many defense experts believe that the deal will come to fruition since Belgium has an agreement with its neighbor, the Netherlands, to pool resources and police a common airspace. Since the Netherlands already uses F-35 jets, it would make sense for Belgium to buy the same aircraft for smoother interoperability.
Plus, Belgium’s agreement with NATO requires it to only purchase planes that can carry U.S. nuclear weapons. After having used the F-16 for so long, getting a European jet certified for a nuclear mission could be tricky for Belgium.
Once the purchase order is finalized, Belgium will become the twelfth country to own F-35s. In addition, Lockheed Martin will have a better chance of procuring orders from the upcoming tenders in Germany, Switzerland, and Finland.
Of particular interest to Lockheed will be Germany, since they are looking to buy around 90 new jets. While reports indicate that Berlin is interested in the Eurofighter, the government is still concerned about nuclear weapons certification of the future fleet. And this could play to Lockheed’s benefit.
The U.S. had preemptively approved the sale of F-35s to Belgium in January this year. As Lockheed Martin closes more deals with European countries, the Trump administration will certainly be happy that American companies continue to be a dominant defense supplier among EU allies.