F-35, worries of the Belgian industrialists on the economic consequences of the contract

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Visiting Belgium for a few days as part of industrial cooperation around the F-35 combat fighter, the American aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin met this Friday with Belgian aeronautics manufacturers. Starting to get impatient and actively wishing to collaborate with the American firm, the latter's concerns are growing in the face of a deluge of promises wherever the F-35 has established itself.

On a contract amounting to 15 billion euros, no less than 3 billion in benefits would have been mentioned without being set in stone. When in June 2019, two senior Lockheed officials came to reiterate the manufacturer's determination to honor all of its promises made to Belgium, Belgian manufacturers were already complaining about radio silence across the Atlantic. So much so that, during the Paris Air Show, Michele Evans, vice-president of the American firm, came to assert that “ partnerships in Europe are essential to the success of the F-35 » while recalling that no less than 25% of the F-35 components were “ made in Europe ". Finally, Richard Edwards, another vice-president of the company, concluded that “ Lockheed Martin is not a company that says 'we're going to do all this' and 'then give nothing away' (…) this is happening in the world. This won't happen with us ».

Intended to reassure the European countries purchasing the F-35, these declarations have, as it stands, still not been followed by concrete actions. According to RTBF, the three main Belgian aeronautics manufacturers, namely Sonaca, Sabca and Asco, co-signed a letter of intent to Lockheed Martin in July, to demonstrate both their desire to collaborate – each in their area of ​​expertise – but also and above all to indicate their eagerness to soon materialize a firm contract, with the idea of ​​producing aircraft components on Belgian soil.

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In fact, this joint missive is in reality a response to three letters from the American aircraft manufacturer sent separately to the three manufacturers. Lockheed highlighted its difficulties in obtaining a clear and precise overview of the Belgian aeronautics industrial sector.. Both vague and obscure, such comments were likely to justify the deep concerns of Belgian players in the sector.

Indeed, although Lockheed Martin and one of its suppliers, Pratt & Whitney, had already signed “Memorandum of Agreement” (MoA) – or protocols of understanding – with key players in January. of the Belgian aeronautical industry (Asco, Belgium Engine Center, Feronyl), it is clear that they still do not see anything coming. A question therefore remains unanswered: will these intentions be transformed into a concrete contract, definitively setting the production conditions?

B9720901935Z.1 20190914085930 000G8QEEG6LK.2 0 Defense News | Fighter aircraft | Belgium
Didier Reynders, current Belgian Minister of Defense, will leave office next November and become the new European Commissioner for Justice.

According to Bernard Delvaux, president of Sonaca, it is not excluded that the government “ must intervene to support the process »1. This shows the credibility deficit accumulated over the last eleven months by the American aircraft manufacturer with regard to Belgian manufacturers. And as if that were not enough, the timing could not be worse: not only is the Belgian executive currently weakened with a government in current affairs at its head, but above all, the Ministry of Defense will experience a fourth change of direction. minister in less than a year, Didier Reynders leaving his post next November to join the European Commission.

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Thus, this Friday's visit and the round table which will be held on Monday concentrate all the hopes of the Belgian aeronautics industry. However, it is common knowledge that Belgium played poorly in the negotiations – despite obtaining an exceptional price – and Lockheed's commitments to Belgian industry remain resolutely weak: the American firm does not will probably have no trouble getting out of it if she shows bad will. However, although this is its first “international competition” with a country that is not a partner in its development, Belgium’s order for around thirty fighter planes represents a drop in the bucket for the firm. Other acquiring countries or those wishing to become so, like Israel and Poland, themselves have substantial claims in terms of compensation, for acquisition volumes much higher than those of Belgium. . However, although Lockheed Martin has promised significant industrial compensation, the pie cannot be divided indefinitely, Brussels being likely to pay the price.

Belgium could have definitively missed the boat by placing its industry in a delicate position but above all by giving in, once again, to a logic that is now precarious, that of making its national security conditional on the purchase of American equipment. For Thibauld Jongen, CEO of Sabca, if it were the case that the industry did not harvest “ only crumbs ", the responsibility would not lie with Lockheed Martin but more with the political choices of Belgium.

Axel Trinquier – specialist in European defense issues.

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