US defence prime Lockheed Martin has started the roll-out of the Belgian Air Force’s future F-35A Lightning II fleet, unveiling the first of 34 units in a ceremony attended by government officials and military personnel from both countries.

Initially signed in 2019, Belgium’s foreign military sale agreement with the US State Department to procure the world’s most technologically sophisticated military platform costs $7.5bn over the course of 2019 to 2033. The decision was made for cheaper prices over the Eurofighter aircraft and as a way of balancing European and US loyalties.

According to GlobalData intelligence, the aircraft will allow interoperability with EU and Nato forces, and the price of the jets include pilot training, hangers and upkeep through to 2030. Around 30% of the components of the aircraft will come from Europe, including participation from eight Belgian companies as part of the offset agreement.

GlobalData tells us that the Belgian Air Force currently operates 58 F-16A/B Fighting Falcon multi-role aircraft. This fleet was procured between the platform’s release in 1979 and 1991.

Belgium’s procurement of new multi-role aircraft is long overdue as its F-16 fleet has fallen far behind the latest configuration, the F-16 Block 70/72, which has been ordered by five countries.

Features in the F-35 multi-role aircraft

The F-35 is a stealthy, supersonic multirole fighter developed by Lockheed Martin Aeronautics for the US Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps and programme partners from the Nato and US allies.

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Beglium has opted for the ‘A’ variant, the conventional take-off and landing platform, in contrast to the vertical take-off and landing ‘B’ and carrier operations ‘C’ alternatives.

Its weapons are carried in two parallel bays located in front of the landing gear. Each weapons bay is fitted with two hardpoints for carrying a range of bombs and missiles.

Weapons to be cleared for internal carriage include: JDAM (joint direct attack munition), CBU-105 WCMD (wind-corrected munitions dispenser) for the sensor-fused weapon, JSOW (joint stand-off weapon), Paveway IV guided bombs, small diameter bomb (SDB), AIM-120C AMRAAM air-to-air missile and Brimstone anti-armour missile; for external carriage: JASSM (joint air-to-surface stand-off missile), AIM-9X Sidewinder, AIM-132 ASRAAM and Storm Shadow cruise missile.

Northrop Grumman Electronic Systems developed the advanced electronically scanned array (AESA) AN/APG-81 multi-function radar. The AN/APG-81AESA combines an integrated radio frequency subsystem with a multifunction array.

The radar system also incorporates the agile beam steering capabilities developed for the APG-77. Northrop Grumman delivered the first radar to Lockheed Martin in March 2005 for flight testing. The 500th AN/APG-81 fire control radar was delivered in November 2019.