“Fewer personnel in exchange for more investment”, such is the credo defended by the Belgian Defence Minister Steven Vandeput in his “Strategic Defence Plan” for 2030 adopted on Tuesday 22 December 2015 by the Kingdom’s Select Ministerial Council. “I would like to thank the government for its courageous decision to invest in defence. Security is a precious thing, but it does not come free. And thanks to the decisions taken today our armed forces can look forwards to a new and hopeful future (…)” he said in the margins of the Select Ministerial Council.
Thanks to these new investments the Belgian defence budget should by 2030 account for 1.3% of the GDP, far from the 2% recommended by NATO for its member states but an improvement on today’s meagre 0.9%. However, the strategic plan does confirm military fears by announcing a radical drop in the total number of personnel under arms. These will drop from 32,000 in 2015 to 25,000 by 2030. The Army will lose 2,000 people to reach a total of 9,000, the figure considered necessary for “the Land component to do a good job,” according to a recent declaration by the Army chief-of-staff, Major-General Jean-Paul Deconinck.
Nobody will be made redundant but the cuts will be achieved by not replacing those who retire and by re-training a number of others to join the new Federal Police “Directorate of Surveillance and Protection” to undertake missions of internal security which were, until now, the responsibility of the military. Questioned this morning on RTL radio concerning this fall in personnel numbers, Vandeput said that “perhaps what we will no longer be able to do are many of the logistics jobs that we do today. These could be handed over to the private sector, for example.”
On the other hand, Belgium is intending to invest almost €9.2bn from now until 2030 to procure new equipment for the three principal components (Land, Air, Navy) of its armed forces. According to the Strategic Defence Plan, 34 new fighter aircraft will be bought to replace the 56 F-16s still flying, and six remotely piloted air systems (two in 2021 and four in 2030) to replace the B-Hunters acquired in 1988. The defence ministry is also going to consider taking part in the European air-tanker programme and examine its options for its VIP transport aircraft. To reinforce the naval component, two frigates will replace those bought second-hand from the Netherlands and six mine-hunters will be procured.
The adoption of this Strategic Defence Plan now opens the way for the elaboration of a directive document in which the defence ministry will detail all the measures that need to be put into action by 2019, and the end of this legislature, and to launch the calls for tender that will turn the investments announced by the Belgian government into something concrete.
The plan is thus fairly low-key and adopted just as Belgium has announced that it will maintain the deployment of 700 soldiers in the streets of Bruxelles for another month.