The update of the LPM, combined with a plan called STAR (for Security & Service – Technology – Ambition – Resilience), “must allow Defense to have, in the long term, suitable capabilities to respond to new contemporary challenges, including on the national territory“.
With a 527 M€ boost between 2023 and 2030, the Belgian Navy will be able to “complement and strengthen the capabilities of its frigates and mine countermeasures vessels, as well as bolster its protection equipment in our coastal area and ports“, Defense Minister Ludivine Dedonder said in late June.
Compared to the 6,55 billion Euros the Land Forces are to receive, the funding provided for the naval forces seems limited. A decision the MoD explains by the priorities made in the 2016 Strategic Vision, which mainly focused on the Air component and the Navy. Together, the two services gathered around 65% of the budget, and the STAR plan aims at returning to proportions which correspond more to international standards and to the existing personnel envelopes of the Belgian Defence.
Boosting the surface combatants
Based on two frigates, the Belgian Navy surface combatant capability “is important for the protection of supply routes. The submarine threat is increasing both on the periphery of Europe and globally and NATO is asking for an extra effort from European members“, the document says.
“In order to support our two Navy frigates, we are planning to buy more drones which will be embarked on these frigates, to consolidate the NH90 helicopters as part of the fight against underwater threats and then to equip the two future frigates of means of protection against ballistic missiles,”
Belgian Defense Minister Ludivine Dedonder on July 8.
The two Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASWF) frigates ordered in 2018 for one billion Euro will only be delivered by 2030. Until then, the Belgian MoD plans to upgrade the two in-service Karel Doorman-class frigates by integrating modules that will allow the NH90 naval helicopter to perform anti-submarine warfare (ASW) missions from 2025. The planned budget for this reaches approximately 15 million Euros.
The future ASWF will receive new tactical drones that will complement the NFHs. They will serve as a support surveillance capability and will collect naval imagery and tactical intelligence. The 14,3 M€ acquisition plan is set for 2024.
BMD for ASWF
But the centerpiece of the STAR plan, in the naval domain, is the Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) capability the Belgian MoD will add to the ASWF between 2029 and 2031 for around 136 million Euros. The integration of this new capability in the NATO Integrated Air and Missile Defence System has been confirmed by the first feasibility studies.
Based on this initial assessment, the modification required from the baseline ASWF design have largely been mapped out:
“Belgian participation in the complementary international studies, partly already in progress, is essential in order to refine the financial estimate of the BMD program, to detail the necessary equipment adjustments and finally to be able to proceed with the implementation of the modifications,”
Once integrated, the BMD capability will allow the frigates to engage ballistic missiles and therefore, if necessary, to “also participate in a wider BMD system“. This capacity “will require the use of long-range detection radar systems, particularly on board anti-aircraft defense frigates.“
More helicopters and ASW capabilities
Besides new ASW missions from the frigates, the STAR plan will allow a 69 million Euros investment to upgrade the NH90 NFH choppers and for the joint purchase of a Full Mission Flight Trainer with the Netherlands. This FMFT will cost 3,65 million Euros to the Belgian side and will be located in Den Helder, The Netherlands.
In addition, the plan provides for the acquisition of four helicopters specialized in search and rescue mission in order to optimize this essential safety and support service for Belgium and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, while allowing to specialize the four in-service NH90 NFH as on-board helicopters for the frigates.
In order to develop the ASW capability, the NH90 NFH will in the future be implemented exclusively in support of the maritime capability (MAR). To ensure the search and rescue role on land and at sea, a fleet of 4 new SAR helicopters will be acquired in the very short term. These new helicopters should allow lead-in training in the MAR role, so that the potential of the NFH can be exclusively used for the maritime capability, specifically on board the ASWF frigates.
Officially launched on May 2019, the rMCM program will see the consortium Belgian Naval & Robotics (formed by Naval Group & ECA Group) delivers 12 new mine countermeasure ships to the Belgian and Dutch Navies. Another 124,85 million Euros investment is planned to further complete the capability. More than 113 millions Euros will be dedicated to updating the rMCM toolbox. The development of this next-generation or V2 toolbox is ongoing in EU’s PESCO project Maritime (Semi-)autonomous systems for mine counter measures (MAS MCM), led by Belgium.
In addition, and in accordance with NATO’s request, provision for a deployable MCM calibration measurement bench is planned in 2025 (5.68 million Euros, 2025-2026). This system will allow the Belgian Navy to measure the signature of ships and other navigational equipment. Investments are also being made in sensors and a data center for the collection and management of mine warfare survey data.
The Belgian MoD is also considering the implementation of an offensive mine warfare (mine laying) capability that is considered as “an essential and decisive deterrent instrument in support of maritime operations” by the STAR plan. A study is currently being carried out to determine how this new objective can be concretely implemented in order to be operational in 2028. Initially, it will be a question of examining which laying platform and which type of sea mines are the most adapted. Further studies should clarify what additional resources will be needed, for example, for marine environment analysis, planning software and databases. As of now, only 1,13 million Euros are provided to modify the mine laying platform.
The path towards SOF Amphibious Companies
Not included in but closely linked to the Marine Component, the creation of an amphibious capability on the basis of the Special Operations Regiment (SOR) was launched through the 2016 Strategic Vision. The initiative will be continued with the STAR plan. This will be achieved in particular thanks to the specialization of one company in each of the two paracommandos bataillons, the transfer to Zeebrugge of the “Special Operations Boat Unit” which uses FRISC boats and the collaboration with the Netherlands for the development of a “Composite Special Operations Maritime Task Group” (C-SOMTG).
Regarding the amphibious companies, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed with the Dutch Korps Mariniers in order to oversee the organization of joint training:
“This initiative would also give additional European anchorage to our Defense through the existing amphibious partnership between the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. It also strengthens our country’s position within the European Amphibious Initiative” (EAI)
Around 27 million Euros will be allowed to the SOF Maritime capability in multiple stages. As this capability is required to operate in an amphibious or maritime environment, the FRISC fleet will be renewed and extended. Moreover, some “Maritime Mobility Packages” will be acquired.