How to Fix the Belgian Armed Forces

Belgium as a NATO member

Belgium has a little more than 11 million people and a GDP a little over EUR 400 bn. Public debt is above 100% GDP. Yet the government appears to intend to buy 34 F-35 Lightning II. This would cost USD 6.53 bn, plus likely EUR 1.5...3 bn additional expenses to modernise airbase facilities and other related costs. That's the equivalent of Germany buying 250 (when looking at population size) or 270 F-35 - a very major fiscal effort (much bigger than the annual military budget). To abstain from this effort would reduce the public debt by 2...3 per cent of GDP.

My stance is that membership in a large alliance does NOT mean that you need to pay more to be a "good" ally and actually helper to some of the most aggressive alliance members. The purpose is to enable small powers to achieve deterrence and defence in the first place to maintain peace and sovereignty and secondarily it makes security and defence cheaper. 

A simple model shows this; two countries are border on each other and a third, larger and threatening country. Going alone they would need to maintain armed forces to deter an attack by the bigger neighbour on their own, and deter by being able to inflict punishing damage on both neighbours at once if they attack. An alliance between the two smaller countries enables them to not consider each other as a threat any more, and to spend roughly half as much as without the alliance, for they would stand together against aggression by their larger neighbour.

It's a simple, reasonable and rational principle - and utterly covered up by the nonsense that politicians spew about how smaller allies should spend much on their military (to be a useful auxiliary forces pool for stupid small wars) because they are in an alliance.

This idea of an alliance combined with Belgium's high public debt and a certain fragility of the nation* leads to my conclusion that the armed forces of Belgium should provide a relevant contribution to collective security at low cost.

The Belgian armed forces

The Belgian military (Dutch: Defensie; French: La D├ęfense) has land, air, marine and medical components, notionally unified in to one armed service. Active personnel is around 30,000 and there's hardly any reserve personnel. The annual military budget is about € 4 bn, that's a little less than 1% GDP.

Belgium has a short coastline with some ports, and its navy has been very small for a long time. Its air force had its best time in the 80's when it was equipped with lots of then still new F-16s. Its army had forward-stationed elements in Germany during the Cold War, and everyone seemed to consider them a weak spot in the string of divisions that guarded NATO in Central Europe during the Cold War. Today it's essentially a cluster of infantry battalions with traditional names, lacking artillery and tanks. The entire land component is incapable of true combined arms warfare.

Belgium is special

There are two things special about Belgium:
  1. It's home to NATO administrative/political headquarters and NATO's strategic level HQ, SHAPE.
  2. It's fairly close to Lithuania and wheeled vehicles could self-deploy to it in two days (technically). The wide rivers Rhine, Oder and Vistula would need to be crossed.**
There are thus two fairly self-evident missions for Belgium's armed forces:
  • To provide security for NATO HQs
  • To provide some quick reaction forces for NATO's deterrence and defence in the Northeast.
I suppose the latter should rather be land forces than some gold-plated strike fighters, for the latter could just as easily be deployed from the UK or Spain. Half an hour or one hour of additional ferry flight time makes much less a difference than one or multiple additional days of road marches.

My recipe

About sea power; no navy, but a coast guard with paramilitary status and at least two mine hunting-capable boats. Those should be faster than the current minehunters (15 kts) to be useful for policing and better for SAR. The two active frigates are nearing the end of their lives anyway.

About air power; no miniature air force and certainly no gold plated planes. Instead, the federal police could operate two transcontinental range business jets for VIP transport and the land forces should feature impressive area air defences.

About land power; this should be split into two parts.

A territorial forces division tasked with training and with providing security for NATO HQs, Bruxelles airport and federal government. This component would have the ordinary malaise of personnel being on courses instead of at their home units, and some officers would be exchanged and replaced by allied exchange personnel. The hardware highlights of this components would be some old AFVs and some high quality area air defence and BMD batteries, both for SHAPE's security.

A field army division would be tasked with a super-quick deployment of a mechanised brigade to the Northeast of Warsaw, provided German, British, French and Polish forces ensure there are enough bridges and military pontoon bridges available across Rhine, Oder and Vistula. The second mission would be to deploy a follow-up mechanised brigade a little later.

This division would have two mechanised brigades (tanks, infantry, artillery, engineers, air defences) in two-year tours, phase-shifted by one year. So one brigade would be training up from platoon training to unit training to battalion battlegroup training while the other would focus on maintaining the peak competence for a year. The personnel would have the individual training completed (in the territorial forces) before joining a brigade for two years, would be deployable*** and would be frozen in for two years. No-one would be sent to a course, no-one would be sent to a liaison tour, no-one would be promoted to a new position. Duds that were identified would have to be replaced with territorial forces 'personnel for the rest of the two-year tour.
One high value brigade would arrive NE of Warsaw in 2...4 days, and the second with lesser capabilities but identical (and complete) equipment would arrive in 1...2 weeks, capable of less demanding missions only. Tank transporters used to deploy the first brigade would be the only divisional troops save for some MP and a tiny divisional administrative HQ.

The TO&E of these mechanised brigades could be designed with integration into some multinational army corps in mind. The bilingualism of Belgium means that cooperation with Dutch, French and Canadian forces could be done with little friction from language barriers, while cooperation with Germans would also be fairly easy given the proximity and thus many opportunities for efficient joint training.
The brigades could be kept affordable by abstaining from gold-plating except in regard to signalling, (mostly passive) electronic warfare, anti-tank firepower and air defence. The quantity of tracked vehicles could be kept to a minimum (MBT and recovery tanks) to limit the quantity of needed tank transporters, but this doesn't mean that many fashionable yet cost-inefficient 8x8 AFVs should be purchased, especially no gold-plated ones. Nor should any fancy buggies or ATVs be used; road march efficiency and long-range cruise speed are important. As a rule of thumb it's the better the less motor vehicles the brigade has, especially if Vistula and Oder brigades are busted and but a few pontoon bridges of limited capacity (~250 vehicles/hour)  are available.

advisable high cost weapon systems:
  • SPGs: Caesar 2 or Archer
  • MBTs: refurbished M1A1 or refurbished M1A2 (due to good availability)
  • air defence: Land Ceptor, AMRAAM-ER or SAMP-T
(I mention this hardware only to communicate the necessary level of quality.)

I have not much knowledge of how the Belgian military copes with the bilingualism, but I strongly suggest that one should avoid making one brigade Flemish and the other one Wallonian. As far as I know the current compromise is to have some battalions in one and some in the other language, but brigades mixed. Multi-ethnic armed forces wisely prefer to keep their forces mixed above battalion and regiment level. This may not be the best for military performance, but it's often a necessity for the country's integrity in the long term. 

I strongly suppose that Belgium could have armed forces that would be more useful to the collective deterrence & defence effort while spending less on them (after investments in three to five years of reform).


P.S:: I will not continue the "How to Fix" series till all NATO countries are covered. I chose Belgium because it represents a somewhat different case than the previous ones. It's no great power, not Mediterranean, and is not Eastern European. The "How to Fix" blog posts may be considered templates; they are largely transferable to similar countries.

*: Belgium is half kind-of-French and half kind-of-Dutch, not a nation-state. This predetermined breaking point requires that the people be extra-satisfied with federal government in order to maintain the peace and country. Belgian federal-level politics have failed to positively impress the people for a long time, and huge military spending mostly serves to reduce what perceptible good policies the government can afford to its people. In short; Belgian's federal government should better spend money on quality of life than on arms, or else the country may break up sooner or later.
**: The Elbe river looks big on  maps, but it's a flimsy obstacle in many places unless it's swollen by much rainfall.
***: Plain English: No women who could get pregnant, period. This does not exclude all real women and does not exclude any fake women, of course.


  1. Great post Sven, glad you are doing this series again.

  2. Given the importance of Antwerp (and I know you are looking at transatlantic convoys via Lisbon, but I'm not sure that's practical in the long run) maintaining a good level of investment in MCM vessels might be wise.

    1. Rotterdam is the important port and it's Dutch, not Belgian.

      Minelaying may happen, but only clandestine minelayers are relevant. It wouldn't take many MCM to clear a lane unless the mines are self-deploying ones.

      Submarines would be too valuable for minelaying in front of Rotterdam. Bombers and transports wouldn't make it and are too valuable as well.

  3. I lived in Antwerp for four years and it seemed big and important at the time. Both the allies and Hitler seemed to think so in 1944 ­čśŐ

    1. Yeah, OK, Antwerp port is a big one. Yet Rotterdam port moves more than twice the tonnage of goods per year.

      I corrected the part about Belgian ports in the blog post, it wasn't accurate.

    2. If I wanted to cut Antwerp off (bearing in mind it is up a river), I'd have SF or agents seize a ship and scuttle it across the Schelde. Another alternative would be blowing up the lock gates. The Germans actually managed to damage one set with a V2 in 1944-45.

    3. I thought this might interest you:


  4. As you know, the Belgian army experienced about the most massive force reduction of any W. European army. The army always seemed to be held in very low esteem by the population when I lived there and the average age was 47! The problem in any expansion for a more active role would be recruiting in the right age group. I wholeheartedly endorse the logic of your article. I would have added a significant long range target location and indirect fire element based on HIMARS. In peacetime I would shuffle them around in HAS on the former F35 bases. For air sovereignty policing I'd have the Belgian Air Component man a flight of French Rafales leased from and maintained by them. They could be based in an enclave at a lesser used airport such as Charleroi.

    1. Air policing is overrated. Nobody gets hurt if some aircraft flies over Belgium that shouldn't. Belgium is so far away even from the next neutral power that there's really no need for national air policing.

    2. Yes, but I think the ability to police your own airspace, however tenuous the need or the capability, is still a matter of national pride.

    3. Well, that "national pride" thing that hardly any Belgian will take notice of - what do you think how many hundreds of schools and kindergartens should not be renovated and modernised to set free the funds for this "national pride"?

  5. From the internet:
    "This acquisition (of new armored vehicles), in line with the principles set out in the “Strategic Vision,” goes hand in hand with a revolution in defense cooperation for our Land Component. The objective is to establish a partnership based on identical French and Belgian combat vehicles. The objective is for Belgium and France to have a common organization, and that training and logistical support be organized jointly. As announced in the “Strategic Vision,” the operational capabilities and the effectiveness of the Belgian Land Forces will thus be reinforced while, at the same time, building a more European defense (bottom up). "

    1. This is surprising to me given that most of the vehicles they will replace are very recent and can't have been worked hard. If wiki is to be believed these 477 vehicles will replace 545 pandurs dingos and piranha 3s. Belgium retired its only land based SAMs, Mistrals, last year.

  6. Yes, but at the moment they are purchasing 34 F-35 for no more rational reason. That is a whole lot more school renovations than leasing 6-8 early model Rafales and their supporting infrastructure.

  7. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. There's a "Rahmennationenkonzept" (I don't know the english term) - a concept of larger allies providing frameworks into which smaller allies integrate their forces up to brigade size, and contribute to above-brigade staffs.

      I wrote about something similar yet more radical in Nov 2015.

    2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  8. Can't agree on the F-35s. Totally agree on more US armor/equipment to Europe.
    Belgium is Second echelon compared to Poland, like Sweden to Finland. Or rater Rear echelon. Poles and Ukrainians have much better amount of armor and arty (the most important thing) - they will hold (no other chance). What they need is air cover and more helos. Their closest neighbor - Germany - is hmm.... No offense. Even not sure if it will join the fight. So many Schroeders. Still may ship some food and medical supplies right?
    So, if anyone wishes to carry the burden be it F-35 or anything else - they have my respect. It's much better then whining that 2% is very much and must include peacekeeping voyages.
    It would have been great if the Belgians would have added some more helos in proper numbers. Blackhawks or better Chinooks. US only. No NH-90s or other rubbish.
    Helos are very important as people seem to be fixated on various gaps - be it Fulda or Suvalki. You can't win being defensive. How many brigades are on the thousand of kms between Murmansk and Petrozavodsk? How one crosses that line? What will lie ahead?

    Lessons from Ukraine should be learned. Ukraine still stands due to vast amounts of armor and arty left form the USSR. They tried very hard to get rid of it and be naked just like most European NATO members still the USSR had left great numbers and actually saved Ukraine by them as numbers do matter.

    Which brings to the point if You don't have the numbers You must train and be familiar with what will available - and that is US gear. So every NATO member has to have at least a training company or better a battalion with Abrams MBTs and Bradleys IFVs. As they will be the only ones available during the war period. A destroyed Abrams still gives You a crew or part of it. A destroyed Leo gives You just more infantry as Germany has no stock and won't be able to replenish the loses. Hurts pride? Then ask US to run two training grounds for Abrams and Bradley crews including civilians that wish to do that.

    Which is the cecond main lesson form Ukraine - volunteers. An all NATO volunteer force is must. Totalwar it be. All gear & a weapons stored by volunteers at home. Within an hour or two the platoon meets at a local airfield and in several hours it will be already in the rear echelon. The number of airfields across Europe and available aircraft is a great advantage that should be used. As the guys are volunteers - no political meddling - a real QRF. This type of formations should be given 120mm mortars, ATGMs, mines. Once they land they can move on commandeered vehicles. Just like videos form Syria show us. They will help to hold the ground, giving the required time for the NATO wheels to start turning.

    1. I doubt that battlefield helicopters are survivable in face of active radar seeker missiles in area air defence units and fighters.

      Germany - I think participation in collective defence is de facto guaranteed.
      The questions are all about the time lag (days? weeks?) and about how well the armed forces are oriented towards collective defence. I criticised the (changing) status quo on both points a lot.

    2. Indeed, the helicopters are not survivable vs SAM and fighters. Be they attack or transport. Just like trucks can't survive machine guns, IFVs - ATGMs. Still You can't move without them. I stated transport helos as another great buy.
      Why? Cause they are expensive and every much needed as Europe should start doing it's part. Considering the great length of the possible front line a considerable amount of transport helos is a must.
      As for their survivability - how may fighters the enemy has? How many SAMs? How many they need to cover thousands of kilometers? Can they even properly cover this vastness?
      Sure helos will need fighter cover, sure be careful about SAMs. NOE all the way.
      Why helos? The road network is poor, forests, marshes, great distances. Railroads are the main logistic network. Which can be and will be taken down at the bridges. Vertical lift in these conditions may be a great advantage as on-time resupply. Plus the enemy has limited helicopter lift capacity and which has to be also noted a limited number of operational runways.

    3. Look at the supply throughput issue again. Helicopters are negligible in their transport capacity compared to the military heavy trucks.

      Helicopters usually make the logistical challenges greater with their kerosene guzzling and may at most help in a few select places. They're valuable for logistics in the mountains and useful for MEDEVAC/CASEVAC as well as some courier flights in rear areas, but no logistics solution in flatlands.

      And then there's the vulnerability of battlefield helicopters.

      "Considering the great length of the possible front line a considerable amount of transport helos is a must."
      That's a claim that would need a very long article to lay out an uninterrupted chain of facts and reasoning to support. This means the claim sounds like opinion, even though it's worded to sound like a fact.

    4. I didn't state attack helos. Ukraine proved that Su-25 attack aircraft (Georgia in 2008 too) and Mi-24 attack helos suffered heavy losses in the face of manpads on the battlefield. I advocated for transport ones.

      The line from Murmansk to Pskov and from Pskov to Grodno are flatlands? Brest-Pinsk-Gomel along the Belorus-Ukrainian border?
      Check Bryansk oblast, Pskov oblast, Smolensk oblast, Tver oblast, Rep of Karelia, Vologda oblast, Yaroslavl oblast, Kostroma oblast, Kaluga oblast, etc. Flatlands? Accessible terrain?
      I consider that ground being very restrictive. As for the great length - the active and reserve capacity today are not that of the USSR. The longer the line the thinner the troops. Helos will be an advantage on that terrain with current opposing force numbers.
      Helos can move towed arty fast. Thats not just an advantage thats a requirement.

    5. Transport helos are turkey shoot targets for fighters. Modern AAMs can easily exceed 100 km and hit a helo at any altitude as long as its main rotor(s) is moving. Transport helos wouldn't don't even have a radar warning receiver.
      AWACS would be forced to command all transport and utility helos to land every time there's a Russian fighter within 150-200 km. Though AWACS may not be on station forward enough to do so, which means the helos would drop like flies.

      Transport helos are furthermore ridiculously expensive if you don't buy Russian Cold War types.

      Most of the terrains you mentioned are irrelevant for NATO (Finland is not in NATO and would seek to stay neutral even when the EU is at war and that's fine). NE Poland, Baltic states do matter.

      NATO only has to deal with mountaineous terrain in Slovakia, Romania and Turkey.

      Finally, helicopters can only move towed (crap) arty fast.

    6. What types of modern AAMs are actually fielded by the Russians and not displayed on shows?
      Yes, helos are expensive.
      Those terrains are not irrelevant. You can't win by defending Suvalki or holding 1/3 of Riga.
      Towed arty indeed is crap compared to SPGs. Yet having one or having none is a big difference.

    7. Why do you keep asking (rhetorical?) questions while already having an opinion?

      The Russians could wipe out hundreds of transport helicopters easily with 1980's vintage missiles technology. Transport helos are the easiest imaginable low altitude targets for SARH MRAAMs.

  9. The F-35s would be based on two bases. A few cruise missiles would keep them on the ground long enough for enemy fixed wing air to take them out in their hangars and shelters. Ditto most of the rest of NATOs air assets. I too am deeply suspicious of attack helo survivability on the modern battlefield - especially against fixed wing air. As for keeping weapons at home, there has been a trend against this for some time, largely due to a number of prominent mass shooting outrages. I think Norway ceased reservists having weapons at home about a decade ago. Belgium (I lived there) went from being a very gun friendly country (with a constitutional right to keep and bear) to a very gun unfriendly one in a succession of new measures from the 1980s onwards. If you had proposed reservists keeping weapons at home prior to 1990, I think it might have been accepted. Not now I'm afraid.

    1. To store many eggs in one basket as with a F-35 centric force seems very unwise to me.


    2. A few cruise missiles will only have a chance at a first sudden strike. So how many cruise missile platforms and cruise missiles are available to the opposing force to carry out such a mission? How many of the cruise missiles proved reliable? Naval ones? Air launched ones? is it true that some platforms are actually as close as within reach of NATO SPGs?
      As for the "fixed wing that will come and take F-35s in their hangars". How many strike platforms are available? How many of them can reach Belgium? What are the types of air to ground munitions that may be used? How do they compare to NATO ones? How accurate and obliterating such a strike might be?

      I based on the numbers and other info consider that neither the cruise missiles nor the fixed wing posses a serious threat. Sure thing the F-35s will get airborne and relocated after the hostilities start as will other planes in Europe.

      As for guns. Norway returned the right/obligation to store a weapon. Same goes to the Baltic states. As for mass shootings, now we have mass knife attacks and car/truck attacks. Anyone banned the cars? Having a weapon for citizens in countries that will have from one hour to three hours at best before the enemy will knock on the door is a must. There is just no other way. The Gerasimov doctrine/little green man just love unarmed pussified nations. As for all European volunteer force - weapon is also a must, maybe not the crew served )). Special laws and regulations may apply like special requirements for storage (safe plus alarm, etc). Such a force will give a chance for anyone from 18 to 50 and will not put additional stress on the reserves. The backbone of Ukrainian forces back in 2014 were guys in their 40s.
      Let's not also forget that in case of hostilities some people will just run to Australia booking all the flights. Some will just run blocking the roads. Some will attempt civil unrest as means to rob. Some will do the same on a payed basis and will attempt blocking troops, burning equipment, under green and world peace slogans. Plus everyone from the far right to the immigrants in most countries are honeycombed by the neo-soviets. Providing security in such conditions by helping the police and helping the army to deploy is another important task to the volunteer force. Without guns at hand they will not succeed as even the active and reserve personnel may be denied access to the barracks by the "protesters" (which will be armed).

    3. Look, maybe you should research the answers to your questions yourself before making up your mind about whether a F-35 buy is a better idea than spending on two (small) mechanised brigades instead.

      My argument was that air power can be deployed quickly over long distances. That's a natural fit for the Americans who also need little land power in the Pacific region. Belgium is fairly close to Eastern Europe, which means they could have mechanised ground forces that are relevant for the first and second week. Those would be very valuable. 35 F-35s that would not operate with external stores until red air defence and fighters are badly mauled would hardly be more relevant in the first weeks.

      About your volunteer light forces; that's kinda what the Poles are doing, and a reasonable, not fragile approach for Poland and the Baltic states.
      I see little to no reason why Belgium should adopt it. Belgians are far from NATO's frontier and their national identity is rather split. So they're a really poor fit for such an approach. Hence again the rapid land forces deployment angle of mine.

      Just in general, though; weekend warriors are a TERRIBLE fit for dealing with uncooperative citizens. Leave that to the cops and at most MP.

    4. Two brigades are better then none. Two brigades are better then 34 F-35s. Yet, Poles have more then that. So air support for them will be nice.
      Someone has to maul the red air defence and fighters?
      As for the two mech brigades why not make one an arty brigade?

    5. A proper artillery brigade is MUCH more expensive to equip, stock munitions for and in its training than a combined arms brigade.

      Besides, such artillery-heavy formations have hardly ever proved a good idea.

      1/3 of the Polish army would be lost in the first hours of conflict because of their stupid basing. The rest would be busy securing Warsaw, though the tanks of another third may be cut off from Warsaw because their military bridging is insufficient.

    6. 2014/2015 proved that arty brigades are a good idea. Ukraine increased the number of arty brigades since 2014 same applies to Russia. Russians even fielded older types from reserves.
      In 2014 Ukraine had 2 arty brigades and 1 MLRS brigade. Now it's 5 more for a total of 7 arty brigades, 1 MLRS brigade and 2 separate MLRS detachments.
      Each arty brigade is 4 arty battalions, 1 AT arty/ATGM battalion, 1 inf battalion.
      Poland is 40 mln people. Their will be enough infantry. Week edn warriors mayve. Same applied to Ukraine. All those in the trenches will need fires support. Lot's of it.
      Ukraine still exists not due to good will or diplomatic "victories" - it exists only cause inflicted heavy losses and showed that further advance will increase them. Most of the casualties above 80% - were caused by artillery.

    7. I don't see the logic of claiming that arty Bdes were a success in Ukraine given that no party has "won" the conflict yet.

      Besides, the warfare there is not really what we'd expect in collective defence. They've been fighting more like Spain 1937. There was at least one highly successful armoured raid early on to relieve a besieged force, and that was driven by concentrated mobile force (a tank battalion at the core, along with above-average infantry).

      Personally I'm not going that far to claim that division of labour should be like Poland provides infantry, Belgium supports them with artillery (for which they sure wouldn't buy enough munitions anyway).

      I prefer combined arms brigades that train as battalion battlegroups in peacetime and have friction minimised through training.

  10. Anonymous, I'm not sure anyone except the Russians have access to information on how many CMs they are stockpiling, but they are relatively cheap and launch platforms for them (even if they don't sneakily launch them from freight containers) are relatively abundant. If they attacked from a standing start as the Israelis did in 1967 it is very likely they would take out the runways on the two airfields on which the Belgians will put their F-35s (I wouldn't be surprised if that was reduced to one base). The remaining AD assets in W. Europe between Poland and Belgium are based on very few airfields and SAM sites. I am not even sure the Germans actually have PATRIOT deployed in peacetime. Even if the bases were untouched, how many interceptors could be surged in time and how many interceptions would they make? There is no reason to believe Russian CMs would be less reliable or accurate than western ones. If they were 50% less reliable they could use twice as many. Once the air defences, such as they are, were taken down, the Russians have plenty of aircraft that can reach Belgium from Western Russia (Google Tu-22M Backfire).

    As for gun control and reservists, the EU recently voted to essentially outright ban semiauto centrefires from civilian possession, to which Finland and Slovakia objected. Trust me, there is no great will here to allow part time soldiers to keep guns at home and there certainly wasn't when I lived in Belgium. Pussified? Maybe, but it's how it is I'm afraid.


  11. I should add that I'm a long term shooter and gun owner with a great interest in reserve forces. I'm not 'anti gun' even by US standards.

  12. Do you have a roadmap for fixing remaining NATO countries? In what order will you do them? After those are done what countries will you fix? Finland, Sweden?

    1. I will not continue the "How to Fix" series till all NATO countries are covered. I chose Belgium because it represents a somewhat different case than the previous ones. It's no great power, not Mediterranean, and is not Eastern European. The "How to Fix" blog posts may be considered templates; they are largely transferable to similar countries.

    2. You will not continue until all NATO countries are covered means what? Will you continue with other NATO countries that haven't been dealt with or what do you mean?

    3. OK, now I see the grammar problem here. Let's fix this with math:

      I will not continue the ("How to Fix" series till all NATO countries are covered).