Belgium resumes F-16 operations after engine woes

The Belgian Air Component (BAC) has gradually resumed the operation of its F-16AM/BM (MLU) Fighting Falcon fleet, after it was grounded earlier this month due to the discovery of a defect with the multi-role fighter’s powerplant.

Belgium’s defence ministry revealed on March 19 that the BAC’s detachment of F-16AMs in Jordan, which are supporting Operation Desert Fox (ODF), had returned to active operations on March 14. ODF is Belgium’s mission to support the wider coalition fight against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, otherwise known as Daesh) in the Middle East.

F-16AM (MLU) Fighting Falcon [Belgian MOD]
The Belgian Air Component has resumed operations with its ageing Lockheed Martin F-16AM/BM (MLU) Fighting Falcon multi-role fighter fleet after it was grounded on March 9, 2021, due to a defect found with the aircraft's powerplant. Belgian Ministry of Defence (MOD)

While efforts have been made to return Belgium’s entire F-16 fleet to operational status, the aircraft involved with this current ODF deployment were prioritised to allow the continuation of the mission. This resulted in the first operational missions for Belgium’s new Airbus A400M Atlas tactical transport fleet, which delivered new engines to the Jordan-based detachment. Technicians attached to the deployment then replaced the F-16’s existing engines with powerplants that had already been repaired in Belgium.

The ministry also noted that BAC-operated F-16s once again became responsible for conducting quick reaction alert (QRA) duties over the airspace of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg (BENELUX) from 0900hrs on March 19. Following the grounding decision on March 9, F-16s from the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) had taken over this responsibility on a temporary basis – with the move lasting just ten days.

Since 2017, the two nations have shared QRA duties, protecting the BENELUX airspace on a four-month rotational basis. This is normally covered by two armed aircraft, which are on standby to respond to airspace violations within their area of responsibility (AoR) on a 24/7 basis.

A400M Atlas [Belgian MOD]
Belgium's new and growing fleet of Airbus A400M Atlas heavy-lift tactical transports were used to deliver replacement engines for the BAC-operated F-16AMs that are operating in Jordan to support Operation Desert Fox. This marked the first operational mission for Belgium's A400M fleet. Belgian MOD 

Belgium grounded its sole fixed-wing combat aircraft fleet after a Florennes-based F-16AM (serial FA-118, c/n 6H-118) suffered a ‘nozzle burn through’ during take-off on February 11. A ‘nozzle burn through’ incident is a phenomenon where pieces of the engine’s exhaust nozzle begin to melt and disintegrate due to high temperatures.”

After immediately landing, the aircraft’s Pratt & Whitney F100 afterburning turbofan engine was removed and sent to the Patria Belgium Engine Center (BEC) – which maintains the powerplant – for inspection. The investigation revealed that the problem centred around a hinge pin, with the BAC adding that “an ongoing check of the entire fleet shows that a significant number of engines show similar phenomena.”

AirForces Intelligence data states that Belgium operates a well-matured fleet of 40 single-seat Lockheed Martin F-16AM (MLU) Fighting Falcons and nine two-seat examples of the F-16BM (MLU) variant. The fleet entered operational service in the early-1980s, before undergoing a mid-life upgrade (MLU) process in the late-1990s.

F-16AM (MLU) Fighting Falcon [Belgian MOD]
The grounding of Belgium's F-16AM/BM fleet meant that the Royal Netherlands Air Force had to absorb the nation's ongoing commitment to protecting the skies over the BENELUX region. On March 19, 2021 - ten days after the grounding order was issued - Belgian F-16s returned to this role. Belgian MOD

Belgium’s F-16AM/BMs will be replaced in operational service by a 34-strong fleet of Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II fifth-generation multi-role stealth fighters. Initial deliveries of the new type are scheduled to begin in 2023, with the first examples being operated from Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, for air/ground crew training purposes. Belgium’s first F-35As are expected to arrive at Florennes Air Base in the nation’s Namur province from 2025, where they will be operated under 2 Wing.