Lockheed Martin rolls out first of F-35 fighter jets ordered by NATO member Belgium

Chris Hanoch/Lockheed Martin

The Belgian military got its first look at the F-35A Lightning II combat jets it ordered from Lockheed Martin on Sunday at the company’s facility in Fort Worth.

Belgium, a member of NATO and the European Union, ordered 34 of the fifth-generation fighter aircraft it says will enable it to fulfill its military obligations.

“The introduction of the F-35 within the Belgian Air Force will enable us to continue to fulfill all our missions in the coming decades, in cooperation with our allies and partners in NATO, the EU and beyond,” Chief of Defense for the Belgian Armed Forces Adm. Michel Hofman said.

Belgium already had Lockheed’s older model, the F-16, in use in its military, according to Lockheed Martin. The company said the F-35, which was designed to replace the F-16 and Fairchild Aircraft A-10, will allow the country to play a bigger role in cooperative missions with its allies.

The first aircraft, designated the AY-01, was rolled out Sunday for the ceremony, but is expected to be delivered at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona sometime in 2024, according to Lockheed.

Pilots from the United States and its allies, including NATO members like Belgium, train at Luke Air Force Base, as do maintenance personnel.

The F-35, widely regarded as one of the most advanced fighter aircraft to date and a key to assuring air superiority by the United States and its allies, operates from 31 bases around the globe, according to Lockheed Martain. More than 980 of the craft have been delivered to date.

Lt. Gen. Michael Schmidt, who serves as the executive officer for the F-35 Joint Program Office, described the purchase of 34 of the aircraft as a “significant achievement.”

“The growth of the F-35 in Europe strengthens international partnerships, interoperability and warfighting capability, and emphasizes the importance the aircraft provides as a deterrent against potential adversaries,” Schmidt said.

Lockheed Martin also expects the purchase of the F-35 to create new jobs for Belgians as the company looks to introduce some of its technology to the country’s industry.

What is the F-35?

Lockheed Martin’s Executive Vice President Greg Ulmer described the F-35 as having unmatched capabilities and technology allowing cooperation between allies that “will enable the Belgian Air Force to stay ahead of threats for decades to come.”

According to the U.S. Air Force, the F-35A Lightning II can achieve 9g speeds and has capabilities including stealth, long-range threat detection, long-range assaults on air or ground targets, and technology — much of which is classified — that allows military partners to more easily work together by securely sharing information with other military personnel, both airborne and ground-based forces.

The aircraft was designed to replace a litany of older models, including the F-16, A-10, F/A-18, AV-8B Harrier and the U.K.’s GR.7 and Sea Harrier.

The United States currently operates around 450 F-35s, but plans to acquire almost 2,500, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The cost of America’s F-35 program over its lifetime is forecast at $1.7 trillion, with around $1.3 trillion of that going to costs associated with operation and maintenance of the planes.

Lockheed Martain said that, to date, it has trained more than 2,250 pilots and 15,125 maintainers. The F-35 fleet has surpassed 768,000 cumulative flight hours.

The ceremony Sunday, attended by senior government and military leaders from the U.S. and Belgium, recognizes the first order of the fifth-generation combat jet by Belgium, but it isn’t the first American ally to place an order.

In total, the U.S. and 17 other American ally countries have either placed an order for the F-35 or already introduced it to their operations.

The F-35 has already been delivered to allied countries including the U.K., Australia, Israel, Italy, Japan, Norway and South Korea, according to Lockheed Martin. Pilots and maintainers from more than 10 nations are currently in training with the aircraft.