After being a branch of the Belgian Army since 1909, carrying the name Compagnie des Ouvriers et Aérostiers, the Belgian Air Force became an independent force within the Belgian Armed Forces on the 15th of October 1946. Therefor the Belgian Air Force officially is 70 years old, even though it's one of the eldest air forces in Europe. Heavy restructuring within the armed forces into a single structure organization after the end of the Cold War hit the Belgian Air Force hard. Since 2002 the armed forces consist of four components: the Marine Component, Army Component, Medical Component and the Belgian Armed Forces Air Component (COMOPSAIR).


Prince Albert's (King of Belgium 1993-2013) interest in military use of aircraft was the main reason for the foundation of the Belgian Military Aviation (BMA) within the Belgian Army in 1909. In the spring of 1911, the new air force established its military aviation school with five pilots and received its first aircraft, the Aviatik Argus.
Belgium entered World War I (WWI) in August 1914. By then the BMA consisted of four squadrons which had the Henri Farman-Jero HF.3 aircraft in their inventory. During WWI the air force build up, depending mainly on French manufacturers. The BMA overall used over 20 different types of aircraft to fight the enemy. The Henri Dupont HD.1 formed the majority with more than 80 aircraft used. During the interwar period, the BMA tried to acquire aircraft from local production, such as those by Stampe et Vertongen and Renard. They also evaluated native designs like the ACAZ C.2 and LACAB GR.8, none of which entered mass production however. BMA therefor relied mostly on foreign designed aircraft. Examples of aircraft which it had in its inventory then are the Brequet 19 (French made light bomber and reconnaissance aircraft), Fokker F. VII (Dutch made transport aircraft) and Fiat CR. 42 (Italian made fighter).
At the start of WWII, the BMA had three active regiments, flying reconnaissance, fighter and bomber aircraft like the Renard R-31, the Hawker Hurricane and the Fairey Fox. These were all shot down or destroyed the by German Air Force (Luftwaffe) during the German invasion of May 1940, followed by the Belgian surrender on the 28th of May 1940. In exile the BMA operated as the Belgian Aviation Section within the British Royal Air Force, flying the Submarine Spitfire and Hawker Typhoon.

Cold War era

A little more than a year after WWII ended the Belgian government decided to restructure its armed forces after British example. Just like the army and navy, the BMA was organized into an autonomous force in October 1946. On the 15th of January 1949 the military aviation officially became known as the Belgian Air Force (BAF). The first aircraft in service of the BAF was the Auster AOP Mk. VI, used for air observation tasks.
The Cold War era started right after the WWII ended. The Cold War was mainly caused by differences in worldview and ideology, resulting the two blocs United States of America and the Soviet Union to become diametrically opposed. During this tense political context the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed in 1949, of which Belgium became one of its original members. As a full member, the BAF had to be equipped with modern air assets. Fast jets like the Gloster Meteor, Hawker Hunter F.4/F.6, Republic (R)F-84E/G/F, by the Belgian company SABCA in license built (T)F-104G and the Dassault Mirage V complemented or succeeded each other between the '50s and '70s. At its highpoint in 1955-1956 the BAF had over 600 aircraft in service. In 1979 the General Dynamics F-16A/B gradually replaced the F-104s and Mirage Vs. In total 160 F-16s were ordered. The first batch counted 116 aircraft, 96 single seat A-versions and 20 dual seated B-versions. In 1983 a follow up order counted 40 A- and 4 B-versions.

The BAF invested in an Elementary Flying School to train their future pilots in aircraft like the Stampe SV.4, North American T-6 Harvard/Texan, Lockheed T-33, Fouga Magister CM-170 and Dassault Alpha Jet before the pilots were licensed to fly the before mentioned advanced jets.
To fulfill its transport tasks, the BAF operated 13 kinds of light and heavy transport planes during the Cold War era, not included the currently still operational Lockheed C-130H. Traditionally the Belgians were active on the continent North Africa to protect its interests in their colony Belgian-Congo and the Belgian people living there. Those interests required to operate heavy transport planes, like the Douglas C-47 (1946-1976), Douglas DC-6 (1954-1971), the Fairchild C-119 Flying Boxcar (1952-1973) and the Airbus A310. The lighter transport aircraft, such as the Percival Pembroke and Hawker Siddeley HS.748 were used mostly within Europe.

The BAF operated two kinds of helicopters. The first helicopter was the Sikorsky HSS.1/S-58C, which came into service in 1961. Its successor, the Westland Seaking Mk. 48A, came into service in 1975. Both helicopters were mainly in use for Search and Rescue operations and transportation of personnel and VIPs. Other helicopters, like the Alouette II and III, operated with the army or navy during the Cold War era.

Restructuring and restraints

With the Berlin Wall tumbling down in 1989, the Cold War ended. This event lead to believes that from then on possible threats to affect NATO-members or NATO-interests were more to be expected from terrorism and civil wars, then from the Soviet Union. The Belgian government decided therefor to restructure her armed forces into a single structure organization. This restructuring resulted in the armed forces being organized in the four previously mentioned components since 2002, all under command of one Chief of Defense. The BAF became a part of the COMOPSAIR. Besides restructuring, budget cuts resulted in disbandment of several wings. The 3rd Tactical Wing based at Bierset AB was the first, in 1994. Later on the 1st Fighter Wing based at Beauvechain AB, the 9th Training Wing based at Saint Trond AB and the Elementary Flying School in Goetsenhoven AB followed. Also several aircraft and units were moved. The F-16s from Beauvechain AB moved to Kleine Brogel AB and Florennes AB. All the training aircraft, such as the Marchetti SF-260s, moved from Saint Trond AB and Goetsenhoven AB to Beauvechain AB.
Given the restraints and the expected need to replace the F-16 the Ministry of Defence (MoD) decided not to update all F-16s with the Mid Life Update program. This program started in 1998. Only 90 of 160 were updated and in total 25 were sold to Jordan in 2008 and 2009, delivered in 2011. The oldest F16s in the inventory are either stored at the former Weelde AB or scrapped.

To answer to MoDs assignment to work as efficiently as possible and still being able to participate in several (NATO-)operations, further restructuring became necessary in 2009. A victim of this decision was the Airbus A310, which was operated by the 15th Wing Air Transport at Melsbroek AB between 1997 and 2010 to fulfill the need for transportation of troops and goods over great distances. The three aircraft were replaced by one leased Airbus A330 for 2,000 hours per year until 2015.


The primary mission of COMOPSAIR is to defend the Belgian airspace and those of NATO allies and to participate in national defense, attack ground targets and carry out air reconnaissance under any conditions. During peacetime as well as during conflicts. In addition, it provides for air transport of troops and goods. As of 2009 the headquarters of the COMOPSAIR is located in Evere, near Brussels Airport. COMOPSAIR has several units.

Flying units

,eauvechain AB is the home of the 1st Wing. This unit operates two multirole helicopters: the A-109BA and the NH90TTH. The A-109 is in service since 1990 for anti-tank, tactical support, reconnaissance and medical evacuation. After the closure of Bierset AB in 2010, the 20 of initially 46 moved to Beauvechain AB. Here also the Tactical Transport Helicopter (TTH) version of the NH90 is based. The BAC has four TTHs, with an option on two more.

The Competence Center Air component (CC Air) is also based at Beauvechain AB. There the initial flight training for future pilots takes place with the SF-260M/D turbo prop trainer. For the next training phase, the BAC works together with the French Air Force and French Army. Depending on competences, training for F-16 pilots continues with the French Alpha Jet E and later on with the modernized BAC Alpha Jet 1B+ at the Belgian-French Alpha Jet School (AJetS) based at Cazaux AB, France. Transport pilots are trained at Avord AB in France, flying the Embrear EMB121 Xingu. After completing this phase III training the final phase takes place with the 15th Wing, where the pilots are trained on the aircraft they are assigned to. Finally, helicopter pilots receive their final training at Dax AB in France, flying the SA.341 Gazelle helicopter. Beauvechain AB also houses a large part of the BACs maintenance units. The A-109, SF-260, Alpha Jet and L-21C Piper Cub are maintained there.

The L-21C Piper Cub is used for supporting the Belgian Air Cadets during their glider training on the airfields Goetsenhoven and Jehonville and on Florennes AB. The cadets also train at Weelde airfield, but there a winch is used to get the gliders airborne. The Cubs were bought from the Royal Netherlands Air Force (RNLAF) during the mid '70s and are over 60 years old. During a major overhaul between 2000 and 2002 the L-21B received a new engine, new wings and new fuselage frames (designated as L-21C from then on), so the BACs five aircraft can fly for many years to come.

Besides for the 80th UAV Squadron, which operates unmanned the B-Hunter, Florennes AB is the home base of the 2nd Tactical Wing. Its 1st and 350th Squadron operate the F-16. The other half of the BACs F-16 fleet is based at Kleine Brogel AB with the 10th Tactical Wing (31st and 349th Squadron and the Operation Conversion Unit). Today the BAC has 58 Fighting Falcons in service.

Celebrating its 70th birthday in 2018, the 15th Wing Air Transport is the oldest wing within the BAC. It's based at the military parts of Brussels Airport called Melsbroek AB. The wing operates the C-130H for heavy transport tasks since 1972. The 11 aircraft will be replaced by seven Airbus A400Ms of which the first is expected in 2020. All old hangars and buildings will be replaced. The wing also operates the Embrear ERJ135/145, Falcon 20E-5 and Falcon 900B, all used to transport personnel or VIPs. By the end of 2016 both Falcon 20E-5s will be phased out and will not be replaced. Furthermore, the single Airbus A330 proved to be not as efficient as first thought. Therefor it was replaced for the smaller Airbus A321-231 in 2015, which again is leased from the Portuguese company HiFly.

The four NATO Frigate Helicopter (NFH) versions of the NH90 helicopters are based at Koksijde AB together with two former Belgian Navy SA-316B Alouette III helicopters (mostly liaison flights). The NH90NFH replaces the Seaking Mk 48 (mostly Search and Rescue). Two of five Seakings are withdrawn from service already, the last three will follow in 2018.

Non-flying units

Non-flying units within the BAC are the Air Traffic Control Center, the Meteorological Wing , Aviation Safety Directorate (advisor about flight safety) and the Control and Reporting Center (overall guarder and controller of the Belgian airspace). The ATCC is based in Semmerzake. The Meteo Wing at Beauvechain AB, as well as the ASD. The CRC is located in Glons, about 25 kilometers north of Liège. These units support all flying units and obviously are a vital link within the air forces chain of operations.


Besides all daily operations conducted to achieve the BACs goals, the component is active all over the world. From the extensive list there are enough examples worth mentioning, in which obviously the transport aircraft and the F-16s were used the most.
Belgium has a long history of colonies in Africa. One of these is Belgian-Congo, or the Democratic Republic of Congo as the country is known today. In 1960 the 15th Wing evacuated thousands of Belgians due to riots which were aimed by the Congolese towards Belgians. Again in Africa, the 15th Wing together with one C-130H-30 from the RNLAF, helped to evacuate refugees during the 1994 conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes in Rwanda and Burundi. The transport wing also supported in several humanitarian operations, for example after the major earthquakes in Algeria (2003) and Sumatra (2004).
Six F-16s were active between 2008 and 2015 in Afghanistan to fight against the Taliban regime, as well as the C-130Hs which transported personnel and goods back and forth. In 2011 four Belgian F-16s participated in what the United States of America called Operation Oddysey Dawn. Flying from Araxos, Greece, the BAC helped endorsing the no-fly zone during the rebellion in Libya against al-Qadhafi. In October 2015 the Belgian government decided that the BAC will be active in the Middle-East fighting terrorism coming from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) at least until July 2017. In June 2016 the BAC succeeded the Royal Netherlands Air Force by deploying six F-16s to the Middle-East.
Finally, the Dutch and Belgian MoDs and the ambassador of Luxembourg to the Netherlands recently signed an agreement on joint air policing. Starting mid-2017, the BAC and the RNLAF will take turns keeping two F-16s on Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) defending the airspace of all three Benelux countries. This agreement is comparable to the Joint Air Policing mission in which the air force participates in protecting the airspace of the Baltic states.

F-16 replacement

MoD is discussing momentarily which jet should replace the F-16 starting from 2023. The decision to choose between five candidates seems to be a difficult one.
Just like the Boeing F/A-18E/F, the Eurofighter is expensive to buy and maintain. Considering these aircraft are 20 years old, this decreases the chances for both to be the Belgian F-16s successor. Earlier SAAB offered their JAS 39C/D Gripen. In the meantime the company improved this fighter and offered the new E-version in 2016. This model is slightly bigger than previous versions and SAAB claims it has sensors that can detect modern aircraft with stealth invisibility to radar.
Further co-operation with the French Air Force could also be a possibility. The French however already operate their next generation jet fighter since 2001, being the Dassault Rafale. These choices obviously reduce the chance for joint ventures.
Today's favorite seems to be the Boeing F-35A Lightning II. But the question whether the new fighter should have the capability to carry nuclear weapons is not answered yet and withholds a final decision for now. Also the annual costs of maintenance are food for thought. For the last matter MoD investigates a co-operating structure with the Royal Netherlands Air Force. The Netherlands however already made their final choice for the F-35A.


One can say the Belgian Air Force or Air Component has an extensive history. Its 70 (or actually over a 100) years were commemorated and celebrated during the Belgian Air Force Days on the 25th and 26th of June, at Florennes AB. Besides several historical aircraft on the ground and in the air, the BAC showed it's a modern, professional and capable air force which is equipped with air assets that can face any challenge offered nationwide as well as global.

This article was also published in Lotnictwo Aviation International 12/2016. Global Air Power Media would like to thank Rob Loonstra and Harry Koning for supplying their photos to support our article.