Military Wiki
Belgian Armed Forces
Armée belge / Belgisch leger
Belgische Armee
Coats of arms of Belgium Military Forces.svg
Coats of arms of Belgian Military Forces
Founded 1830
Service branches Land Component
Air Component
Naval Component
Medical Component
Commander-in-Chief King Philippe
Minister of Defence Pieter De Crem (CD&V)
Chief of Defence General Gerard Van Caelenberge
Military age 18 years of age (2005)
Active personnel 33,000 (ranked 76th)
Reserve personnel 6,500
Budget € 3.0 Billion (FY09)[1]
Percent of GDP 1.2% (FY09)
Related articles
Ranks Belgian military ranks

The Belgian Armed Forces (Dutch language: Belgisch leger

French language
Armée belge) is the national military of Belgium. The Belgian Armed Forces was established after Belgium became independent in October 1830. Since that time Belgian armed forces have fought in World War I, World War II, the Cold War (Korean War and army of occupation of the Federal Republic of Germany), Kosovo, Somalia and Afghanistan. The ParaCommando Brigade intervened several times in Central-Africa, for maintaining public order and evacuation of Belgian natives. The Armed Forces comprise four branches: the Land Component, the Air Component, the Naval Component and the Medical Component. It is active in Lebanon, Afghanistan and the Gulf of Aden.



When Belgium broke away from the Netherlands in 1830–31 it was initially expected that a neutral buffer state, with its borders guaranteed by France, Britain and Prussia, could avoid the need for an expensive permanent military force, relying instead on the part-time militia of the existing Garde Civique (Civil Guard). The need for a regular army was however soon acknowledged. The basis for recruitment was one of selective conscription under which exemptions could be purchased by obtaining substitutes.[2] In practice this meant that only about a quarter of each year's eligible intake actually served, with the burden falling on the poorer classes.

Early history

Soldiers of the Corps Expeditionnaire Belge during the Franco-Mexican War.

As part of the national policy of even-handed neutrality, the 19th century Belgian Army was deployed as an essentially defensive force in fortifications facing the Dutch, German and French borders. Mobilisation plans simply required reservists to report to their depots, without arrangements being made in advance for deployment in a particular direction or against a particular enemy. Recruitment difficulties caused the army to remain below its intended strength of 20,000 men, although new legislation in 1868 tightened the basis for conscription. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 required full mobilisation for nearly a year, a process which showed up serious training and structural weaknesses. The presence of Belgian forces in strength along the country's borders did however ensure that the combat at no time spilled over into Belgian territory.[3]

The Papal Army based in Rome included from 1860 a battalion-sized unit known as the Tirailleurs Franco-Belges (Franco-Belgian Sharpshooters). Recruited amongst volunteers from both countries, this became the Pontifical Zouaves in 1861 and fought as an allied force on the French side in 1871 during the Franco-Prussian War.[4]

In 1864 a Corps Expeditionnaire Belge (Belgian Expeditionary Corps) was raised for service in Mexico. Originally intended to serve as the Guard of the Belgian-born Empress Charlotte this 1,500 strong force was largely drawn from volunteers seconded from the Belgian Army. Known popularly as the Belgian Legion, it saw active service in Mexico as part of the Imperial forces, before returning to Belgium for disbandment in March 1867.[5]

From 1885 the Force Publique was established as the military garrison and police force in the Belgian Congo, then under the direct rule of King Leopold II. Initially led by a variety of European mercenaries, this colonial force was subsequently officered by Belgian regulars after 1908.

From December 1904 a small detachment of Belgian troops was permanently based in China as the "Guard of the Belgian Legation in Peking".[6]

Reforms undertaken in the early years of the 20th century included the abolition in 1909 of the system of drawing lots for the selection of the annual intake of conscripts. In 1913, compulsory and universal military service was established in Belgium. While this enabled actual peacetime strength to be increased to 33,000 men (increased to 120,500 on mobilisation), this was only sufficient to provide a basis for the creation of seven under-strength divisions (one of cavalry) plus artillery and fortress troops. The Belgian military was also affected by political and popular reliance on the supposedly certain protection of the country's internationally guaranteed neutrality. In the words of the historian Barbara W. Tuchman "the army was considered superfluous and slightly absurd".[7] Training and discipline were slack, equipment inadequate and even field uniforms were old fashioned and impractical.

Although improvements in the Belgian Army had been uneven during the 19th and early 20th centuries, one area of successful reform had been that of increasing the professionalism of the officer corps. The Royal Military Academy had been established in 1834, to be followed by the Ecole d'Application for technical training, and the Ecole de Guerre for staff training in 1868. The Belgian Army pioneered the practice of training a corps of finance, personnel and general administration specialist officers instead of leaving such functions to civil servants without military experience or inadequately prepared line officers. There was however a serious shortage of trained officers in the rapidly expanding army of 1913.[8]

Army in 1914

A Belgian machine gun team, 1914

On the eve of World War I, the Belgian Army comprised 19 infantry regiments (line, Chasseurs à pied, Grenadier and Carabinier), 10 cavalry (Guides, Lancers and Chasseurs à cheval) and 8 artillery (mounted, field and fortress). Support forces included engineers, gendarmerie, fortress troops, train and civil guards. The seven divisions of the Field Army were intended to provide a mobile force while the 65,000 fortress troops provided garrisons for the substantial forts constructed around Antwerp, Liège and Namur. These fortifications had been built in several stages beginning in 1859, though a number were still incompleted in 1914. While well-designed and built by 19th century standards, these fixed defences with their sunken artillery turrets had been rendered obsolete by recent advances in heavy siege artillery howitzers.[9]

World War I

Belgian carabiniers defending Liege in August 1914

At the start of World War I in August 1914, the Belgian armed forces were being restructured, due to this measure and the rapid occupation of Belgium only 20% of men were mobilised and incorporated into the armed forces. Ultimately, 350,000 men were incorporated into the Belgian armed forces, although one third of these did not participate directly in combat.

Invaded by surprise by the Imperial German Army, which was approximately 600,000 men strong, the small, ill-equipped, 117,000-strong Belgian army succeeded, for ten days, in holding the German army in front of Liège in 1914. They fought between the emplaced forts in the area and with their support.[10] This strategy was based on the Napoleonic concept of fighting the advance force and preventing a portion of the enemy forces joining the main body. At the time, the authorities and the public celebrated a determined Belgian resistance that the Germans did not expect. Indeed, the Belgians delayed the Germans and thus allowed the French armies to resist the German attacks which became the First Battle of the Marne.

For four years, under the command of King Albert I, the Belgian army guarded the important sector of the Allied left wing between Nieuwpoort, on the coast, and Ypres with the help of the forces of the Entente but did not participate in any of the major Allied offensives, which were deemed unnecessarily expensive in terms of cost and manpower by the King of the Belgians.

In 1916, a body of Belgian armoured cars were moved from the IJzer front to help the Russian Empire. The force found itself alongside an identical body sent by the British on the Eastern Front.[11]

In Africa a company-sized unit of Belgian colonial troops participated in the occupation of the German colony of Togoland, The Force Publique subsequently played a major role in the East African Campaign against German forces in German East Africa, providing over 12,000 askaris under Belgian officers for the Allied offensive of February 1916.[12] The most significant Belgian action was the capture of Tabora in September 1916, by a force under the command of General Charles Tombeur.

In Belgium, after four years of war, as of 26 May 1918, the army had 166,000 men of which 141,974 were combatants, forming twelve infantry divisions and one cavalry division. It had 129 aircraft and 952 guns of all calibres. From September, the Belgian army was involved in the Allied offensive until the final victory of 11 November 1918.

Between the Wars

Fort Eben-Emael was part of the Fortified Position of Liège and was completed in 1935

After the Armistice with Germany of 1918, the Belgian government sought to retain the strategy of 1914. Little effort was made to acquire tanks and aircraft for the Belgian armed forces, while instead the Government strengthened the fortifications of Liege and Antwerp. This was despite the fact that during World War I the forts had proved ineffective despite strong support from artillery and infantry. Until 1936, Belgium remained allied to France and the United Kingdom.

World War II

On 1 September 1939, when the Wehrmacht invaded Poland, King Leopold III of Belgium ordered a general mobilisation, in which 600,000 Belgians were mobilised. Despite warnings from the French and British governments, the king refused an alliance. Belgium was invaded, defeated, and occupied in an 18 Days' Campaign after 10 May 1940. Later, 163 Belgian troops were rescued during the Dunkirk evacuation, and Belgium's new navy, the Corps de Marine, only reformed in 1939, also participated.

After the defeat in 1940, significant numbers of Belgian soldiers and civilians escaped to Britain to join the Belgian forces in exile.[13] The Belgian government, under Hubert Pierlot, evacuated to London where it remained until the liberation in 1944.

Belgian soldiers formed the 1st Belgian Infantry Brigade (which also included an artillery battery of soldiers from Luxembourg) more often known as the Brigade Piron after its commanding officer, Jean-Baptiste Piron. The Brigade Piron was involved in the Normandy Invasion and the battles in France and the Netherlands until liberation.[14]

Belgian Commandos training in Britain, 1945

Belgians also served in British special forces units during the war, forming a troop of No.10 Commando which was involved in the Italian Campaign and Landings on Walcheren.[15] The British 5th Special Air Service (SAS) was entirely made up of Belgians.[16]

Two Belgian fighter units, the 349th and 350th Squadrons, were formed in the Royal Air Force, with over 400 pilots. The 350th Squadron alone claimed over 50 "kills" between its formation in November 1941 and the end of the war.[17]

Two corvettes and a group of minesweepers were also operated by the Belgians during the Battle of the Atlantic, numbering some 350 men by 1943.[18] Most military Belgian vessels of the Belgian navy were interned in Spain, except for the patrol craft P16, which managed to escape to the United Kingdom, where it became HMS Kernot.[19]

The Force Publique also participated in the East African Campaign and were instrumental to forcing the Italian surrender in Abyssinia.

Belgium in World War II
Strength of primary military organizations
Military Organization Period Total personnel over time
1940 Army May - June 1940 600,000 - 650,000
Free Belgian Forces 1940-1944 ca. 8,000
Belgian Army 1944-5 June 1944 - May 1945 ca. 100,000
SS volunteers April 1941 - May 1945 ca. 15,000
SS figures from Kenneth Estes A European Anabasis.

Post 1945

The harsh lessons of World War II made collective security a priority for Belgian foreign policy. In March 1948 Belgium signed the Treaty of Brussels, and then joined NATO in 1948. However the integration of the armed forces into NATO did not begin until after the Korean War, to which Belgium (in co-operation with Luxembourg) sent a detachment known as the Belgian United Nations Command. Later Belgium contributed a corps to NATO's Northern Army Group. Defence expenditure grew along with the force size. In 1948 the army was 75,000 strong which grew to 150,000 by 1952.[20] A major defence review in 1952 set a target of three active and two reserve divisions, a 400-aircraft air force and a fifteen-ship navy. Forty anti-aircraft defence battalions were created, linked with radar and a centralised command-and-control system.

As a safeguard against Belgium being invaded again, two major bases, Kitona and Kamina, were established in the Belgian Congo. They were almost viewed as a 'national redoubt,' permitting the survival and rebuilding of forces if Belgium was again invaded.[21]

Following a change in government in 1954 conscript service was reduced to 18 months. The Belgian Army gained nuclear capability in the 1950s with Honest John missiles initially and then with nuclear-capable tube artillery. It also adopted the U.S. Pentomic organisation, but then switched to a triangular division structure by the early 1960s. Just after independence in the Congo, a Metropolitan Command (Cometro) was active to control the Belgian forces there.[22]

Current status

Since 2002, by a Royal Order issued by Albert II of Belgium the three independent armed forces were merged into one unified structure and organised with four components which consisted of about 47,000 active troops. They are structured as follow:

  1. Land Component, previously known as the Land Force (Force Terrestre / Landmacht / Heer);
  2. Air Component, previously known as the Air Force (Force Aérienne / Luchtmacht / Luftmacht);
  3. Marine Component, previously known as the Naval Force (Force Navale / Zeemacht / Seemacht),
  4. Medical Component, previously known as the Medical Service (Service Médicale / Medische dienst / Sanitätsdienst).

The budget of €3.4 billion is divided amongst the four components as follows:[23]

  • 63% is spent on salaries
  • 25% is spent on equipment maintenance
  • 12% is spent on new investments

The operational commands of the components (COMOPSLAND, COMOPSAIR, COMOPSNAV and COMOPSMED) are subordinate to the Staff Department for Operations and Training of the Ministry of Defence, which is headed by the Assistant Chief of Staff Operations and Training (ACOS Ops & Trg), and to the Chief of Defence (CHOD). Another command is the Assistant Chief of Staff Intelligence and Security, which consists of the military intelligence (ADIV - SGRS).

Belgian Defence bases are guarded by Regimental Police (Land Component), Force Protection (Air Component) and Service for Protection of Quarters (Naval Component).

Belgium, which is a member of the NATO and the EU, is currently restructuring its armed forces to be able to faster respond to humanitarian crises or disasters occurring in the world (peacekeeping).[citation needed] In order to do so, the Belgian Land Component is currently phasing out all tracked vehicles in favour of wheeled vehicles. Examples are the new MOWAG Piranha and Dingo 2 vehicles currently bought to replace vehicles such as the Leopard 1A5BE. In addition, the Air Component is buying new aircraft such as the Airbus A400M, NHI NH90 to accompany other aircraft for humanitarian missions such as the Agusta 109 and Alouette 3 helicopters. The transition will be complete by 2015.

Due to Belgium's often-complicated politics, restructuring has led to decisions seen by some as illogical, such as the decision to mount the (very uncommon) CMI 90 mm cannon on the Piranha 3 (munition is very scarce and only made by a handful of manufacturers; it will probably be supplied by Mécar).[24][25] Finally, other controversies have arisen around the relocation of Belgium’s ‘cavalry school´.

The Belgian Land, Air, and Medical Components all use the same military ranks. The Naval Component's ranks are unique in the Belgian Defence.

Land Component

Belgian soldiers during an exercise

Belgian Grenadiers at a memorial service

The Belgian Land Component is the Ground Arm of the Belgian Defence. It currently has 20,100 soldiers and 10,000 civilian staff. The Land Component Commander (LCC) is Major-General Hubert DE VOS.

The Land Component consists of one staff (COMOPSLAND), two brigades and several support units.

The Light Brigade is used for rapid interventions by air or sea, on foot or with light vehicles. The men in the brigade are all qualified Paratrooper and Commando personnel, except for the light infantry battalion.

- Light Brigade Command

- Light infantry battalion (12e/13e Line)

- 2 ParaCommando battalions (2 Commando/3 Para)

- Special forces (Special Forces Group)

- 2 Training Centres (TrgC Para/TrgC Commando)

The Medium Brigade is used for actions where heavy firepower and vehicles are needed.

- Medium Brigade Command

- 4 heavy infantry battalions

The support units are:

- 2 engineer battalions (4 Gn/11 Gn)

- 1 artillery battalions (Bn Aie)

- 1 ISTAR battalion (Bn ISTAR)

- 3 logistic battalions (4 Log/18 Log/29 Log)

- 3 communication & information battalions (4 CIS/6 CIS/10 CIS)

There are three units with ParaCommando capicity: 11 Gn (one company frogmen and deminers), 6 CIS (one platoon radio-operators) and Bn Aie (one company field artillery).

The standard rifle is the FNC and the secondary weapon the FN GP. Almost all weapons currently in use by the Belgian Defence are made in Belgium.

Its equipment consists of:


  • Mowag Piranha (Armed Infantry Vehicle)
  • Pandur I (Recce Vehicle)
  • Dingo 2 (Multi Purpose Protected Vehicle)
  • Iveco LMV (Light Multirole Vehicle)
  • JCB Groundhog (used by ParaCommando units for medevac)
  • BMW R 1150 RT (Military Police motorcycle)
  • Unimog U1350L (allround utility vehicle)
  • Iveco 8T (troop transport truck)
  • Volkswagen Iltis (being phased out)

The Belgian Landcomponent also uses vans and other specialised vehicles for engineers, logistics, command, ...

Air Component

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An F-16 jet of the Belgian Air Component

The Belgian Air Component is the Air force of Belgium. The history of the Belgian Air Force began in 1910 when the Minister of War, General HELLEBOUT, decided after his first flight to acquire aeroplanes. On 5 May 1911 a Farman type 1910 was delivered, followed by a second on 24 May and two other in August of the same year. The Air Component Commander is Major-General Aviator Claude VAN DE VOORDE.

Its current aircraft are:

Fighter Aircraft:

Trainer Aircraft:


Transport Aircraft:

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles:

Naval Component

A Frigate of the Belgian Navy

The Belgian Naval Component is the naval arm of the Belgian military. Belgian naval ranks are unique within the Belgian Defence, corresponding to naval ranks worldwide. The Naval Component Commander is Rear-Admiral Michel HOFMAN.

It currently has 1,600 personnel and 20 vessels. Its current vessels are:



Support Vessels:

Patrol Boats:

  • BNS P902 Liberation (public relations)

Auxiliary Vessels:

  • BNS A958 Zenobe Gramme (training ship)
  • BNS A992 Alpa (royal yacht)
  • BNS A983 Quatuor (royal yacht)

Chiefs of Staff since 1958

  • Lieutenant-General Jacques de DIXMUDE (28.02.1958 – 30.11.1959)
  • Lieutenant-General Baron de CUMONT (09.12.1959 – 30.06.1963)
  • Lieutenant-General G. WAGNER (01.07.1963 – 31.03.1965)
  • Lieutenant-General V. DESSART (01.04.1965 – 31.03.1968)
  • Lieutenant-General Baron G. VIVARIO (01.04.1968 – 14.03.1972)
  • Lieutenant-General Aviator Albert CREKILLIE (15.03.1972 – 31.10.1979)
  • Lieutenant-General Willy GONTIER (01.11.1979 – 30.09.1982)
  • Lieutenant-General Baron Maurice GYSEMBERG (01.10.1982 – 21.07.1988)
  • Lieutenant-General José CHARLIER (22.07.1988 – 30.09.1995)
  • Vice-Admiral, then Admiral Willy HERTELEER (01.10.1995 – 31.12.2002)
  • General Aviator August VAN DAELE (01.01.2003 – 01.04.2009)
  • General Charles-Henri DELCOUR (02.04.2009 – 29.03.2012)
  • General Aviator Gerard VAN CAELENBERGE (13.07.2012 – )

Belgian Royal family in the Belgian Defence

Member Land Component Air Component Naval Component Medical Comp.
Ensign of Belgian Air Force.svg Naval Ensign of Belgium.svg Logo Composante Medicale (Armee Belge).svg
Prince Philippe of Belgium, Duke of Brabant cropped.jpg HM The King General General Admiral
HI&RH The Archduchess of Austria-Este Colonel (2003)
Prins Laurent van België.jpg HRH Prince Laurent Captain (2004)
Fr : Capitaine de Vaisseau
Nl : Kapitein-ter-zee
HI&RH Prince Amedeo Second Lieutenant (2007)
HI&RH Prince Joachim Ensign 2nd Class (2011)

See also


  1. Defence Expenditures of NATO Countries (1985–2009)
  2. John Keegan, page 55 "World Armies", ISBN 0 333 17236 1
  3. Barbara W. Tuchman, page 126 "The Guns of August", Constable and Co Ltd 1962
  4. Guy Derie, page 130 "Les Soldats de Leopold Ier et Leopold II", D 1986/0197/03 Bruxelles
  5. Guy Derie, page 124 "Les Soldats de Leopold Ier et Leopold II", D 1986/0197/03 Bruxelles
  6. Guy Derie, page 134 "Les Soldats de Leopold Ier et Leopold II", D 1986/0197/03 Bruxelles
  7. Barbara W. Tuchman, page 127 "The Guns of August", Constable and Co Ltd 1962
  8. R. Pawly & P. Lierneux, page 4 "The Belgian Army in World War I, ISBN 978 1 84603 448 0
  9. Courcelle, R. Pawly & P. Lierneux ; illustrated by P. (2009). The Belgian Army in World War I. Oxford: Osprey. pp. 4–6. ISBN 9781846038938. 
  10. Carl Pepin. "the invasion of Belgium". First World War (1902–1932). 
  11. (English) "Belgian Armored Cars in Russia". Retrieved 17 February 2011. 
  12. Peter Abbott, pages 19-21 "Armies in East Africa 1914-18", ISBN 1 84176 489 2
  13. "Units of the Belgian armed forces in the United Kingdom 1940–1945". Retrieved 27 February 2013. 
  14. "History of the Piron Brigade". Retrieved 15 December 2012. 
  15. "The Belgian Commando Troops, 1942–1945". Retrieved 4 March 2013. 
  16. "The Belgian SAS in WWII – A Very Short History". Retrieved 4 March 2013. 
  17. Ready, J. Lee (1985). Forgotten Allies: The Military Contribution of the Colonies, Exiled Governments, and Lesser Powers to the Allied Victory in World War II. Jefferson, N.C. u.a.: McFarland. p. 254. ISBN 978-0-89950-129-1. 
  18. Thomas, text by Nigel (1991). Foreign volunteers of the allied forces : 1939–45. London: Osprey. p. 17. ISBN 978-1-85532-136-6. 
  19. "HMS Kernot ex P16". Marine Belge. Retrieved 22 March 2013. 
  20. Isby and Kamps 1985, p.59
  21. David Isby and Charles Kamps Jr, 'Armies of NATO's Central Front,' Jane's Publishing Company, 1985, p.59. See also J. Temmerman, 'Le Congo: Reduit National Belge,' in Recueil d'etudes <<Congo 1955-1960>>, Academie royale des Sciences d'Outre-Mer (Bruxelles) pp.413–422 (1992)
  22. For Cometro and the metropolitain forces in the Congo at independence, see Louis-François Vanderstraeten, De la Force publique à l'Armee nationale congolaise : histoire d'une mutinerie : juillet 1960, Bruxelles : Académie Royale de Belgique ; Paris-Gembloux : Duculot, ©1985. ISBN 2-8031-0050-9, 88–96.
  23. Het Nieuwsblad; saturday 19, sunday 20 and monday 21 july 2008
  24. Belgian Army Restructuring controversies
  25. 90mm cannons very uncommon within armies of the developed world


 This article incorporates public domain material from the CIA World Factbook document "2005 edition".

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