Germany Readying a Split Fighter Purchase for Tornado Replacement

A report in the German business newspaper Handelsblatt indicates that Germany has coalesced around a plan to replace its legacy fleet of 85-93 Panavia Tornado IDS combat aircraft with a split purchase of Eurofighter Typhoons, Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, and Boeing EA-18G Growlers. The buy would break down as follows: 90 Eurofighters, 30 Super Hornets, and 15 Growlers.

The Tornado IDS (Interdictor Strike) is used by the Luftwaffe as both a fighter and a bomber in the air interdiction and ground strike roles.  The Tornado fleet is declared to NATO as a Dual Capable Aircraft (DCA), meaning it may be tasked with the nuclear-delivery role utilizing the B61 nuclear gravity bomb. The U.S.-built bombs are stored in depots in NATO member countries across Europe (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey), which operate DCA-capable aircraft such as the Tornado or F-16. Under long-standing plans dating to the Cold War era, they would be released to the host country in the event of a nuclear conflict with the former Soviet Union – and now Russia.

The nuclear delivery mission is therefore seen as a critical component of Germany’s Tornado fleet as a NATO partner. Thus replacing the Tornado with a DCA mission-capable alternative is vital.

However, of the three platforms tapped to replace the Tornado, none are currently DCA certified, with the Super Hornet the only one more or less ready for approval to undertake the certification process for integrating the necessary weapons systems. The Eurofighter would require U.S. consent to undertake the integration work and would involve a much longer readiness timeline.

The nuclear strike role – seemingly an anachronism related to Cold War times – has suddenly re-emerged in importance as Russia  undertakes a more aggressive posture along Europe’s eastern borders and upgrades its nuclear arsenal in its Kaliningrad exclave with Iskander-M ballistic missiles.

The biggest issue for Germany is its determination to deviate from its other NATO allies tasked with the DCA fighter role, all of which (minus Turkey due to the S-400 related embargo) are moving toward the F-35 Lightning II fighter, a fighter slated to be certified for the B61 Mod 12 variant of the weapon in Block 4 standard software being deployed in the coming few years.

But Germany, which seeks to move forward alongside France and Spain on development of the next-generation Future Combat Air System (FCAS) project, balked at the prospect of an F-35 procurement, preferring to support European industry in general – and German industry in particular. The Tornado replacement issue fell within the larger Franco-German quest for more sovereign European defense capability.

As a result, the Tornado replacement emerged as a political affair, with the former German Air Force Chief Lt. Gen. Karl Muellner forced to retire in 2018 for his outspoken support of an F-35 purchase.

The procurement of Eurofighters provides the German Air Force with a familiar platform, as it already operates some 143 of the aircraft. The procurement also would meet the objective of government support for European and German defense industry.

The EA-18G Growlers, meanwhile, would provide a replacement for the electronic warfare mission-capable Tornado ECR variants. The German Air Force operates around 28 of these platforms.

Under current plans, Germany wants to begin a phased withdrawal of its Tornado fleet in 2025, around which time the newer fighters would ideally begin to arrive. In order to ensure a capability gap does not emerge, the Tornado fleet would continue to serve with the German Air Force until 2030, by which time the new fighters are to become operational.

The mixed fighter procurement reported in German media on March 26 must still be approved by Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. The additional costs required for servicing multiple platforms and undertaking the DCA certification process present challenges, but if the reports are correct the decision is made, and Germany is willing to bear these costs.

About Daniel Darling

Dan Darling is a senior analyst covering both the Europe and Asia-Pacific regions for Forecast International's International Military Markets group.

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