In a Reversal, Germany Taps F-35A to Fill Nuclear Deterrent Role

As Germany begins its surprising about-face on matters pertaining to defense and security policy, it will undertake procurement of the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II new-generation combat aircraft to fill the air-launched nuclear weapon niche currently conducted by the aging fleet of Panavia Tornado IDS (Interdictor Strike) fighters.

The step announced by Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht on March 14 marks a reversal of the previous decision by Berlin to procure the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet to conduct the nuclear-delivery role currently charged to the Tornado fleet.

That decision followed a stretch of political football regarding the Tornado replacement and whether to continue fulfilling Berlin’s nuclear-sharing agreement commitment with the United States, which has been ongoing since the 1980s.

The German Air Force’s Tornado fleet is declared to NATO as a Dual Capable Aircraft, meaning it may be tasked with the nuclear-delivery role utilizing the B61 nuclear gravity bomb.

The Luftwaffe also operates the Tornado ECR (Electronic Combat and Reconnaissance) variant, fielding around 28 of these aircraft.

As part of a Ministry of Defense Air Capability Strategy Paper (released on January 19, 2016), the Tornado IDSs were to continue to serve with the Luftwaffe until 2030 (their withdrawal will begin in 2025), by which time an envisioned next-generation fighter would replace the Tornado fleet and become the frontline combat platform for the Luftwaffe.

The discussions for that future Tornado replacement initially involved the F-35, which the German Air Force reportedly favored.

Ultimately, political considerations overruled the idea of an F-35 purchase, with the previous coalition government of Chancellor Angela Merkel nixing the idea of the American-produced stealth fighter in favor of European industrial interests and a future next-generation air combat alternative jointly developed with France (with Spain joining at a later date) referred to as Future Combat Air System, or FCAS.

However, the lengthy developmental period required of an advanced air combat system meant that the point at which FCAS might be brought online simply did not synch with the retirement of the Tornado fleet.

Former Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer attempted to thread the needle on the Air Force’s requirements by announcing to the Bundestag on April 21, 2020, purchase plans calling for the acquisition of 93 Eurofighter Typhoons and 30 Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, plus 15 Boeing EF-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft.

The Eurofighter Typhoon purchase involves 55 units slated to replace the Tornado, plus 38 additional Typhoons covered under the Quadriga Project meant to phase out older Tranche 1 Eurofighters in the German Air Force fleet with newer models. This filled the German government’s requirement for bolstering local defense supply chains. Meanwhile, the 30 Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornets would fill the nuclear deterrent niche, while the EA-18G Growlers would provide a replacement for the electronic warfare mission-capable Tornado ECR variants.

Now with the decision to forego the Super Hornets and Growlers and instead purchase 35 F-35As, the next move will involve procuring around 15 additional Eurofighters that will be developed for electronic warfare missions.

The decision to procure the F-35A naturally raised questions as to the future of the FCAS project. German decisions to opt for American-sourced platforms to fill capability gaps while joint projects with France are in the budding stage are understandably viewed with concern in Paris. A joint development project regarding an airborne maritime patrol platform – referred to as MAWS (Maritime Airborne Warfare System) – is already under strain and may collapse following the German decision to purchase the Boeing P-8A Poseidon multimission maritime patrol aircraft to fill an interim capability gap.

Already, strains have begun showing in the Franco-German-Spanish program, with Dassault CEO Eric Trappier disclosing during an earnings call held on March 4 that he had pulled its engineers off the program until a workshare agreement with Germany’s Airbus and Spain’s Indra about Phase 1B of the project is reached. For its part, Airbus has argued that the workshare agreement as currently drafted is not equitable.

Nonetheless, German officials have been quick to reassure France that they are still on board with FCAS. Under pre-Ukraine conflict conditions, such a dual-track approach to pricy fighter acquisition programs might have proven unfeasible, but in light of the German government’s recent announcement of a special fund totaling EUR100 billion ($109 billion) meant to finance major procurements of advanced platforms, this should no longer be the case.

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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