The entrance of West Germany into NATO was the final step in integrating that nation into the defense system of Western Europe. It was also the final nail in the coffin as far as any possibility of a reunited Germany in the near future. For the next 35 years, East and West Germany came to symbolize the animosities of the Cold War. In 1990, Germany was finally reunified; the new German state remained a member of NATO.
Germany is Europe’s biggest economy, and the second biggest in the NATO alliance after the United States. Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said Germany would spend 2% of its economic output on defense by 2031, belatedly reaching the goal set by NATO leaders at a 2014 summit, months after Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.
Since the cold war, the USA placed stockpiles of nukes at German military bases as part of NATO mission. American nuclear bombs are stored in what is officially termed a “nuclear sharing agreement”. Germany’s Air Force is tasked with a special mission: deliver American nukes in the case of a nuclear strike. The Tornado aircraft has been the main delivery platform of the NATO nuke. But its Tornado fleet is rapidly nearing the end of its shelf life. So why has Germany yet to decide on a replacement?
American nukes on German soil
The location NATO nuke is a state secret. The German government has never officially confirmed the existence of the nuclear bombs in Büchel. The precise number of bombs stored in the underground vaults in the air base is thus unclear; estimates 20 B-61 warheads.
On the record, the Germany government only admits to being part of the sharing agreement, which dates back to the Cold War and NATO’s nuclear deterrence strategy aimed at keeping Soviet influence at bay.
In essence, it provides for member states of the military alliance without nuclear weapons to partake in planning and training for the use of nuclear weapons by NATO and, officials argue, for their views to be taken into account by nuclear-capable countries, including the US. Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy are all part of the sharing agreement.
Cost of keeping the Tornado fleet in the sky
But as Germany’s Tornado fleet is swiftly nearing the end of its shelf life, the cost of maintaining a fleet for the nuclear mission is skyrocketing. “The increase each year is brutally high,” as one parliamentarian put it.
An official document from the Ministry of Defense, which puts the expenditure for the Tornado fleet, including maintenance, procurement and development, at €502 million ($562 million) in 2018. This year, the figure is estimated to reach €629 million.
Now, parts for the remaining 85 airplanes have to be manufactured at great cost — or taken from jets that are undergoing maintenance and built into those about to be returned to the Air Force, leading to long delays in planes becoming airworthy again.
The situation is so dire that pilots are struggling to fulfill the quota of flight hours needed to maintain their license — and it is leading to a shortage of flightworthy planes needed for the nuclear sharing agreement and other missions.
Spare parts ‘more and more difficult’
In early December, in an imposing purpose-built hangar at an Airbus’ compound, civilian and military mechanics were busy doing maintenance on twenty disassembled Tornados — some of them were stripped of their varnish, a tangle of cables visible in their fuselage, their distinctive black nosecones propped beside them.
It is here, in the vast compound close to the sleepy Bavarian town of Manching, that the Air Forces’ Tornado fleet undergoes its routine maintenance.
Planes rotate in every three years — and most stay for roughly 350 days, according to Katharina Semmler-Schuler, head of Tornado Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul at Airbus Defence and Space Germany.
Spare parts, she said, were indeed a problem — the process of rotating them from one plane to the next added an extra 20 days to the maintenance, she said. “And it’s getting more and more difficult.”
Competing interests and heel-dragging
But despite the problems, Germany seems in no hurry to replace its fleet: While most other European countries have retired Tornado jets or are in the process of doing so, the German government has yet to decide which plane to replace it with.
The Tornado’s operational capability is only guaranteed until 2025. After that, the costs for extending the fleet for another five years could be as high as €13 billion. Once a deal has been reached, it could still take several years for the airplanes to be built and then finally reach the Air Force hangars.
The decision has pitted different strategic, political and industrial interests in Germany and abroad against each other, making it difficult to reach a consensus for a deal that could be as high as €10 billion.
Three options: F-35, F/A-18 or Eurofighter
Talk to politicians and Air Force officials, and they name three possible airplanes: The F-35, F/A-18 or Eurofighter Typhoon.
Many within the German Air Force prefer the American F-35 fighter jet produced by Lockheed Martin, the most modern airplane available on the market.
American planes would come with established logistics chains and programs to quickly train pilots, compared to training in Germany which can drag on for years.
The other European nuclear-sharing countries — Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy — have all opted for the F-35.
French pressure against American F-35 jets
But here this option seems to have been quietly dropped, in part due to French pressure: For Germany and France are in the early stages of developing a joint fighter plane — the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), which combines manned fighter jets with swarms of cloud-connected drones.
The French threatened to go FCAS alone, should Germany buy the modern American F-35 jets, which could make the government here less inclined to pour billions into the development of a possibly only slightly more state-of-the-art European jet that could take years, possibly decades, until it reaches the market.
In 2017, Lt. Gen. Karl Muellner, then the country’s air force chief, expressed a preference for Lockheed Martin’s F-35, but he was later fired reportedly for his outspoken support for the U.S. jet and Germany officially knocked the F-35 out of the competition last year.
In theory, Germany could add to its 138-strong fleet of Eurofighter jets, built by a European consortium owned by Germany, Spain, Italy and the United Kingdom. In Germany, the plane’s final assembly is also done in Manching, where the Tornados undergo their maintenance, and it is an important regional employer.
During a recent visit to Manching, Wolfgang Gammel, Vice President of Airbus Defence and Space, did his best to promote his company’s fighter jet to DW. “As long as there is a European option, Germany should buy European,” he stressed.
Airbus knows that many within the Air Force are unhappy with the quality of planes that were delivered in the past — but Gammel pointed to overly bureaucratic and drawn-out military procurement policies in Germany.
Much is at stake for the company, as a deal would come with lucrative maintenance contracts which would secure jobs for decades.
And the Eurofighter is an important component of FCAS. Should Germany decide to buy an American plane, Gammel fears, funding for research and development into upgrading the Eurofighter could be put on hold — or the entire project could be put off.
In his office decked out with model fighter planes, he told DW that the Eurofighter was perfectly capable of replacing the Tornado fleet, including its nuclear capacity.
It is a tricky issue, as the US reportedly told the German government that it would take much longer to certify the Eurofighter for its nuclear role than any American aircraft — possibly up to ten years. That would push it close to the Tornados’ end date.
Airbus maintains that Germany shouldn’t have given the Americans an option, but simply told them to certify the Eurofighter, rather than let them favor the American-produced plane.
There is one capability, however, that Gammel admits that his plane does not yet have: suppression of air defense (SEAD). The term refers to the ability to suppress or destroy enemy air defense systems, such as missiles or radar.
While Airbus recently announced that it had begun research into SEAD capabilities, it is still in its early stages and could take several years to develop.
The F-35 and the F/A-18 in its Growler version both have SEAD capabilities.
A compromise seems to have emerged to split the deal among Eurofighter, Super Hornet and the American F/A-18 Growler fighter jets, built by Boeing, opting for roughly 40 of each.
To keep Airbus happy, the maintenance of the American planes could be done in Manching.
But such a deal doesn’t resonate well with Gammler. He told DW that the compromise would endanger engineering and development skills that would only come with a decision to buy Eurofighters, while doing the maintenance of the F/A-18 would secure less than 100 blue-collar jobs.
Meanwhile, frustration is mounting among the German Air Force. “We just want a plane that does its job,” one Tornado pilot told DW worryingly. “Time is running out.”
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