An official statement from the German Ministry of Defense says it is now leaning toward purchasing Eurofighter Typhoon multi-role fighter jets rather than F-35 Joint Strike Fighters as replacements for the country’s Cold War-era Panavia Tornado swing-wing combat aircraft, and could consider Boeing's F-15 Eagle or F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, as well. The significant shift away from Lockheed Martin’s fifth generation aircraft could be a reflection of a variety of factors, including the stealthy jet’s long term cost, security concerns regarding the cloud-based Autonomic Logistics Information System computer network that supports the jets, and cool relations between Germany and the United States.
Deputy Defense Minister Ralf Brauksiepe explained the ministry’s official position in response to a letter for more information about the replacement program from an unnamed Green Party legislator, which Reuters obtained. In addition to the Typhoon and the F-35, an unspecified version of Boeing’s F-15 Eagle and that firm’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet are also in the mix of potential options.
In November 2017, a senior German defense official, speaking anonymously, described the F-35 as the country’s “preferred choice” to replace the Tornados. “The indicated view of the inspector of the air force that the F-35 Lightning II is an especially suitable successor to the Tornado system is not the position of the federal government,” Brauksiepe wrote in the letter, according to Reuters.
The unnamed official had previously indicated that only the F-35 could meet the requirements of the German Air Force, or Luftwaffe, because of its low-observable characteristics and that it was already in production. Germany wants to have completely replaced all of its approximately 85 Tornados by 2030, a process that it expects to take at least five years.
The Luftwaffe could easily need those replacements earlier, though. In 2015, Deutsche Welle
reported that only approximately 30 Tornados were actually combat ready at any one time. A year earlier, Der Spiegal
obtained a report that said fewer than 70 percent were even airworthy at all. Considering the relatively small fleet size, this doesn't appear to be caused in part by a programmatic decision or one based on large-scale deployment needs, but primarily by years of shrinking German defense budgets following the end of the Cold War.
Replacing the Tornados with Typhoons could make a significant amount of sense for Germany, which already operates multiple squadrons of the type. In November 2017, the Luftwaffe sent six of them to Israel to join that country's Blue Flag exercise for the first time ever.
Eurofighter, a consortium that includes portions of Airbus Defense in Germany and Spain, BAE Systems in the United Kingdom, and Leonardo in Italy, manage the development and production of the fighter jets. A major sale to the Luftwaffe could be worth billions to the group and help keep the production line running and its employees at work, an important domestic consideration for the Germans. On Dec. 11, 2017, Qatar signed a deal for 24 of its own Eurofighters, making it the ninth country to buy the type.
This alone could mean significant lower training and maintenance costs, not to mention saving on large infrastructure needs, compared to acquiring an entirely new type of aircraft, and especially one with high secondary cost demands like the F-35. It also could make it easier for the Luftwaffe to quickly absorb the new aircraft into its inventory. Existing Typhoon variants are already compatible with the targeting and reconnaissance pods the Luftwaffe uses on the Tornado, as well as many of its weapons. Saab has already tested the Taurus KEPD 350 cruise missile on one of the fourth generation fighter jets, as well, giving it a relatively long-range standoff attack capability.
The Swedish firm makes the weapon in cooperation with European missile consortium MBDA. MBDA is also working to integrate the dual-mode version of the Brimstone air-to-surface missile, which features both laser- and millimeter wave radar guidance options and can attack moving targets, onto the U.K. Royal Air Force’s Typhoons.
New Eurofighters could also take on multiple roles and offer an expanded capability in air-to-air combat if they include the CAPTOR-E active electronically scanned array radar, a relatively simple and effective way to extend the jet's ability to spot and track hostile aerial threats. New versions could also sport the PIRATEIRST, an infrared search and tracking system Germany left off its existing fleet for cost saving concerns. Germany has already expressed an interest in integrating both CAPTOR-E and the MBDA Meteor advanced beyond visual range air-to-air missile into its existing Typhoons, which would result in a massive leap in air combat capability.
The Luftwaffe could require special modifications to their new aircraft in order for them to take over the Tornado’s nuclear strike mission. At present, the United States maintains a stockpile of B61 nuclear gravity bombs in Germany that it could release to German units in a crisis. The Tornados are the only German aircraft that can carry these weapons at present.
But Germany, like many of its fellow NATO members, is increasingly concerned by Russia’s foreign policy, which has only become more revanchist since the Kremlin seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014. In spite of international criticism and economic sanctions, Moscow has only deepened its support for separatists fighting the government in Kiev and stepped up harassment of European countries opposed to its policies, including with electronic warfare and cyber attacks.
And what Typhoon lacks is the low-observable features of the F-35. The unnamed German defense official had insisted in their November 2017 comments that the Luftwaffe needed a stealth aircraft to match the increasing capability of foreign air defense systems, particularly Russian-made designs.
The Kremlin's deployment of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems
to its Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic Sea mean parts of Germany are already within range of these weapons at all times. That the Joint Strike Fighter was the only western fifth generation aircraft in series production, another key requirement for any aircraft destined to replace the aging Tornados, made it appear to be the only available choice.
At the same time, though, the costs of purchasing, maintaining, and operating a fifth generation aircraft have also proven to be high and the F-35 continues to struggle through its development. As of October 2017, more than 20 percent American F-35s across were non-flyable due to a lack of spare parts alone, according to the Government Accountability Office, a U.S. Congress watchdog agency.
On top of that, there have been growing concerns among many partners to the Joint Strike Fighter program outside the United States that the Autonomic Logistics Information System, or ALIS, is multi-faceted security threat. In addition to harvesting data about the aircraft’s components and whether they need replacement or other maintenance, the computer system acts as a loader for the aircraft’s operational data packages, which would include information on flight plans, potential threats and hazards, and other mission details. It’s also the port that ground crews would use to install patches to the jet’s software.
There is a fear that this essential and centralized system could be vulnerable to cyber attacks, with an enemy potentially being able to feed in viruses that break or confuse the system, which in turn could effective ground the jets during a crisis. Various countries have also become worried that the cloud-based network is collecting sensitive sovereign data and sending it straight to Lockheed Martin.
Australia, Italy, and Norway are all pushing for filters that would allow them to at least limit what does and doesn’t get into the ground-based portion of the ALIS system. Only Israel has been able to secure the right to install its own software packages separate from the network.
So it could be the opinion of the German Defense Ministry that the F-35 is not a particularly realistic option to replace the Tornados, despite being in production. This would leave only advanced fourth generation designs, like the others that Deputy Defense Minister Brauksiepe mentioned in his letter.
In July 2017, Germany and France did
announced plans to make their own stealthy jet, but as we at The War Zone have noted repeatedly, development cycles have proven to be lengthy and often exorbitantly expensive. It’s entirely unclear at this point when any aircraft the two countries jointly design will be available, or what form it might take, if it even comes to fruition at all. France infamously bailed out of the Typhoon program in 1985 and decided to pursue its own design, which became the Dassault Rafale.
There may also be a political dimension. The relationship between U.S. President Donald Trump and Angela Merkel, who just won a fourth term as Germany’s Chancellor, has been visibly cool.
The two have publicly sparred over a number of issues and Merkel has come out vocally against the Trump Administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. At the same time, her Christian Democrat (CDU) and Christian Social Union (CSU) political bloc failed to secure a majority in the last federal election and have so far been unable to form a majority coalition with other parties.
Their traditional partner, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has refused to join the coalition this time, leaving a mix of leftist parties, including the Greens, and the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) as the only other options. Merkel has refused to work with AfD on principle.
Domestic politics had already been a major issue in defense spending. In January 2017, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a member of the SPD, argued that any additional defense spending should be focused on supporting humanitarian interventions and related activities.
“Germany spends 30 to 40 billion Euros on supporting refugees because of military interventions years ago that went wrong,” he said. A larger defense budget “should be considered a contribution to stabilization.”
It could be increasingly politically untenable to entertain the idea of buying the F-35, or even Boeing’s F-15 or F/A-18E/F, both due to the Trump Administration and the domestic political landscape. With other European options, such as France’s Rafale and Sweden’s Gripen E also apparently not in the running, at least based on information available at this time, there may now be no other easily realizable option than the Typhoon.
Germany could buy more Typhoons and push forward with a new unmanned combat air vehicle (UCAV) program with France instead of a manned fifth generation fighter. Doing so would cost far less than pursuing a high-end, clean-sheet fighter design, and these aircraft could pickup for the Typhoon's shortfalls in the coming decades, as the Typhoon becomes increasingly less survivable. Namely these advanced drones could be used for deep strike, reconnaissance, and suppression of enemy air defenses, as well as manned-unmanned teaming, working as the automated wingman for Typhoon pilots.
A UCAV would also feature a far stealthier, broadband low-observable overall design compared to the F-35. Also, such an initiative would help secure Germany a foothold on the future of air combat, which will be increasingly less likely to have humans sitting at flight controls.
In the meantime, Germany could enjoy the large efficiencies of operating a single multi-role manned tactical fast jet fleet, as well as the aforementioned upgrades in combat power these jets, old and new, would feature. Standoff weaponry could be procured in the near-term for the most perilous of strike missions.
On the other hand, if the political hurdles could be overcome, Super Hornets, and the latest version of the F-15 Strike Eagle in particular, could provide Germany with a power fighter capability. But considering the industrial benefits of just sticking with the Typhoon, not to mention all the other reasons laid out above, the introduction of either type seems quite doubtful.
Every twist and turn in this saga only means that Germany is getting closer to when it will need to have a replacement for the Tornados ready or risk losing the capability those units offer altogether. The Defense Ministry and the Luftwaffe will have to reach some sort of consensus to avoid any additional delays in the process.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Saab was part of BAE Systems. BAE Systems does have two subsidiaries in Sweden, but these firms are unrelated to Saab.
Contact the author: email@example.com