Germany Might Join the F-35 Program
Officials in Berlin ask for more information on the Joint Strike Fighter as they try to replace their aging Tornado multi-role jets.
The German Air Force is reportedly looking for additional information about Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter as it moves ahead with plans to replace its aging Panavia Tornado multi-role combat aircraft no later than 2035. The stealthy F-35 would be just one of multiple options Germany might consider as it looks to modernize its military in general.
In May 2017, Germany’s air arm, also known as the Luftwaffe, asked the U.S. military for classified data on the Joint Strike Fighter, according to a report by Reuters. The letter highlighted the fact that German government and military officials had not yet decided on any particular plan to buy new warplanes of any kind.
Instead, the country’s Federal Ministry of Defense would "an in-depth evaluation of market available solutions, including the F-35, later this year," according to the document, which Reuters said it had reviewed. As such, “in order to understand [the] F-35's cutting-edge technologies, the German Air Force is requesting a classified brief of the F-35's capabilities in general and especially concerning sensor suites, information management and operational capabilities.”
Defense contractor Lockheed Martin already has a dozen international partners signed up to the Joint Strike Fighter program, not including the primary customer, the United States. If Germany ever decided to go ahead and purchase the F-35, they would find themselves in the company of their NATO allies in Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.
This would be an important consideration for Germany, as it would ease logistical concerns and improve the ability for its aircraft to operate with other members of the alliance. As part of the larger F-35 project, Lockheed Martin is working with the Netherlands and Italy in particular to build significant infrastructure within Europe to support the jets.
In October 2015, Dutch authorities announced that they would set up an engine test and maintenance facility , valued at between $90 and $100 million, to service its own future Joint Strike Fighters, as well as aircraft from Italy. Italy itself had previously arranged to operate the only final assembly and checkout facility, or FACO, on the continent. The first Italian F-35A rolled out of the plant in Cameri, Italy, in March 2015. The facility will also finish putting together Italian F-35B and Dutch F-35A aircraft, and could potentially do so for other future European partners.
This regional cooperation could become a political consideration, as well. The Tornados that Germany wants to replace came out of an Anglo-German-Italian partnership that began in the 1960s, which led to the country having a significant financial stake in the project and reaping the subsequent benefits of that industrial participation. Germany similarly joined in the development and manufacture of the advanced Eurofighter Typhoon. The country is still the registered location of the multi-national holding companies, Panavia and Eurofighter, associated with both projects.
Not surprisingly, given that experience, German authorities are considering a future fifth generation fighter jet from Airbus. Germany is also part of this major European aviation consortium, which itself has a stake in Eurofighter. In June 2016, Alberto Gutierrez, then head of the multi-national company’s Eurofighter and combat aircraft programs, told FlightGlobal the plan could include a combination of traditional aircraft and drones, with the pilotless planes acting as the core of this manned-unmanned team. In March 2017, Airbus Defence and Space chief executive Dirk Hoke confirmed the still largely conceptual project, known as the Next Generation Weapons System (NGWS), was still moving ahead, according to German business daily Handelsblatt.
“We are currently putting together pre-design studies to show what such an aircraft could look like,” Hoke said. He insisted the future design would include “far-reaching new technical qualities.”
At that time, Airbus expected France and Germany to be the two main drivers of the NGWS program. Unfortunately, that could cause potential conflicts in how the project might proceed. German officials want a new aircraft as early as 2025, when they want to start retiring the first of their approximately 85 remaining Tornados. Despite their own aging fleet of Mirage 2000s, French authorities have indicated they are willing to wait until as late as 2040 to have a new fighter jet ready for combat.
For Germany, this time frame may be unacceptable. The Luftwaffe could probably do with replacing its Tornados, an aircraft that went out of production in 1998, now. According to an official report Der Spiegal obtained in 2014, only 66 of the aircraft were actually flyable and the German air arm only had the resources to put 38 of them into combat in or outside of the country. The numbers for the service’s Typhoons weren’t much better, with only 42 of 109 being categorized as “deployable.” The next year, Deutsche Welle obtained a new report that showed the situation had gotten even worse.
This led to embarrassing incidents after six Tornados began flying reconnaissance missions from Incirlik Air Base in Turkey targeting ISIS terrorists, which started in January 2016. Later that month, German newspaper Das Bild reported that an upgrade to the jets meant that the cockpit lighting was too bright, making night flying impossible. The terrorists had long before been making significant movements at night in an attempt to try and avoid detection. Then in November 2016, two of planes touched down at the main airport in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, after an apparent in-flight emergency. After a subsequent inspection, German officials deemed the aircraft airworthy enough to return to Turkey, despite the fault in the fuel tank. As of February 2017, the detachment of Tornados had flown 2,300 flight hours in total during 750 sorties over Iraq and Syria.
On top of the need to prepare for far-flung missions like the fight against ISIS, the German military is generally looking to improve its capabilities because of renewed threats closer to home. Since Russia seized Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 and began taking an increasingly revanchist stance toward NATO, officials in Berlin have found a need to reorient their defense policies. For more than two decades, the Bundeswehr had been slowly shrinking as the apparent threat of a major conflict in Europe appeared to subside after the final collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
German military spending grew by two billion Euros in 2017 to a total of 37 billion Euros, with that figure expected to reach more than 39 billion Euros by 2020. The country renewed its commitment to meeting NATO’s expectation of members paying at least two percent of their GDP on defense. “We're moving in the right direction, but we can't do it in one year,” German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen told German television network NTV in January 2017. Beyond basic funding, difficulty in attracting new recruits and limited modernization since the end of the Cold War slowed down the process of growing the country’s military, as well. How Germany would pay for the F-35, or any other new warplane, is likely to be a major consideration in how the country proceeds with replacing the Tornados. Unnamed sources told Reuters that German officials had been watching the steadily decreasing unit cost for Joint Strike Fighters before asking for the additional information.
And then there’s just the matter of political disagreement over what the existing and future forces should be setup to do. Germany has long been a contributor to humanitarian and peacekeeping missions, and by 2017 had security forces working in locales as diverse as Kovoso, Iraq, Lebanon, Mali, and Somalia. “Germany spends 30 to 40 billion euros on supporting refugees because of military interventions years ago that went wrong,” German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel declared in January 2017. So, the increased defense spending “should be considered a contribution to stabilization," he argued.
To maintain a credible defense against potential opponents such as the Russians, especially if it intends to continue participating in NATO’s Baltic Air Policing mission, Germany will undoubtedly want to replace its Tornados as soon as possible and otherwise improve the Luftwaffe’s overall readiness. The United States and those foreign partners who have already joined the program have poured resources into the often criticized and controversial Joint Strike Fighter specifically to counter exactly these kinds of developments. In April 2017, the U.S. Air Force sent eight F-35As to the United Kingdom in what could only be seen as a message to both critics and the Russians. Surprise visits to Estonia and Bulgaria only reinforced this viewpoint.
A fifth generation fighter such as the F-35 or Airbus’ notional NGWS could be an important capability for the Luftwaffe to have, especially in light of Russia’s ever-improving long-range radars, surface-to-air missiles, and advanced fighter aircraft. However, it’s entirely possible the country’s priorities could change again after federal elections in September 2017, in which the potential for Russian influence and interference has become a significant factor.
Beyond just trying to figure out how and when to replace the Tornados, whether it be with the F-35 or something else, officials in Berlin will probably have to decide on what role they want their military play in Europe and the world in general first.
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