COLOGNE, Germany — You can count on Germany to stir the pot of nuclear weapons sharing amid a global pandemic.
Such was the case in the past few days in a country that, armed with a superb health care system and a relatively low COVID-19 mortality rate, is seen as a model for managing the coronavirus crisis. But as of Sunday afternoon, the national security community was abuzz about a news report saying Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer effectively promised her U.S. counterpart that the ministry will buy 45 F-18 jets from Boeing.
The Der Spiegel report comes after news broke a few weeks ago that Berlin planned to acquire a mix of Airbus Eurofighter jets and Boeing F-18s for a smattering of air warfare jobs too demanding for the country’s aging Tornado fleet. Those jobs include flying conventional fighter-bomber missions, jamming enemy air defenses and carrying U.S. nuclear-tipped gravity bombs to hypothetical World War III targets somewhere eastward, per NATO’s so-called nuclear sharing deal.
According to Der Spiegel, Kramp-Karrenbauer sent U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper an email last week detailing her ministry’s wish to buy F-18s not only for the atomic mission — which comes as little surprise — but also for the electronic warfare role.
That reported promise stung Eurofighter advocates — even those who might begrudgingly accept an American product for the nuclear mission — because Airbus has plans for a souped-up jamming plane that it wants to see in Germany’s inventory.
In short, the Eurofighter crowd wants nothing more than Berlin to pick a pure Eurofighter fleet, arguing that the F-18′s shelf life is expiring in U.S. budget planning anyway, and that the Boeing jet is no closer to nuclear weapons certification than any other aircraft.
The German Defence Ministry has always signaled it will take into account industrial policy considerations in the Tornado-replacement question. So strongly did senior leaders believe in the idea of a keeping the European industrial base humming toward an eventual Franco-German aerial über-weapon that they nixed Lockheed Martin’s F-35 from the competition.
But keeping American aircraft entirely out of the loop has always seemed a nonstarter.
A ministry spokesman on Monday said Kramp-Karrenbauer’s missive to Esper was only meant to test the waters regarding America’s ability to start delivering those planes when the actual acquisition program gets underway in a few years.
A formal decision on replacing the Tornados had initially been expected by the end of March. But as the coronavirus crisis unfolded, that decision was pushed to after Easter.
Kramp-Karrenbauer is expected to announce her plans before the parliamentary Defence Committee on Wednesday, where she is likely to face opposition from lawmakers of the SPD coalition partner.
Until then, Germans have yet another puzzle to discuss, as an increasingly divisive debate unfolds here over reopening the country.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News.