COLOGNE, Germany — Germany has joined a European Union-endorsed project aimed at intercepting a new generation of hypersonic missiles too fast for existing defensive systems.
Nudged by France, Berlin changed its status from an observer nation to a participant country in the so-called TWISTER effort on Oct. 24, a Defence Ministry spokesman confirmed to Defense News. The acronym is short for Timely Warning and Interception with Space-Based Theater Surveillance. EU officials included the effort in the November 2019 roster of projects under the bloc’s Permanent Structure Cooperation, or PESCO, scheme.
The project aims to field a space-based, early-warning sensor network and an interceptor moving at a velocity of more than Mach 5 at an altitude up to 100 kilometers sometime around 2030. That’s according to missile-maker MBDA, which has claimed the interceptor portion of the plan as a pet project.
The objectives of TWISTER “align with German interests,” the Defence Ministry spokesman said. Officials hope that a complementary research effort under the auspices of the European Defence Industrial Development Programme could help boost the project, he added. The spokesman declined to provide details.
Germany was absent from the initial partner countries in the French-led effort, which also includes Finland, the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. Only in recent weeks did the German flag appear alongside those of the other partners on the PESCO repository website.
MBDA envisions developing a new “endo-atmospheric interceptor [that] will address a wide range of threats including maneuvering ballistic missiles with intermediate ranges, hypersonic or high-supersonic cruise missiles, hypersonic gliders, anti-ship missiles and more conventional targets such as next-generation fighter aircraft,” the company website states. “This interceptor will integrate existing and future land and naval systems.”
News that Germany is joining plans on the air defense project comes at a time when the fate of the another supposed next-generation weapon, dubbed TLVS, hangs in the balance. According to a spokeswoman, Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer is expected to decide by the end of the year whether to proceed with the project or drop it.
The demise of TLVS would mean a heavy blow to the German defense procurement bureaucracy, as officials for years have held it up as a marquee trans-Atlantic project too important to fail. Boasting a 360-degree sensing and shooting capability, the system is meant to replace Germany’s aging Patriot fleet, made by Raytheon.
But after a year of negotiations and several offers by vendors Lockheed Martin and MBDA Deutschland, cost has emerged as a key obstacle, with the newspaper Handelsblatt recently citing an estimate as high as €13 billion (U.S. $16 billion) by 2030. In addition, some officials in Germany are irked by what they view as an overreliance on America’s technology transfer rules related to U.S. components in the TLVS suite, including the Lockheed-made PAC-3 MSE interceptor.
In a recent speech at the Bundeswehr University in Hamburg, Kramp-Karrenbauer built a case for terminating high-ticket projects eating into Germany’s defense budget. “I will not agree to the financing of major projects at the expense of basic equipment and resources for routine operations,” she said.
At the same time, she stressed the need for Germany to have a capability against hypersonic missiles, which the TLVS program is slated to offer at a later stage.
Retired Lt. Gen. Heinrich Brauß, a former NATO force planner and now an analyst with the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations, argued the program is needed to quickly close a capability gap for protecting European airspace. In particular, the requirement for a more capable weapon flows from NATO’s pledge last year to respond to Russia’s fielding of intermediate-range missiles capable of reaching Europe, he argued. The alliance only bolstered conventional defenses on the continent.
“Given the TLVS performance characteristics compared with the Patriot system, there should be no hesitation to approve the acquisition,” Brauß said.
Whatever Kramp-Karrenbauer may decide in December, Germany’s participation in the TWISTER project shows that the subject of missile defense remains on the minds of many nations in Europe, said Douglas Barrie, an analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“I think — putting aside the repeated delays on the TLVS decision-making — that what this reflects is the argument that within Europe’s main military nations there needs to be yet greater focus on layered ground-based air defense capable of being used to engage targets throughout the emerging threat spectrum,” he wrote in an email.
“TLVS and Twister are obviously at different stages of development and could be seen as providing complementary capabilities,” he added.
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.