COLOGNE, Germany – The U.S. government has cleared the sale of five P-8A maritime patrol aircraft to Germany, but Berlin is nowhere near ready to make a decision on the $1.8 billion purchase.
The March 12 notice by the Defense Security Cooperation about the planes and associated equipment comes after Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer announced in February that a replacement for Germany’s P-3 Orion was not financially tenable for the time being.
The German navy has said it urgently needs new aircraft, pointing to sophisticated Russian submarine capabilities in the Baltic and Nordic regions. The service favors the Boeing-made P-8 Poseidon.
The potential purchase is another example of a German service branch having a preference for an off-the-shelf product from the United States. It follows the Luftwaffe eyeing the F-35 as a replacement for the country’s Tornados. In the end, the ministry of defense decided against the Lockheed Martin-made plane to keep the defense-industrial pipeline working toward the French-German-Spanish Future Combat Air System, which is set to hit the skies in 2040.
Similar considerations are now at play with the Orion replacement. A separate German-French cooperative program, the Maritime Airborne Warfare System (MAWS), is expected to produce a new aircraft by 2035. The program is still in its infancy, though, and the German navy needs new planes by 2025.
Defense leaders here consider the U.S. offer for the Poseidon one of several potential gap fillers for the intervening ten-year period. But, as in the case of the F-35, some officials fear that the system would be too sophisticated and expensive in that role, potentially outshining the envisioned co-development with neighbor France.
Also in the running as part of a market survey by the ministry of defense is the Airbus-made C-295, but the plane is too small to carry the anti-submarine combat punch that the navy says it needs.
“Sonobuoys and the ability to launch torpedoes are in demand again at the northern flank,“ said Sebastian Bruns, a naval analyst at the University of Kiel in northern Germany. “The navy needs more than just eyes in the sky.“
He said Russia’s submarine-warfare capabilities are “exquisite,“ with European nations routinely losing track of Moscow’s vessels. The growing discipline of “seabed warfare,“ a kind of hide-and-seek game involving novel sensors or self-activating sleeper weapons that sit undetected on the ocean floor, is a fast-moving area of military research, Bruns added.
That’s why some in the German navy fear losing a key capability, potentially for good, if the defense ministry’s bridge solution towards MAWS lacks oomph, according to the analyst. “For German naval aviators, this is a make-or-break moment.“
French trade publication Mer et Marine reported this week that the French ministry of defense had offered Germany the possibility of leasing four of its Breguet Atlantic 2 aircraft, the type Paris wants to replace with the eventual MAWS aircraft.
The German and French defense departments did not immediately confirm the proposal. A German navy official said the service was aware of it through the press report.
Airbus is also waiting in the wings, having pitched an idea for an A320-type plane converted for the sub-hunting role.
Either way, there is currently no money budgeted for a new maritime patrol aircraft, a German ministry of defense spokeswoman told Defense News. The next step would be analyzing information about potential candidates and determining an order of preference for a decision later on, she said.
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. He is based in Cologne, Germany.