WASHINGTON – Germany will buy up to 35 copies of the U.S.-made F-35 fighter jet, reversing years-long plans that saw the fifth-generation warplane eliminated from consideration, defense leaders announced Monday.
The planes will take over by 2030 the niche, but crucial, nuclear-weapons mission from the aging fleet of Tornado aircraft, Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said during a joint statement with Air Force Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Ingo Gerhartz in Berlin.
The decision means Germany will continue to provide suitable aircraft for carrying U.S. nuclear weapons stored in the country into a hypothetical atomic battle, as prescribed under NATO doctrine. Previously, officials were planning to buy new versions of the the F-18 for that role plus the job of electronic attack and suppressing enemy air defenses.
The Tornado-replacement decision, talk of which has amounted to a parlor game in Berlin policy circles for more than a decade, removes the Super Hornet from the table altogether, instead positioning a modernized Eurofighter aircraft as the weapon of choice for electronic combat. That line of thinking is sure to please manufacturer Airbus, which had all along proposed its plane as a kind of sandbox platform leading to the French-German-Spanish Future Combat Air System by 2040.
The decision in favor of the F-35 comes in the context of Germany’s defense strategy adjustment following Russia’s assault on Ukraine. Berlin’s new spending and modernization plans prize off-the-shelf systems that can quickly plug readiness holes in the armed forces.
“There is only one response to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s aggression: unity within NATO and a credible deterrent,” Gerhartz said. “That’s why there is no alternative to the decision in favor of the F-35.”
Gerhartz and Lambrecht touted cooperation opportunities surrounding the Lockheed Martin-made plane, which other European nations have already bought or plan to buy. Most recently, Switzerland and Finland picked the stealthy aircraft to replace legacy warplane fleets. The U.K., the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Denmark and Norway also are among the customers on the continent.
Meanwhile, Germany remains committed to the FCAS program, according to a German Defense Ministry statement. Lambrecht said she had told her French counterpart, Florence Parly, about the F-35 decision during at March 9 visit to Evreux Air Base in northern France, where the two countries are operating a joint air-transportation unit built around C-130J aircraft.
A spokesperson at the French Ministry of Defence was not immediately available for comment.
The FCAS program is at a critical juncture, as key contractors Dassault and Airbus Defence and Space are unable to reach an agreement covering workshare and intellectual property rights for the futuristic program’s central fighter jet.
Earlier this month, Dassault CEO Eric Trappier spoke dismissively about the prospect of Germany buying the F-35, suggesting Berlin was being pressured by the United States into buying the jet for the nuclear mission while paying lip service to the mantra of buying European.
With Dassault’s order books filled for its cash cow product, the Rafale plane, the company may have little incentive to compromise on its leadership claims for the next-generation fighter, German analysts have said. Unless, that is, French President Emmanuel Macron intervenes in the spirit of saving the program.
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.