ÄMARI AIR BASE, Estonia — As Germany’s inflation rate hit double digits last month among escalating energy and food prices, concerns have risen over the country’s ability to pay for its planned multibillion-euro military spending run.
The Air Force’s most critical fighter procurement program, however, is expected to weather inflation-related cost increases intact, according to the service’s chief of staff.
Berlin’s next major defense procurement contract, “the most important one for us, is the contract for the F-35,” Lt. Gen. Ingo Gerhartz told a small group of reporters Oct. 24 while en route from Ämari Air Base, Estonia, to Berlin aboard a Luftwaffe A400M aircraft.
Germany’s inflation rates hit a record 10% in September, up from just less than 8% in August, due to soaring energy costs and food prices that have continued to hit Europe since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Berlin’s energy costs were nearly 40% higher in September than the same time one year ago, Deutsche Welle reported, citing government-provided statistics.
The ever-climbing inflation numbers have prompted speculation about Germany’s purchasing power for a planned €100 billion (U.S. $100.2 billion) investment in military capabilities, announced by Chancellor Olaf Scholz in February.
The U.S. State Department approved in July a potential sale of up to 35 F-35A aircraft to Germany, including munitions and equipment, for a total estimated cost of up to $8.4 billion.
Gerhartz asserted that rising inflation rates should not impact the Joint Strike Fighter’s cost, but noted that contract finalizations are taking place with Germany’s procurement agency and not directly with his military branch.
“As far as I know … the F-35 contract is not affected by that,” he said. “So we will buy 35 aircraft, as we planned, with all of the equipment.”
But the service is prepared to see the impact of inflation on other procurement efforts, although it is “too early” to identify which programs may be most at risk, he noted.
Germany recently received a letter of agreement from the United States to procure several dozen F-35A jets to take over the nuclear weapons mission for its PA 200 Tornado fighter fleet, scheduled to retire by 2030. For now, Berlin is on track to sign the contract for the Lockheed Martin-built F-35 before the end of 2022 — pending parliamentary approval — and is working toward an initial operating capability by 2028, Gerhartz said.
Gerhartz rejected speculation that the Ukraine war prompted Germany to quickly select the F-35 to fulfill the nuclear weapons mission, after years of planning to buy Boeing-made F-18 aircraft.
“The driver was the lifetime of the Tornado,” he said, noting that the aging fleet will be “totally finished” by 2030. “We have a certain commitment on the dual-capable aircraft, and that was the main design driver [for] getting the F-35 online.”
The Luftwaffe also sees the Joint Strike Fighter as an opportunity to provide anti-ship support from the air to the Navy, Gerhartz said. Years ago, the Navy gave its anti-ship mission to the Air Force, which didn’t procure any new weapons, he explained.
“With the F-35, there will come options, and then we will have to see what comes up in the future,” Gerhartz said.
One option could be procuring a joint strike missile that’s compatible with either the F-35 or the Eurofighter Typhoon, he noted. “What is feasible — Typhoon or F-35 — it is still open. But we have to give the Navy some support.”
The size of Germany’s future fighter fleet weighs on Gerhartz’s mind as he considers future procurement opportunities. The Air Force plans to procure 15 Eurofighter Typhoon Tranche 5 aircraft to replace a portion of its 93-strong Tornado fleet, alongside the F-35, for 50 new aircraft total.
Decreasing the fighter force by about 40 aircraft sends “the wrong signal” to adversaries like Russia, he said. “At my level, I think we have to stay at 200 aircraft.”
Eventually, Germany would acquire a new sixth-generation fighter in the 2040s, as one-third of the trinational Future Combat Air System, or FCAS, program in co-development with France and Spain. While the program has been stalled for nearly two years due to ongoing workshare disputes between prime contractors Airbus and Dassault, an Oct. 23 report by La Tribune hints that a compromise may be on the horizon.
At the same time, the United Kingdom and Italy are prepping their own next-generation fighter program, also called FCAS, with Japan and Sweden in observer roles. While the two programs may be on different technology development tracks, Gerhartz said it would make more sense for them to merge, a belief he has previously espoused.
“I say, as the German air chief, I hope that we will eventually come together, that we will have one project in Europe,” he said, citing economies of scale and interoperability as key factors.
Meanwhile, the German Air Force is also preparing for the recapitalization of its heavy-lift helicopter fleet. In June, the Defence Ministry announced plans to purchase 60 Boeing-made CH-47F Chinook Block 2 Standard Range rotorcraft, with reports stating that deliveries would run between 2023 and 2029.
Gerhartz said Monday that he expects a letter of acceptance for the Chinook deal will be delivered by the end of January 2023, and that the contract will be signed “early next year.” The Chinooks would replace the Luftwaffe’s fleet of Sikorsky-built CH-53 Sea Stallions.
Vivienne Machi is a reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany, contributing to Defense News' European coverage. She previously reported for National Defense Magazine, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, Foreign Policy and the Dayton Daily News. She was named the Defence Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2020.