MUNICH — As the European Union wrestles to assert its role in world affairs, its members are increasingly looking to Germany and France. But the two allies have yet to find their groove when it comes to weapons cooperation and joint operations. The recent Munich Security Conference added new assignments to Germany’s to-do list, taking the already immense expectations of Berlin to a new level.
Officials are slated to announce key program decisions this spring that could redefine the trans-Atlantic relationship on a political and industrial level. The government also wants to put teeth to the promise of an operational role together with France by initiating a naval protection mission in the Strait of Hormuz under an EU flag.
But Germany is famously sheepish on defense matters, its coalition-government parties CDU and SPD are far apart on key strategic questions, and Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer oversaw an intra-party struggle that some in Germany say left her weakened.
Here's a look at some of the key items in Germany's portfolio:
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Speaking at Munich, French President Emmanuel Macron once again offered French nuclear weapons in the context of protecting EU members, now that the U.K. is leaving the bloc. He largely repeated his points from an earlier speech in Paris, which amounted to an overture to European allies to discuss the issue further.
German officials appeared unsure about the whole idea, even though Munich Security Conference emcee Wolfgang Ischinger flagged the proposal as an open invitation that requires a formal response.
When asked about the idea, Kramp-Karrenbauer stressed Germany’s dependence on the NATO nuclear umbrella, which is underwritten by the U.S. arsenal. Since Macron has ruled out putting his country’s atomic weapons under some kind of EU authority, what exactly is on the table, she wondered. For example, does the proposal imply some kind of European nuclear industry — a no-go for Germany?
“We must have the conversation,” Kramp-Karrenbauer said. “But I can’t imagine coming to a decision that would have us leave the American umbrella only to slip under a French one that is much smaller.”
Germany previously punted on a Strait of Hormuz naval protection mission to protect cargo ships against Iranian harassment, but Berlin wants to try again. Doing it with the Americans is off the the table because Europeans are spooked by Washington’s “maximum pressure” campaign, so a strictly European mission would be ideal.
And since the French and the Dutch already have sent ships to patrol the crucial waterway under their own moniker, why not expand that mission into an EU-led affair? Putting the mission under the auspices of the European Union would require “better use” of permissions granted in the bloc’s founding legal texts, Kramp-Karrenbauer told the Munich conference audience.
According to a German Defence Ministry spokesman, that’s a reference to Article 44 of the Treaty on European Union. The section says the European Council can authorize a group of countries to carry out certain missions if they have the desire and wherewithal to do so.
As for the wherewithal, Kramp-Karrenbauer left open exactly what types of assets the German Navy would be able to contribute to a Strait of Hormuz mission. The timing also remains murky. While the minister mentioned the need for an EU summit on the topic, her spokesman said there was no information yet about when such a gathering could happen.
Issue experts have said protecting global shipping lanes should be considered low-hanging fruit for Germany, as the mission is inherently defensive in nature. “It's the mission that Germany should have chosen months ago,” said Jeffrey Rathke, president of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins University.
Replacing Germany’s fleet of aging Tornado aircraft is a can of worms like no other. That’s because a portion of the fleet is assigned to carry American nuclear-tipped gravity bombs into Russia in the event of a major war. Though largely symbolic, the idea of German pilots using German aircraft to deliver American nukes is something of a quiet cornerstone of trans-Atlantic relations. People here don’t like to talk about it much, but the effect is significant.
The Tornado aircraft are getting old, which means the nuclear weapons will soon need a new ride. And this is where things get even trickier: Each of the replacement candidates can satisfy one requirement of Berlin’s decision-making calculus, but not all of them.
Boeing’s F-18 fighter jet would represent a political commitment to the United States as the guarantor of nuclear deterrence. In such a scenario, the Pentagon presumably would lean forward to quickly sort out the requisite modifications and certifications, which is no small matter when it comes to nuclear weapons employment.
The Airbus-made Eurofighter, on the other hand, would dovetail with plans by Germany and France to build the Future Combat Air System — and prop up local industry at the same time. Airbus said it would consider a pick of the F-18 as a death knell for the futuristic program, a view that France is reportedly also pushing behind the scenes.
At the same time, there is the question of the U.S. government’s willingness to approve a European aircraft for the most sensitive of missions, especially when the Trump administration already feels cheated by the continent on defense and trade.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, once in the running, is not expected to make a return to the competition, the German Defence Ministry spokeswoman told Defense News.
Kramp-Karrenbauer said she will decide by the end of March.
Speaking at Munich, she also hinted at a new round of fundamental discussions about the nuclear-sharing mission in general.
“That is the political dimension of the decision that we have to debate within the coalition,” she said. “I want to have that debate relatively quickly, as we need clarity.”
The “Taktisches Luftverteidigungssystem,” or TLVS, is one of those German word creations that sounds as complicated as it is.
The program would replace the venerable Patriot anti-missile system that’s been in service for decades. Made by Lockheed Martin and its German junior partner MBDA, it boasts several new features, like 360-degree radar, interceptor coverage and open-data architecture. Crucially, Berlin wants complete control over all system components, as opposed to simply buying something akin to a license for using American-made gear, which is how many weapon sales work.
While officials had been gung-ho about the program, things have gone quiet since last December, when the government disclosed that contract negotiations over the industry consortium’s second offer weren’t going as expected.
At the time, the plan was to conclude talks by the end of the year, though that didn’t happen.
As of earlier this month, the talks were still ongoing, according to the defense spokeswoman. “The negotiations are on a good track,” she told Defense News.
Once considered a must-have project by Berlin, TLVS’ future may now look iffy, especially given there is talk of yet another, third offer to be solicited from the vendor team.
Sebastian Sprenger is Europe editor for Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multinational investments in defense and global security. He previously served as managing editor for Defense News.