German Defense Policy at a Crossroads: The Tornado Successor Issue


By Karl Müllner and Klaus-Peter Stieglitz

The successor to the Tornado fighter jets is about Germany’s NATO contribution to credible deterrence.

The government has ruled out the most advanced weapons system F-35 – for political reasons. Two ex-generals warn of the consequences

With the decision to take the fighter aircraft F-35 of the US manufacturer Lockheed Martin without closer consideration from the competition for the succession of the obsolete Tornado jets of the Bundeswehr, Germany maneuvers itself in NATO offside.

Moreover, with the simultaneous postponement of the successor decision for the 85 Tornado aircraft indefinitely, Germany weakens NATO at its core – the credible deterrence and thus its ability to maintain peace in Europe.

Why were these two decisions made that way?

There is only one answer to that: they were made just for political and industrial reasons. For from the perspective of all military experts, the succession decision is already overdue for years.

And the big favorite in a fair competition is the F-35. Overdue is the succession decision for the Tornado fleet, because their economically viable service life will find an inevitable end at the latest by the end of the next decade, after 50 years of use.

The other two Tornado nations, Britain and Italy, had seen this long ago with far-sightedness and therefore decided to participate in the US Project F-35.

With the decision to procure the F-35, which in Germany at that time was commented on with a shortsightedness and a peacemaking zeal as a wrong decision and billions grave, Italy and Great Britain not only consolidate their leading role in the field of European NATO air forces, they also gain valuable technological Know-how and secure high-tech jobs. Incidentally, both countries are also involved in the Eurofighter, which, despite intended further developments, offers far less high-tech potential in the coming years than the F-35.

That the F-35 could hardly be beaten in a fair competition is proven by the competitions already held in Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands and Belgium. The F-35 clearly won in all relevant categories against all European and US competitors, including the Eurofighter.

The performance of the F-35 is undisputed, the operating costs are at a comparable level, especially in the logistical network with the partner nations, and the initial costs are significantly lower than those of a Eurofighter.

Together with the future European F-35 nations Italy and Great Britain, these European countries will then have the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft, which, with its unique capabilities, will open completely new doors to European and transatlantic military cooperation in operations and operations. Nations like Germany, but also France, will only be in the second or third row.

So what was decisive for the exclusively political decision in Germany?

First, the state of the current federal government, which, according to opinion polls, has not had a majority in the population for months. In particular, the Social Democrats are in a low, in which they shy away from a decision on a new fighter aircraft for the Bundeswehr.

Secondly, the successor decision for the Tornado fleet involves German participation in NATO’s nuclear deterrent, commonly referred to as nuclear sharing. A crucial issue for the security of Germany, but domestic policy in all parties unpopular topic.

Third, whether the Social Democrats hope to win back old voters by expanding the welfare state should not be of interest. The financing of such projects is in direct competition with higher defense spending. Even though Germany is in favor of achieving NATO’s two-percent target, which is still a long way off at 1.24 percent, there is apparently no consensus in the grand coalition to finance a Tornado successor.

Fourth, ideological factors play a role that should not be underestimated. For example, hardly anyone in the grand coalition wants to support the purchase of a US fighter aircraft, even if it offers the best value for money and could be obtained with low risk.

Nobody wants to treat US President Donald Trump as a success right now.

Fifth, France threatens the failure of the politically agreed flagship project of a future Franco-German fighter aircraft in 2040+ if Germany decided to buy American F-35 aircraft. While this threat is hardly substantiated, it has left so much of an impression in Germany that it has had enough impact.

Although this can be explained by looking at the recently signed German-French Treaty on Future Cooperation in Aachen, it satisfies French rather than German interests. Incidentally, Belgium successfully resisted France’s massive political influence over its F-16 successor selection decision and, based on the facts of its competition, ruled appropriately for the F-35.

And finally there is the interest of German industry to keep American competition away from the German defense market.

In view of its own weaknesses, to be able to supply the Bundeswehr with the aircraft required for future order fulfillment, competition with a US F-35, which would inevitably be lost, must be avoided at all costs.

The political decision to exclude the F-35 from further consideration in Germany is thus a victory for the German armaments lobby, it weighs heavily for the Bundeswehr.

Which security policy consequences arise from this?

First, the Ministry of Defense continues to explore two ways to succeed the tornadoes. However, without a specific timetable. Given the political environment, no one believes that the grand coalition will decide yet. The decision is therefore postponed indefinitely.

At the same time, however, this means for the Bundeswehr that it must continue to fulfill its mission with the decrepit tornadoes indefinitely. In addition to incalculable high costs and risks for availability, this also brings with it growing risks in operation.

As a successor are theoretically still the Eurofighter or the US F-18 for election. However, both options have the serious disadvantage of being less effective and less efficient than the F-35, despite higher costs and development risks. Order fulfillment is not possible with any of these options without significant limitations.

For both the F-18 and more of the Eurofighter are lagging not only because of the lack of stealth cap, but also their sensors and management systems at least one generation of aircraft behind the F-35.

In concrete terms, they have little chance of achieving their goals and fulfilling their mission in an action against an enemy with a decent air defense. For the pilots this would be like a hardly survivable Ascension squad.

The desired deterrent effect would remain.

The threshold to an armed conflict would be lowered. And all in times of the termination of parts of the European contract-based security order, such as by Russia with the illegal international occupation of the Crimea or INF-contracted missile armor.

Neither in an armed international conflict nor for conventional and nuclear deterrence in the context of Alliance and national defense Germany will be able to contribute significantly to European or NATO air forces without fifth-generation combat aircraft.

The pledge to NATO to be able to lead one of the future multinational Air Force Groupings can also not be fulfilled.

The same applies to the EU.

The loss of credibility that Germany is suffering with the decisions taken so far also weighs heavily.

For years, Germany has spoken of its willingness to take on more responsibility for peace and a just order in the world – as documented in the 2016 White Paper on Security Policy. It also manifests itself in the right to a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

However, the assurances and claims quickly reach their limits when it comes to the concrete creation of military capabilities with which they can be exercised in the first place. For the Tornado fleet is the only major German contribution to NATO for deterrence and peacekeeping in Europe.

Deterrence, however, only works if it is credible.

It does not live by symbolism, but by concrete skills.

However, due to its age, the German contribution to the Tornado has already lost credibility. The discrepancy will be even greater as the F-35s become operational in Italy, the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium and Turkey within a few years.

If the German contribution continues to be untrustworthy or can no longer be provided, this would also have negative effects on the strategically indispensable US guarantee and the nuclear disposition of NATO because of the resulting imbalance in the risk and burden sharing in NATO.

A termination of the NATO-Russia Basic Act and the stationing of nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe could be the result. When deciding on the successor to the Bundeswehr’s Tornado fighter plane, it is not just an important military decision with a European political and industrial significance, but a strategic decision with an impact on the European security order as a whole and Germany’s role as a leading nation.

If Germany sticks with the path it has now taken, it will leave the circle of security leadership nations in the EU and NATO, degrading itself to become a secondary support force.

It is necessary and corresponds to responsible policy for our country to deal with the issue of succession to the tornado of the Bundeswehr once again objectively and with the necessary strategic vision and to revise the decisions taken so far.

The authors are former Chiefs of Staff of the Luftwaffe.

February 15, 2019 and Translated from the original German piece in Die Welt.

For recent articles on the Tornado replacement issue, see the following: