Germany is buying F-35 fighter jets, but why?

The country is beginning to meet the NATO budget requirements now.
Christopher McFadden
F-35A Lightning IIUS Air Force

It has been announced that Germany's airforce, the Luftwaffe, is planning on acquiring around 35 American F-35 fighter jets. This announcement is welcoming for many, but also comes as a surprise as it effectively represents a U-turn on previous decisions to purchase the fighter.

The F-35s, according to reports from senior airforce representatives, will be used to replace the capable, but aging Tornado fighter bomber currently in use by the Luftwaffe in some key areas of defense, like nuclear deterrence.

The deal will cost around 100 billion Euros and is part of a larger pledge for the nation to begin reaching its 2% of national GDP commitment to NATO after years of criticism from other NATO members like famously under the Trump administration

At present, Panavia Tornados are used for this crucial role to carry, and potentially deploy, U.S. nuclear weapons currently stored in the country. This is a Cold War NATO doctrine that would, potentially, see German planes use these potent weapons in real combat. The Tornado is the only existing aircraft in the German air fleet capable of carrying the B61 nuclear gravity bomb.

These bombs are currently stored at the Büchel Air Base in Germany, as well as bases in certain other NATO countries, and American authorities can release the bombs for use by German crews in a crisis. 

While a very capable and venerable aircraft, the Tornado has been in the air since the 1980s and is now severely outclassed. The current plan is to retire them by between 2025 and 2030. The F-35s currently on order will be modified to also carry these bombs. 

Germany is meeting the NATO budget requirements

The announcement also includes plans to purchase a series of Eurofighter "Typhoon" aircraft for electronic warfare - once the required capabilities are fitted to the aircraft by Airbus. 

Prior to the current announcement, the F-18 "Super Hornet" had been the platform of choice to replace the Tornados. Such aircraft would also have roles in electronic attack and air superiority roles. 

The decision to actually purchase the F-35 was triggered, unsurprisingly, by recent events in Ukraine that have forced German defensive strategic thinkers to reevaluate their position. The F-35 can act as a capable off-the-shelf solution to the very serious gaps in the nation's current defensive requirements. 

“There is only one response to Putin’s aggression: unity within NATO and a credible deterrent,” Air Force Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Ingo Gerhartz said. “That’s why there is no alternative to the decision in favor of the F-35.”

Gerhartz and Germany's Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht also explained the important cooperation opportunities surrounding the Lockheed Martin-made plane, which other European nations have already bought or plan to buy. Switzerland and Finland, for example, both recently got their hands on some F-35s. Some other nations, like the United Kingdom, also have a handful of fighters in their airforces. 

While Germany remains a committed member of the European FCAS program that is developing a new 6th-generation fighter, the program is at a critical juncture that is delaying its progress. Two of the main contractors, France's Dassault and Airbus Defense and Space have, for example, been unable to reach an agreement that covers workshare and intellectual property rights.

This recent commitment by Germany to actually buy the F-35 has not pleased everyone, as you'd expect. Dassault's CEO Eric Trappier, for example, 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.

Dassault's order books are already filled at the moment in any case, especially with orders for its Rafale aircraft, but, according to German analysts on the recent announcement, are unlikely to compromise on its leadership claims for the next-gen FCAS fighter. But, German officials will likely politely disagree with such concerns.

Recent events in Ukraine have highlighted the urgency in bolstering Germany's defense sooner rather than later. 

“With the F-35 and the further development of the Eurofighter in electronic combat, the Luftwaffe is very well positioned for the future,” said Lt. Gen. Gerhartz.

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