Following initial speculation in March, German national media has reported that the country’s defense ministry has firmed up plans to satisfy its long-standing and increasingly pressing need to replace its Tornado fleet. Initial reports in Der Spiegel said that the choice had been made to buy both the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Super Hornet/Growler combination from Boeing. The latter has already been sold to Australia and is being pitched in Finland for the HX fighter competition.
Although there has been no official announcement, German defense minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer confirmed in an interview with the Dpa press agency this week that the plan is to buy 30 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, 15 EA-18G Growlers, and “up to 93” Typhoons. The minister reportedly informed her U.S. counterpart, Mark Esper, last week about the proposal, which is likely to become official in the next German legislative period, although the multi-billion-euro deal could face considerable opposition at a time when the German government is spending large sums to counter the Covid-19 crisis. It had previously been expected that a decision would have been announced during the ILA show in Berlin, which was due to be held in May but has been canceled due to Covid-19 concerns.
Around 90 Tornados are currently in Luftwaffe service, including aircraft dedicated to defense suppression duties and a number assigned to the nuclear-strike role, which are armed with U.S.-owned B61 tactical weapons. The Tornado has been the Luftwaffe’s only nuclear-capable aircraft since it took over the role from the Lockheed F-104G Starfighter in the early 1980s.
Germany has been eager to maintain this role to underline its commitment to NATO. “Nuclear protection is part of the architecture of our security policy,” said Kramp-Karrenbauer. “At some point, we will have a world without nuclear weapons. However, as long as these weapons exist, even in countries that are not part of NATO, nuclear participation serves our security.”
Eurofighter had suggested that the Typhoon could be integrated with nuclear weapons and had also planned a defense-suppression version to answer that requirement. However, with an in-service date for the new aircraft of 2025, there was a risk that this might be more expensive and that neither version could be ready for duty in time.
While Boeing’s EA-18G Growler is already fully developed and operational in the electronic warfare role, it should be noted that the Super Hornet is not yet nuclear-capable, as its main customer, the U.S. Navy, no longer undertakes a carrierborne strike mission. Integrating the wiring and security necessary to deliver the B61 is perceived as being more straightforward—and therefore quicker and less costly—for the F/A-18 than for the Typhoon.
To replace the remainder of the Tornado fleet, the Luftwaffe is to receive additional Typhoon multirole aircraft, although the exact figure has not been revealed. Under Project Quadriga, the Luftwaffe is due to receive 38 new-build aircraft to replace aging Tranche 1 Typhoons, which are not capable of being upgraded to the latest standards. Completing the one-for-one Tornado replacement requirement would suggest an additional 45–50 would be acquired, for a total of around 85–90 new aircraft. The decision to procure both F/A-18s and Typhoons ensures that the Luftwaffe’s needs—and those of Germany’s strategic position as a major NATO member—are met, while at the same time maintaining the German defense industry.
Originally the Lockheed Martin F-35 had also been considered for the Tornado replacement role, but it was dropped from the competition by Kramp-Karrenbauer’s predecessor, Ursula von der Leyen, who is now president of the European Commission. A key factor in that decision was the negative effect that procuring the F-35 might have had on the Future Combat Air System program, of which Germany (through Airbus) is a partner alongside France and Spain.