Germany to Buy F-35 Fighters for Nuclear Sharing Role

 - March 15, 2022, 7:43 AM
An Edwards AFB-based F-35A drops a test article of the latest B61-12 tactical weapon, the combination that the Luftwaffe will employ to maintain its nuclear capability using U.S.-owned bombs. (Photo: U.S. DoD/F-35 Joint Program Office)

Germany will buy up to 35 stealthy Lockheed Martin F-35A fighters, which will take over the country’s nuclear commitment from the Panavia Tornado. The decision was made public on March 14 in a joint announcement by defense minister Christine Lambrecht and the air force chief Generalleutnant Ingo Gerhartz. It comes shortly after Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced in late February a major increase in Germany’s defense spending, prompted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In Luftwaffe service, the most important role for the F-35A will be as a carrier of B61-12 nuclear bombs as part of the weapons sharing program with the U.S., which owns the bombs. Currently, the Tornados of Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader (tactical wing) 33 at B├╝chel are the nominated carriers, armed with B61 weapons and in the process of being certified to carry the latest Mod 12 variant. The F-35A itself is in the final stages of certification with the B61-12 as what the Pentagon calls a ‘Dual Capable Aircraft’, with design clearance expected by January 2023.

The nuclear weapons sharing program—which also involves other NATO countries—has been an increasingly controversial cornerstone of (West) Germany’s defense policy since the late 1950s, when training of Luftwaffe crews began on the Republic F-84F Thunderstreak equipped with Mk 7 bombs. The role was subsequently adopted by the Lockheed F-104G Starfighter, before passing to the Tornado in the 1980s.

A program to replace the 90-strong Tornado fleet has been in the works since the early 2010s, and by 2017 the F-35A was reportedly the preferred choice of the Luftwaffe from a field that also included the Eurofighter Typhoon and Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. In January 2019 the F-35A was officially removed from the competition, and in April 2020 Germany decided on a split buy of 30 F/A-18E/Fs, 15 EA-18G Growler defense suppression aircraft, and around 45 Tranche 5 Typhoons. Neither the Super Hornet nor Typhoon are cleared for nuclear weapons carriage. Replacement of the Tornados is scheduled to begin in 2025 and be completed by no later than 2030. With the installation of a new government led by Scholz, who took office in December 2021, the F-35A was brought back to the table again.

Selection of the nuclear-capable F-35A answers one of several requirements of the overall Tornado replacement program, but leaves other roles unfulfilled, chief of which is the need to provide an electronic warfare/defense suppression capability that is currently provided by the ECR variant of the Tornado. In the F-35A announcement, it was acknowledged that the Eurofighter will be retained and further developed for the electronic combat role. In late 2019 Airbus Germany outlined a proposal for a two-seat “ECR” version of the Typhoon with podded jamming systems and defense suppression weapons, and it seems likely that a mooted number of 15 will be procured, displacing the previously selected Growler. Further Typhoons are likely to be bought to complete the Tornado replacement in terms of aircraft numbers.

During the announcement Germany also underlined its commitment to the tri-national Future Combat Air System program that is underway with France and Spain, citing continuing Typhoon technology development as beneficial to the FCAS program. However, discussions between France and Germany over FCAS have run into difficulties over participation and leadership issues, and the selection of the F-35 is likely to place a further strain on them.