Germany’s selection of a future combat aircraft for the air force may not be a binary choice.

German Tornado jet. Cedit: CARSTEN REHDER/AFP/Getty Images

By Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace

Senior Luftwaffe officials and the German defence ministry appear at loggerheads over whether a European or US combat aircraft should replace the air force’s Tornado, with the former preferring the F-35 Lightning II and the latter in favour of the Typhoon. However, some of them could perhaps be asking the wrong question.

Rather than asking what aircraft type is needed, greater clarity may be achieved by asking what roles the aircraft will be required to carry out. In Luftwaffe service, the Tornado provides the ability to deliver both conventional and nuclear payloads. The latter role is part of NATO’s dual-capable aircraft capability, with the Tornado equipped to carry the B61 gravity bomb. If Germany intends to continue to fulfil this mission, whichever type is selected to replace the Tornado will also need to be able to meet this role.

The other combat aircraft in the Luftwaffe’s fleet, the Eurofighter Typhoon, is presently not ‘wired’ to carry nuclear weapons. There was some consideration given to this in the early days of the development programme, but was not pursued. Introducing a nuclear-assurance and -release system for Typhoon is possible, but at a cost. European industrialists suggest prices ranging from €300–500 million, while there is the likelihood that the US would require very detailed access to the aircraft’s design and systems. Furthermore, officials estimate that the necessary certification process would take upwards of seven years. Even if certification were to start straightaway, this makes it challenging to meet the Luftwaffe’s timeline, since it wants to begin replacing its Tornados in 2025, with the fleet to be fully withdrawn likely by 2030.

Germany’s dual-capable Tornado aircraft are part of NATO’s nuclear-deterrence strategy; for this to be effective, it also has to be credible. If the weapon to be delivered remains a nuclear free-fall bomb, the challenge of hitting a target through airspace defended by capable combat aircraft and advanced surface-to-air missiles is considerable. In other words, where long-range stand-off strike is not an option, a low-observable combat aircraft offers the best chance of at least reaching the target.

However, one possible solution could be that the nuclear and conventional roles now both met by the Tornado could be split between a relatively small F-35 fleet and a larger Typhoon fleet, thereby reconciling Luftwaffe and German defence-ministry aspirations. The former aircraft would meet the nuclear-delivery requirement with the B61-12 bomb and provide a low-observable platform capable of conventional weapons delivery, while a proportion of the air-to-surface missions now addressed by the Tornado could be migrated to the Typhoon.

Nevertheless, the Luftwaffe is presently not only working on how to replace the Tornado, but in the longer term, also the Typhoon. Under its Future Combat Air System (FCAS) work, it had initially looked to introduce a new combat aircraft into service from 2035, with the emphasis on the air-to-surface role, as a Tornado replacement. As thinking has developed during the course of 2017, and the F-35 has found increasing favour, Germany’s longer-term combat-aircraft requirement has placed greater emphasis on the air-to-air role for the Typhoon’s successor. The notional entry into service date has also moved to 2045.

The FCAS study work is now being carried out in collaboration with France. Moving back the entry into service date aligns more closely with France’s requirement for a Rafale successor, while also providing a more palatable gap between the cost of the possible introduction of the F-35 and the acquisition of a new fighter aircraft.

This analysis originally featured on the Military Balance+, the new IISS online database that enables users in government, the armed forces and the private sector, as well as academia and the media, to make faster and better-informed decisions. The Military Balance+ allows users to customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

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