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Germany’s long-running attempts to find a politically and operationally viable solution to replacing its ageing Tornado IDS and ECR fighter bombers are reportedly coming to a close. According to an article by Handelsblatt, the Bundeswehr will replace the current fleet of 93 Tornados with a combination of 30 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets to perform the dual-capable aircraft (DCA) nuclear delivery role, 15 EA-18G Growlers to replace the Tornado ECR in the electronic attack role and up to 90 additional Eurofighter Typhoons, which will not only replace the Tornado IDS in the conventional strike and reconnaissance roles but also the older Tranche 1 Eurofighters in Luftwaffe service. Two key political factors have shaped what, in many ways, should have been a straightforward decision for Germany.
The first, and most obvious, is the DCA mission. The storage of American B61 free-fall tactical nuclear weapons in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Turkey has long been a political keystone of the NATO alliance. These weapons were intended to be released to each host country in the event of a nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union (or, more recently, Russia) for delivery by the Tornado or F-16 fighters of each country’s national air force. However, the Eurofighter Typhoon is not certified to carry or deliver the B61. Whilst there are no major technical reasons why the aircraft could not be certified, such integration work would require US consent, as well as the handing over of in-depth technical details by the Eurofighter consortium to US contractors – potentially compromising commercial secrets to competitors like Lockheed Martin and Boeing.
Certifying the Eurofighter for B61 would also be subject to US discretion on costs and timetables, although the same is true for the Super Hornet which is also not certified at present. Since the end of the Cold War, most DCA countries have not treated the mission as more than symbolic, but the entrenched status of NATO as a nuclear alliance is one which is key to its overall deterrence posture, especially as Russia has enhanced its tactical nuclear weapon delivery options in Eastern Europe in the past decade. For most DCA nations which are purchasing the American F-35A Lightning II stealth fighter, the long-term continuity of the DCA mission is not a major issue since the F-35A will be certified for the modernised precision-guided B61 Mod 12 version of the weapon in Block 4 software standard due to be rolled out in the early 2020s. However, for Germany, it is a different story.
In 2018, then commander of the Luftwaffe, Lt Gen Karl Müllner, was forced to retire early after publicly expressing his service’s preference for the F-35A as a replacement for at least part of the Tornado force and particularly for the DCA mission. Due to a combination of domestic industrial priorities and the political gulf created by the Trump administration’s attitude towards German spending levels and policy stances within NATO, the German government made it clear that the F-35 was out of consideration for the Tornado replacement. This is the second key factor which has shaped the German decision, since the F-35A was not only the most obvious but also the most operationally credible and flexible American option for the DCA role.
The only possible nuclear adversary for NATO in Europe is Russia, and it has developed an extremely capable and thoroughly modernised integrated air defence system to protect both its ground force manoeuvre elements and its borders, including the key enclave of Kaliningrad. The modernised B61 Mod 12 is extremely accurate and has a large variable yield range to allow careful matching of nuclear escalation if required, but as a gravity bomb the delivery aircraft would have to get within a handful of nautical miles of the target – an extremely dangerous activity for non-stealth aircraft even against current-generation Russia defences. The German replacement fighter is intended to begin deliveries in the mid-2020s and will arguably need to remain credible against likely threats for decades to come.
The basic F/A-18E/F Super Hornet airframe design which is also shared by the EA-18G Growler is reaching the limits of its development potential. As an aircraft designed for multi-role carrier operations, the Super Hornet is immensely strongly built and aerodynamically optimised for low-speed, high-angle of attack controllability at lower altitudes. This makes it ideal for carrier operations, but at a significant performance and operating cost disadvantage compared to the F-16, its closest land-based comparator. Like the Eurofighter, it cannot be made ‘stealthy’ despite various design features on both to reduce radar cross-section where possible.
The Eurofighter is in a different league in terms of performance, especially at high altitudes and with heavier fuel and weapon loads, having been designed from the outset for air-superiority missions and agility at supersonic speeds. As such, it has significantly greater excess power, lift, a much larger radar aperture and more overall capability growth potential compared to the Super Hornet. While the Super Hornet is also cleared for a greater selection of weapons than the Eurofighter, neither are currently B61 certified. Most importantly, neither Eurofighter nor Super Hornet are a credible delivery system for the B61 against Russian targets due to the vulnerability of both platforms to modern Russian air defences. The addition of 15 EA-18G Growlers to the proposed force would technically allow Germany to provide some electronic attack (jamming) support to a coalition strike package, as well as potentially some limited suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) work with the US Navy’s new AGM-88E Advanced Anti-Radiation Guided Missile (AARGM). However, with a tiny fleet size, usable aircraft numbers would be very limited. In addition, the Growler/AARGM combination is itself not a reliable answer to the latest long-range Russian surface-to-air missile systems (SAMs) such as the SA-21 (S-400) due to lack of missile standoff range and the vulnerability of the platform to anti-radiation and/or active seeker SAMs.
Given the well-documented and long-running difficulties the Luftwaffe has faced with keeping even small numbers of its existing 141-strong Eurofighter fleet combat-ready due to logistics failures and pilot currency issues, it seems a very odd strategy to purchase two very small sub-fleets (Super Hornet and Growler) which would require large numbers to be at all operationally credible against Russian threats. Critics of this stance would say that the DCA role is not a meaningful operational requirement despite Russian aggression since 2014, and so it does not matter whether Super Hornet and Growler together represent a credible nuclear delivery capability. If that is the case, then Germany should simply replace all its Tornados with more Eurofighters, allowing it to concentrate maintenance and training efforts on a single type, as most medium-sized air forces do to maximise aircraft availability on the frontline.
Given the importance of the DCA role to NATO as a whole, the US would then have little choice but to cooperate with Eurofighter B61 Mod 12 certification to meet the Tornado out-of-service date in the mid-2020s. If the DCA role is considered to require actual operational credibility from Germany, then the only feasible choice is the F-35A. Of all the potential aircraft on offer, the F-35A is the only one which represents an operationally credible B61 Mod 12 delivery solution. It will also be operated by all other European DCA members, offering shared training and maintenance burdens. As the UK and Italy have discovered, even small numbers of F-35s can offer significant advantages to medium-sized air forces operating Eurofighter Typhoon as their backbone fighter fleet, since F-35s can get much closer to potential threats and share situational awareness and targeting information with the rest of the force.
Germany’s apparent move to purchase a split fleet of Eurofighters, Super Hornets and Growlers is the worst possible outcome – it imposes all the additional costs and availability challenges of small additional fleets on top of the main Eurofighter force, without any of the additional operational credibility in the DCA role and whole force enabler benefits of a spit buy which included the F-35.
Airpower Research Fellow, RUSI
Banner Image: German Tornado ECR. Photo by Steve Lynes, Wikimedia Commons Licence