The F-35 for Germany

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Within a decade, Germany must replace 85 of its Tornado multi-role combat aircraft.  Designed and built in the 1970s by a consortium of British, Italian and West German aircraft companies, the Jets have reached a point of diminishing return when it comes to maintenance and modernization.  In 2015, for example, it was reported by the German press that only 30 of the planes were combat-ready at any given time.  Plain and simple, the Luftwaffe needs a new aircraft.

In May of last year, the German air force asked to be briefed on the American-made F-35, the stealthy, multi-mission, 5th-generation aircraft.  Then, in November, Lt. General Karl Müllner, the Luftwaffe chief of staff, indicated his service’s preference for replacing the Tornado jets with the F-35 because of its low-observable signature and its ability to identify and strike distant targets.  “I think I have expressed myself clearly enough as to what the favorite of the air force is.” Given Russian advances in ground-based air defenses and combat aircraft, the general’s comments were not surprising from a military point of view.

But the general’s remarks may well have been a surprise to his government. In December, the Deputy Defense Minister Ralf Brauksiepe pushed back against the idea of replacing the Tornados with F-35s by simply noting that this was “not the position of the federal government.” Instead, the ministry stated that the Tornados would be replaced with the Eurofighter, an aircraft originally designed in the late 1980s and early 1990s to be an air-superiority fighter but which has evolved into a multi-mission platform. Like the Tornado, the Eurofighter is built by a consortium (Germany, Italy, UK and Spain) of European nations.

Not that the Eurofighter is a second-rate plane. It can climb at a high rate, it’s maneuverable, and it has a maximum speed of well over Mach 2. In each of those categories, it is superior to the F-35, more comparable to the U.S. Air Force’s F-15. But that’s the rub, it was designed principally for late Cold War aerial combat—dogfighting. Despite upgrades to the Eurofighter, the Russians have modernized their fighters as well, with the Su-35 being perhaps the top non-stealthy, air-superiority aircraft in the world today. Add in Russia’s advanced integrated air defenses, and you are asking a Luftwaffe pilot to bring a knife, albeit a very capable knife, to a gunfight.

There is a reason other European allies—the Brits, the Danes, the Italians, the Dutch and the Norwegians—have opted for the 5th-generation jet over 4th-generation alternatives. In 2016, the Danish government ran a competition between the F-35 and possible alternatives, including the Eurofighter. The conclusion: “Under survivability and mission effectiveness, the Joint Strike Fighter comes out better than the two other candidates. This is due to a number of factors, including for example the low radar signature of the aircraft as well as the application of advanced systems and sensors that enhance the pilot’s tactical overview and ensure the survival of the aircraft and efficient mission performance.”

Neither plane is cheap. But as aviation industry authority Richard Aboulafia has noted, the Eurofighter “had the costs of an F-35 without the modern features.”

So why the preference for the Eurofighter by the German government? The first and most obvious reason is that, unless there are new orders, the Eurofighter production line in Germany will be forced to close and, with closure, well-paying jobs and expertise will be lost. However, so goes the defense aircraft industry, as American lines for the F-16 and F-18 also face this prospect.

Equally important to Berlin, however, is the July 2017 announcement that Germany and France had agreed to work together on the design and production of a new, presumably 5th-generation, fighter jet that would replace the Eurofighter and France’s Rafales. Given the emphasis both capitals are now putting on greater defense cooperation within the European Union, it’s no surprise that Berlin fears that buying F-35s now might lessen the necessity of developing a new Franco-German aircraft.

However, procuring a limited number of F-35s in the immediate years ahead does not, strictly speaking, preclude France and Germany moving forward with their own development program. Moreover, given the lengthy timelines typically involved between an agreement to begin work and a plane actually entering service, it could be argued that what Germany and France should be working on is less an aircraft comparable to the F-35 than a plane that is a step up—perhaps even an unmanned stealth fighter.

It is not unreasonable for sovereign states to worry about the health of their defense industrial base. And it is certainly a lot harder these days for German ministers to argue for “buying American” given the unpopularity of President Trump and his needless broadsides that allies, like Germany, “owe” the U.S. billions. Yet the fact remains that the German government also owes its forces the kinds of capabilities that maximize their safety and effectiveness in a potential conflict that could take place well before a new Franco-German fighter is available. The men and women of the Luftwaffe are right to want the F-35.

Gary Schmitt is co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies, American Enterprise Institute.

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