Home / Articles / Squaring the Circle: The Replacement of the German Luftwaffe’s Tornado
Over the last few weeks, a debate has intensified in German political and national security circles on the issue of replacing Panavia Tornado jets for the Luftwaffe. With entry into service in 1979, the Tornado as presently operated by the Luftwaffe fulfills three key requirements. First, it is the dedicated strike and ground support asset of the service. Second, the Tornado assumes, in its ECR-configuration, the mission to suppress and destroy enemy air defenses (SEAD/DEAD). Last, as part of the nuclear sharing-agreement with the United States, the system is configured to deliver B61 tactical nuclear weapons, stored at the German airbase of Buechel. This article is focused on the immediate operational requirement to replace a vintage aircraft type with a modern capable asset fulfilling all Luftwaffe requirements, while at the same time creating enough maneuvering space for a likely drawn-out discussion on the future of nuclear sharing and relevant repercussions for force adaption.
After some significant debates, controversies, and delays over the cost of new aircraft, German Minister for Defense Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer made a preliminary decision on the subject in late April. The intention, as to be confirmed via parliamentary approval, would be to replace the 85 Tornado jets with the Eurofighter and the American-made F/A-18 Super Hornet. The German government would purchase 45 airframes, split between 15 Growler Electronic Attack and SEAD-versions, and 30 E/F-models, the latter of which would be used for the nuclear mission. In addition, the Luftwaffe would acquire another 93 Eurofighters: 38 of which would replace older EF Tranche 1 models already in service with the Luftwaffe; 40 aircraft to replace the Tornado for strike missions; and as contract option, a further 15 aircraft for Electronic Attack.
This proposal has caused further controversy within Social Democratic Party (SPD)-parts of government and industry represented by the German Industry Association (BDI) over the choice of an American aircraft, the total and relative numbers of the aircraft chosen, and notably, a debate about Germany’s hosting of American nuclear weapons and maintaining pilots and planes to drop them. Politicians from the SPD, Germany’s center-left government partner of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), are now demanding an outright end of the nuclear sharing agreement, with others questioning the wisdom to choose the Super Hornet and implying a complete revisit of the fighter requirements.
With the ongoing debate in Germany in mind, it makes the most sense for the Luftwaffe to replace 1:1 its fleet of 85 Tornado with a full fleet of F/A-18 Super Hornets. That purchase would include 30 Growler-variants for Electronic Attack, with the balance of 55 or 60 aircraft (depending on squadron organization) made up of F/A-18F two-seaters for the strike role. An appropriate number of double-seaters would also see preparation for wiring and certification of B61 in a “fitted for but not with” solution—the aircraft could assume the nuclear sharing mission once government has come to a decision. This solution most closely resembles the Australian force posture for the Royal Australian Air Force when it decided to replace its F-111C attack aircraft.
In addition to this move, the service would still replace its Tranche 1 Eurofighters with new Tranche 4 aircraft and would explore development of SEAD-integration onto the Eurofighter, backed up primarily by the Electronic Attack-focused Growlers.
While the original request for information considered four types for replacing the Tornado, two of them were deselected early for a number of factors. The F-15E was disregarded rather early in the process. While the F-15E is a capable strike platform and capable of carrying the B61, the aircraft has no SEAD/Electronic Attack version. The aircraft also is not operated by any other European NATO country. Either way, the German Defence Ministry considered the type a “secondary option” as far back as 2017, together with the F-35.
The Joint Strike Fighter, or F-35, was always bound to be the most controversial choice. Its distinction as the only fifth generation “stealth” fighter had some logical appeal to the Luftwaffe. As a result, officials, including then-chief Lt. Gen. Karl Muellner, voiced strong, but perhaps, inappropriate support for the F-35 in 2017. Muellner’s statements emphasizing how the service needs a fifth-generation aircraft caused the Ursula von der Leyen-led Ministry of Defence to fire him. The SPD and the Greens put considerable pressure on von der Leyen, a member of the CDU, about the nuclear mission and Tornado replacement. Social Democrats question purchases from the Trump government at a time when relations are poor. Like the Greens, the SPD also opposes nuclear weapons based in Germany.
Outside of political matters, however, the F-35 would have come with significant questions over its long-term cost; the continuing effort to solve major developmental issues; and the matter of data confidentiality due to how its maintenance system, the now-cancelled ALIS, but potentially also its successor ODIN, would work. France, which is developing the Eurofighter and Rafale-successor FCAS with Germany, had been a vocal opponent of the F-35 choice. This consortium was concerned that the German purchase of the F-35 would prompt Berlin to abandon FCAS completely.
The German consideration of the Eurofighter would also lead to several problems for the Luftwaffe. While down-selecting on a single fighter makes some logistical and financial sense for smaller air-forces that need to carefully manage small fighter fleets, the Luftwaffe is one of Europe’s larger air forces, and the German military is expected to be the backbone of European defense—a single type could be more burden than benefit. A mechanical or software issue could affect one type—requiring a grounding, no matter how long—which could, in effect, disable the entire German fast-jet fleet, roughly 250 aircraft. The Eurofighter does not have enough developmental evolution between its sub-variants to reasonably dismiss this potential problem, which explains the Luftwaffe’s insistence on operating two separate fighter types. Furthermore, the Eurofighter originally was developed as an air-superiority fighter, with less of an emphasis placed on weapons integration for the air-to-ground role.
This aspect is also the reason for why an Electronic Attack version of the Eurofighter is not a trivial development, requiring some substantial modification, including modifying the aircraft to carry external fuel tanks and standoff jamming-pods. Presumably, for that reason, in November 2019, the consortium presented both a dedicated Electronic Attack version as described above and a simpler SEAD-variant requiring fewer comprehensive modifications. Further to this challenge, the Eurofighter would require certification for B61 tactical nuclear weapons, as was the case with the Tornado. That task could, depending on the parties involved, take some time to complete and require the European vendor to divulge potentially sensitive information to U.S. agencies and companies. Should the Eurofighter-consortium refuse to share relevant data on the aircraft’s weapon control system, the type may see itself restricted in B61 mod12-use comparable to how legacy platforms deploy the weapon with locked tailkits in “non-guided” mode, which is mandated by the “non-digital”-nature of existing F-16 and Tornado fleets.
While there is a clear economic benefit—money would return to the country for any purchase—for Germany to choose the Eurofighter, the Luftwaffe would still be reliant on a single airframe. This could arguably enhance the bargaining power of the supplier in future procurements, much to the detriment of the German government as the purchaser.
Overall, it seems quite clear why political and industrial considerations strongly favor the Eurofighter, but also why this outcome may not be ideal for the Luftwaffe.
This leads us to Super Hornet. In some regards, the Boeing fighter is perhaps the oddest candidate of the bunch. After all, the F/A-18 is and always has been primarily a carrier-borne fighter-jet, in service with the U.S. Navy, and with little consideration for land-based operators. Furthermore, as with the F-15, no European NATO-partner operates this type of aircraft. F-18 sales are limited to Australia, which splits 24 aircraft between the double-seat F- and EW G-version referred to as “Growler,” and Kuwait, which purchased 22 single-seat E- and six double-seat F-versions.
A distinction of Super Hornet—and the reason why the Luftwaffe after elimination of the F-35 seems to have firmly rotated its preference to this type—is the fact that it is presently the only candidate offering a fully operational electronic attack-derivative that can also easily assume SEAD-duty, through its “Growler” G-variant. Furthermore, this type is certainly a modern, “4.5 generation” aircraft and is at least as current as the Eurofighter. The Super Hornet first flew in 1995, one year after the Eurofighter. Despite its designation, it is not simply an evolution of the original F/A-18 Hornet, but instead a complete redesign and effectively a new aircraft. The E/F Block III, in Growler-shape Block II-development, features an already operational AESA-radar, enhanced engines, conformal fuel tanks, a widescreen-based full glass cockpit, and for the Growler variant, a new “NGJ” next generation standoff-jammer will be available in the next few years. In comparison, these technologies for Eurofighter are still in varying states of integration or development, incurring additional risk that does not exist in the same way with the Boeing-fighter.
Like the Eurofighter, the Super Hornet is not presently certified to carry and drop the B61 nuclear bomb although by any measure this integration process should be less problematic and more speedily accomplished than on the European fighter-jet.
These capabilities suggest that the Super Hornet is best suited to satisfy the Luftwaffe demand for overall fleet resilience. It provides a modern and capable strike aircraft and will not present a logistical or cost burden on the Bundeswehr. While the U.S. Navy is reviewing its own procurement, potentially cutting Super Hornet purchases short after 2021, the force is introducing the Block III, and the type is destined to remain in operation for the period relevant to the Luftwaffe. The Growler will strengthen the Luftwaffe’s capability to field both Electronic Attack and SEAD platforms, an asset currently underrepresented in NATO, particularly among European nations, which have neglected these capabilities over the past two decades. For the same reason, Airbus should still be supported for developing a SEAD-Eurofighter, as this would create a robust Alliance capability useful to other operators. Since Airbus would be responsible for providing the Bundeswehr with 38 Eurofighters to replace older aircraft of the same type, there is no tangible loss or damage to European industrial interests in this matter.
Finally, the debate on nuclear sharing is unlikely to be resolved over the course of a few months. Indeed, a decision in this matter could well be delayed until after the next federal elections in 2021. Therefore, choosing a system that could be quickly prepared for fielding this capability, even if that option will not be taken up due to policy changes on the matter, would seem a sensible proposition.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.