Which countries should own bomber planes?

Germany is looking for a new atomic bomber

A gigantic hall on the Airbus premises in Manching near Munich. Behind the front door there is a steel cabinet in which visitors have to lock their cell phones. Because what is hidden behind the next door is secret - and it is impressive: Mechanics are working on 20 Luftwaffe fighter jets at the same time. It smells of oil, red lines on the floor mark the area that only skilled workers are allowed to enter.

These are tornadoes of the German armed forces, which are maintained and repaired by the aviation company "Airbus Defense and Space". Some of the gray paintwork has been removed to make damage visible, others reveal the tangled cables in their hull. "Each tornado is here on average for 350 days," explains Katharina Semmler-Schuler, head of tornado maintenance.

Obsolete fleet

One reason for the long maintenance time is that there are no spare parts for the old machines. Some have to be specially made. Or the Airbus employees use a trick: parts are removed from the newly arriving aircraft and installed in those tornadoes that will soon leave the plant again via the connected runway - the parts rotate. "We make do," says Semmler-Schuler, but: "It gets more difficult over time." And more expensive: A confidential document from the Ministry of Defense shows that maintenance costs for 2019 are expected to amount to more than 600 million euros.

In the tornado maintenance hall of "Airbus Defense and Space" in Manching, Bavaria

Built in the Cold War

The Tornado is the classic fighter aircraft: built in the 1980s and praised for its low-level flight capabilities, it is now a discontinued model. The Bundeswehr now has only 85 of the once impressive fleet of 350 aircraft. The others were gradually decommissioned and the spare parts that could still be used were cannibalized.

The fact that the remaining machines can still be kept alive with great effort until at least 2025 is due to a very special ability of the tornado: It can attach the US atomic bombs that are stored in Germany and fly them to their destination. The Tornado is equipped for this and approved by the US government - as the only fighter aircraft in the German Air Force.

US atomic bombs in Germany

"Nuclear participation" is the name given to this model of deterrence in the NATO defense alliance, to which Germany has committed itself, just like Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. They all hold US atomic bombs on their national territory and "share" this task with the Americans: the fighter planes and crews that fly the bombs to their target and drop them in an emergency come from the respective country itself.

In the NATO exercise "Steadfast Noon", the Bundeswehr trains once a year to drop US atomic bombs, an estimated 15 to 20 of which are stored at an air force base in the small town of Büchel in southwest Germany. Training is carried out with dummy bombs, but with German fighter planes and their German crews. However, the federal government has never officially confirmed the existence of the atomic bombs in Büchel - it classifies the issue as a state secret.

An estimated 15-20 American atomic bombs are stored underground at Büchel Air Base in Rhineland-Palatinate

Frustration in the Air Force

Without the tornado, Germany would not be able to fulfill its alliance obligations. This is exactly what puts the federal government in an awkward position: a new fighter aircraft that could take on the nuclear role of the tornado has not even been ordered. And no matter which aircraft the successor is, production and delivery will take many years.

But time is of the essence. The Bundeswehr is keeping the exact numbers under lock and key, but only a few tornadoes are ready for action. A tornado pilot told Deutsche Welle that there were mostly only eight to twelve of the 45 aircraft in his squadron. The others are serviced or repaired. "We'd like to have another plane that works," he adds, frustrated. "It is very urgent!"

Boeing or Airbus?

There is less of a hurry in Berlin's government district. Since the government of Conservatives and Social Democrats led by Angela Merkel began its work almost two years ago, the Ministry of Defense has been examining the "Tornado successor" with Teutonic thoroughness. There are two models on the shortlist: the American F / A-18 from Boeing and the Eurofighter Typhoon from Airbus Defense and Space, of which the Bundeswehr already owns 138 - but not yet in the role of the "nuclear weapon carrier".

The Eurofighter is a European co-production with a strong German component. The aircraft will be assembled where the tornado is serviced, at Airbus in Manching. One of the 5000 employees is works council member Tobias Weber. He cannot understand why the federal government would want to buy US fighter jets even though it has a European model on hand.

"I thought it was a bad joke," Weber recalls the moment he heard about the possible purchase of the US planes. Airbus Vice President Wolfgang Gammel also has "zero understanding" that the federal government in the USA wants to go on a billion-dollar shopping spree. "As long as we can offer a European alternative, we should rather remain European." The Eurofighter Typhoon could take on the nuclear role just as well as any American aircraft.

Purchasing in the USA? Boeing's F / A-18 could become the Air Force’s future atomic bomb carrier

European sovereignty in the arms sector

So what speaks against the Eurofighter, which incorporates the cutting-edge technology of several German armaments companies and which also stands for European cooperation in the armaments sector? The four countries Germany, Spain, Italy and Great Britain produce the fighter jet together.

Chancellor Angela Merkel stated in May 2017, just a few months after US President Donald Trump took office, that the times are over when you can "completely rely on others" - and when future armaments projects are more European. For example, Germany and France have started to jointly develop a fighter aircraft known by the acronym FCAS, Future Combat Air System. A state-of-the-art jet that can be networked with drones and other weapon systems is planned. New technologies that are needed for this could first be developed and tested on the Eurofighter.

Criticism from Paris

Therefore, the French government reacted angrily when it heard of the German considerations to purchase fighter jets in the USA in parallel with the development of FCAS. For example, to buy the F-35 stealth bomber from the US armaments giant Lockheed Martin, currently the most modern combat aircraft in the world. The purchase of the expensive F-35, so the fear in Paris, could slow down the FCAS project and withdraw funds from it. According to reports, the French government even threatened to expel Germany from the joint armaments project if the German government bought the F-35. The stealth bomber, favored by many Air Force generals, was then thrown out of the race.

Ambitious Franco-German project: The Future Combat Air System, or FCAS for short

"We allowed ourselves to be blackmailed by the French," criticized a defense politician in the Bundestag, who still considers the F-35 to be the best choice. The NATO partners Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands, which also have US atomic bombs on their territory, have opted for this model. It has the decisive advantage that it has already been certified by the Americans for the role of "atomic bomber". "The others have a modern bus, we have a stagecoach," complained the CDU man, referring to the Bundeswehr's aging tornado fleet. "But please don't quote me by name."

A fighter jet "ready for action"

After the F-35 is officially out of the race, the Berlin Ministry of Defense is now toying with the somewhat more modest F / A-18 from the US company Boeing. The F / A-18 is "a tried and tested system that is ready for use", it says there, so it is essentially an "off the shelf" purchase. The fact that the F / A-18 of the "Growler" type has the ability to suppress the enemy air defense - such as radar systems - fits the Federal Government strategically well into the concept. Because only a few countries can offer this capability in multinational deployments. The Eurofighter would have to be further developed for this. In addition, the federal government assumes that the US authorities will certify a domestic fighter jet for the task of the "atomic bomber" much faster than a competitor from Europe.

But that's not the only reason why US planes are so popular. "The Air Force is having a lot of trouble with Airbus," says a defense politician in the Bundestag. In the past, the Bundeswehr was often not satisfied with the quality delivered, for example with the A400M transport aircraft that had broken down. "We have a communication problem with the Air Force," admits Airbus Vice President Wolfgang Gammel.

Find a compromise

In an attempt to please everyone - the governing parties CDU, CSU and SPD, the Air Force, France, the USA and the domestic armaments industry - the federal government has maneuvered itself into a dead end. Former Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) put the decision on the back burner, now it should be judged by her successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is also the chairwoman of the conservative ruling party CDU. In the first weeks of 2020, she wants to make a decision on the billion-dollar project.

Federal Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (CDU) in the cockpit of a Eurofighter

Everything points to a compromise: the appointment of F / A-18s for the nuclear role and Eurofighters for the other tasks of the Air Force. The purchase of 40 pieces each for a total price of at least ten billion euros is planned. But this solution also has a catch: in the smaller ruling party, the SPD, many see the continued stationing of US atomic bombs in Germany as critical - and thus also the purchase of expensive US fighter planes that could deploy these bombs. The escalation of the conflict in Iraq shows how problematic the stationing of US nuclear weapons in Germany is, said the new SPD chairman Norbert Walter-Borjans at the beginning of January.

Immense costs

Insiders therefore suspect that the Ministry of Defense will first begin negotiations with the manufacturers and postpone the conclusion of the purchase agreements until the already divided grand coalition is over. For the tornado, this could mean that it will have to fly long beyond its planned end of life in 2025. The decision made too late then falls at the taxpayers' feet: The continued operation of the fleet until 2030, according to calculations by the Bundestag, could cost the enormous sum of 13 billion euros.