On German Nukes and Tornadoes

Few fighter procurements go completely without a hitch these days, and the German Tornado-replacement program is no exception. Critics have decried it as the worst of all options, questioned the idea of a small Super Hornet/Growler-fleet, asked why the Eurofighter ECR doesn’t get any love, and whether nuclear strike really should be included at all in the German mission set.

In reality, things are usually more complex that they seem, and outrageously stupid decisions are rarer than a quick look in the tabloids would have you believe. So what’s the method to the German madness?

To begin with, it is first necessary to look at the capabilities about to be replaced. Germany is in fact looking at three different replacement projects, which include a number of different roles.

The first is Project Quadriga, which looks at replacing 38 Tranche 1 Eurofighters. These early Eurofighters lack several of the more modern systems of the later Tranche 2 and 3 versions, systems that crucially allow for the relatively easy upgrading of these. Due to this, most countries have opted against upgrading the Tranche 1’s (Spain being the exception). The logical solution, which has been reported to be in the work for quite some time, is a one-to-one replacement with new-built Eurofighters. These are to be of the top-notch standard currently offered, with E-Scan AESA radar and other niceties. While Germany officially calls them Tranche 3, the Eurofighter consortium refers to them as Tranche 4 to distinguish them from the earlier Tranche 3’s which are of a lesser configuration. The Project Quadriga jets are roughly corresponding to the standard offered to Finland, which also share the Tranche 4 designation.

A German Tornado ECR with two AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missiles under the fuselage. Source: bomberpilot via Wikimedia Commons

More controversial is the Tornado replacement program, which is actually made up of two different parts. Besides the Tornado IDS fleet (more on this later), Germany operate the survivors of 35 Tornado ECR. These are specialised electronic warfare aircraft, flying the SEAD/DEAD (or more popularly the ‘Wild Weasel’) mission of taking out enemy air defences and radars. This is an extremely rare capability for any air force to have, besides Germany only Italy (also with a small Tornado ECR fleet), the US Navy, and Australia sport dedicated tactical SEAD jets, both of the latter doing so in the form of the EA-18G Growler (an Israeli dedicated SEAD-variant of the F-16D is rumoured to exist, but especially after the introduction of the F-16I I am unsure what to make of this claim). This is part of the issue – if Germany is to buy a stop-gap SEAD-jet, there is just a single alternative on the market today, namely the Growler. There are other multirole aircraft with the capability to carry out the mission to varying degrees, including jets sporting anti-radiation missiles and advanced EW-systems. However, the only true SEAD-platform able to do the escort jammer mission which Germany specifically spells out, is the Growler. The Eurofighter consortium last year rolled out the Eurofighter ECR concept, which I discussed on the blog earlier. To reiterate:

The Eurofighter ECR concept is tailored to meet the German requirements, and include signal-homing missiles in the form of the AGM-88E AARGM, new large podded jammers, two more ‘wet’ stations to allow the drop tanks to move out of the way for said jammers, and a new decoupled rear cockpit for the WSO. The ECR as such is not part of the offer to Finland, but “as with any technology developed by the Eurofighter consortium, the option of an ECR will be available to Finland as a future growth option.” The options also include picking just the parts of the concept deemed suitable for Finnish needs. This could e.g. translate into acquiring just the jammers without the new ‘wet’ stations and accepting the range and endurance limitations it causes.

However, the Eurofighter ECR is still a paper product, at a time when the Growler is already a mature and combat proven design.

The majority of the Tornado-fleet is made up by the IDS variant (interdictor/strike, designated GR.x in RAF service), with the German Luftwaffe and Marineflieger acquiring a total of over 300 aircraft, of which just under a third are still in service with the Luftwaffe. The Interdictor-designation refers to strikes deep behind enemy lines, aimed at affecting the battlefield by e.g. stopping enemy supplies from reaching the front lines. The Tornado IDS was one of the best dedicated platforms for the role during the later part of the Cold War, being known for the ability to slung a serious combat load at high speed and very low level to avoid enemy air defences. While still a potent airframe, the basic design is rapidly heading towards obsolescence, and the age of the aircraft are starting to show, already causing significant headaches to the maintenance personnel.

The Eurofighter has already replaced the Tornado in British service, and isn’t necessarily a bad choice. The aircraft can sling two heavy cruise missiles (in RAF service the Storm Shadow is used), as well as a sizeable load of precision-guided bombs and smaller missiles such as the Brimstone for precision targets and anti-vehicle use. On the horizon, the SPEAR light cruise missile is about to open up some new interesting options as well.

However, what isn’t found in the arsenal of the Eurofighter is the B61 free-fall tactical nuclear weapon. The German Tornado-fleet form part of NATO’s nuclear sharing agreement, under which Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey have US tactical nuclear weapons stored in their country for delivery by their Air Forces.

Now, to grasp why the German decision played out the way it did (or seemingly is about to do, more on this later), it is extremely important to understand a few things:

  1. The nuclear weapons aren’t exactly uncontroversial. The general population in most of the host countries are divided at best and directly hostile at worst to the sharing agreement. Germany is no exception,
  2. The idea that NATO is a nuclear alliance is generally seen as a key part in it’s strategy to deter other nuclear-armed states (i.e. Russia) from using nuclear weapons against the member states. The sharing agreement is an attempt to ensure that decoupling doesn’t happen (“Will the US trade New York for Paris?“, as De Gaulle famously questioned), to make sure that the NATO allies keeps retain their trust in US and the alliance (and doesn’t try to acquire their own weapons, as De Gaulle did),
  3. You don’t just sling along a tactical nuke on any aircraft, but the integration and certification is quite a complex process, and relies on the country owning the nukes being ready to share some of their most highly classified military secrets.
    © Dassault Aviation
    In the event of a major war, France would use it’s land- and carrier-based Rafales to launch a limited number of nuclear-tipped cruise missiles as a final warning that France has identified threats against its vital interests, in an attempt to make the enemy to back off before France feels it has to go all-out nuclear with air- and submarine-launched strikes. The Rafales would each carry a single ASMP-A cruise missile on the centre station, which in the picture is occupied by an ASM.39 Exocet. Source: © Dassault Aviation

If you only look at the destructive power of nuclear weapons, the multirole fighter you want today is the Dassault Rafale with the impressive ASMP-A nuclear cruise missile. The Rafale is designed from the outset to be able to perform the nuclear strike mission, being “entry first-capable” as the French puts it, and there’s little denying that the ASMP-A offers a significantly greater chance than the B61-12 of getting through and putting your bucket of sunshine on whatever it is you don’t want to exist anymore. And indeed there has been an argument for a German nuclear deterrent, either in the form of Franco-German sharing or as an independent arm developed with French aid. However, this overlooks the simple fact that the majority of Germans aren’t too keen on nuclear weapons to begin with, and while it would solve the potential military need of putting nukes on a target, it does not adress decoupling (as a matter of fact, it can be argued to make the risk of decoupling US from its European NATO-allies higher). For the time being, the militarily less-effective US B61 free-fall tactical nuclear weapon might on a strategic scale actually be a better option than a German (or Franco-German) bomb. Crucially, it is also most likely the only option that has any hope of getting through the German parliament.

This brings the key question to the Tornado replacement program of what aircraft to certify for the B61. The Eurofighter is, at least according to Airbus, technically able to start lobbing nukes. However, this would obviously require the US to play along. The argument has been put forward that the nuclear sharing is important enough to the US that they would have no choice but to agree to integrating the B61 on any platform Germany wishes. There is probably some truth to this, but on the other hand it is likely that integration on a non-European platform could both require more work (i.e. it would take longer) and not receive the priority integration on a new US platform would get (i.e. it would take longer). This makes the Eurofighter less than ideal for the nuclear delivery mission, an in addition the German Air Force would like to avoid a single type fleet due to the risk of a safety issue grounding the whole fleet.

Which brings us back to the quest for a US solution. Some have voiced concern whether Germany would be interested in a US platform at all, and while it is true that currently Germany has an impressively European fleet, the country has been a prolific user of US fast jets up until rather recently in the form of both the F-4F Phantom II (retired in 2013) and F-104G Starfighter before that (retired in 1987). In addition, much of the current arsenal of weapons, including the AIM-9L Sidewinder, AIM-120 AMRAAM, and GBU-series of laser/GPS-guided bombs are all US made. While a new US-built fighter would likely add to the list of in-service weapons, it is hard to argue this would be any kind of a serious issue to an air force the size of Germany’s (especially considering the obsolescence issues currently facing the continued operation of the Tornado with it’s Cold War-era technology).

Having kicked out the F-35 due to political considerations, there are three more fighters being built in the US today: the F-15 Eagle, F-16, and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. As noted, the F-16 has seen service in Europe in the nuclear strike role, but the light multirole aircraft isn’t really the obvious place to go looking for a Tornado replacement, and in any case Lockheed Martin haven’t been interested in offering it to countries that are potential F-35 buyers. Boeing manufacture both the F-15 Eagle and the F/A-18 family, and the ‘Mudhen’, as the F-15E Strike Eagle is affectionately known, does hold a number of benefits over the ‘Rhino’. Crucially, the F-15E is already certified for the B61, including the latest B61-12 version, something that none of the other aircraft discussed here (including the F-35) currently is. The integrated conventional weapons also matches the current German arsenal more closely, including the Taurus KEPD-350 heavy cruise missile that is integrated on the Korean F-15K variant. The aircraft is also already based in Europe, as the USAF operate F-15E units from UK bases, and as such German Strike Eagles would slot directly into current NATO tactics. However, while the latest F-15E(X) is a very potent strike aircraft, it does suffer from the lack of a SEAD/DEAD-variant.

The F-15K Slam Eagle of the South Korean Air Force is a good example of the modern Strike Eagle family. Able to carry a lot of ordnance and go far, as opposed to the Tornado it can also hold it’s own in an air-to-air fight. Source: Republic of Korea Armed Forces via Wikimedia Commons

The issue can obviously be solved in a number of ways. Roger Näbig over at Konflikte & Sicherheit argues for the F-15E(X) for nuclear strike with the Eurofighter ECR taking over in the SEAD-role. This would probably be the simplest solution when it comes to getting the nuclear strike role sorted, but it is highly doubtful if the Eurofighter ECR would be ready by 2025, even if the German order was placed today.

And that is another piece in the puzzle that doesn’t get the attention it would need – the order isn’t exactly placed yet. While everyone seems to agree that the Tornado replacement really needs to happen (especially since it has already been delayed a number of times), the junior coalition partner SPD is decidedly unhappy with how the MoD has handled the issue, including bringing up a number of talking points:

  • The importance of the Eurofighter for German work,
  • Whether the nuclear sharing should continue at all,
  • The decision making process itself,
  • Why isn’t the F-35 under consideration, as it is used by the Netherlands for nuclear strike?

It is obviously not the same people asking the last two questions, but it shows how deeply torn the party on the issue. A real can of worms is what would happen if Germany would retire from the nuclear sharing altogether, as the former frontline state abandoning the politically tiring duty of hosting nukes would most likely not sit well with the current frontline states, several of whom already have varying degrees of trust issues when it comes to how strong Germany’s commitment to solidarity in case of an attack on Poland or the Baltic countries really is. Something of a nightmare scenario would be a German withdrawal followed by Poland (another F-35 buyer) requesting nuclear weapons on their soil instead, which would have all kinds of “interesting” political and deterrence effects. And if we see Trump reelected this autumn, I don’t hold it completely beyond the realms of possibility that some kind of bilateral US-Polish agreement could be worked out, with or without (likely the later) the approval of the other NATO countries.

The whole Tornado replacement deal obviously leaves ample room for political manoeuvring in Germany, especially considering the rather messy state that German domestic politics currently find itself in. As such, while there is a clear official line – Gareth Jennings had the very nice graphic capturing it all – it is far from certain that the deal will get through parliament any time soon.

In principle, the idea isn’t bad. A joint Eurofighter- (55 aircraft) and Super Hornet-fleet (30 aircraft) with the Super Hornets being dual-roled conventional and nuclear strike and the Eurofighters focusing on replacing the Tornado’s interdiction and reconnaissance capabilities, and 15 EA-18G Growlers in the escort jammer/SEAD role under the luWES program does solve the most pressing military and political issues. A key thing here is that, in the same way as with the current Tornado IDS/ECR-fleet, the EA-18G Growler and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet share a very high degree of commonality, meaning that the 45 Boeing fighters could all be served by the same ground equipment and maintenance organisation. While some have questioned the ability of the German Air Force to get a meaningful contribution out of 15 EA-18G Growlers, that’s two to three times the number of Growlers serving aboard any US Navy carrier at any given time. Especially considering the aforementioned synergies and economics of scale with the regular Super Hornets, I don’t see this as an issue. Both the Super Hornet and the Eurofighter are also fully multirole, although their designs are optimised somewhat differently, meaning that with the exception of the nuclear strike and EW-missions, they could stand in for each other if the need arises. A combined 45 aircraft fleet is also the size of a number of smaller air forces, so it is hard to see that as an argument against the split buy.

What does this mean for HX then? With the caveat that this is based on actually getting an inked German order before the HX decision is made, it would be a small additional credit for the two aircraft. For Eurofighter it further assures continued investment in the aircraft for the next few decades (though in this case it doesn’t help with the post-2050 part of the timeline), and as the German fleet likely will likely mean that the Taurus KEPD-350 is finally fully integrated and potentially some other new capabilities might be unlocked as well, it might be possible to squeeze some of these into the best and final offer at a cheaper price than what would otherwise have been the case. For the Super Hornet the difference is more marked, as the addition of another operator in the Baltic Sea region with deliveries under the same time frame open up possibilities for joint training and test and evaluation opportunities. While this is marketed as a stop-gap solution, Germany has had a tendency of keeping their fast jets in service for quite a while, and there is obviously a risk (or opportunity, if you are looking at this from Boeing’s angle) that the Super Hornet-era might stretch on quite a bit longer than currently envisioned (which likely was part of why France saw the F-35 as such a threat to the FCAS). However, over all the effects are largely marginal for the Finnish competition, and perhaps the most important is the hard-to-measure but still present factor of the idea that an aircraft has momentum on the market.