Germany plans to buy up to 35 US-made F-35 fighter jets and 15 Eurofighter jets, a parliamentary source said Monday, as part of a major push to modernise the armed forces in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The F-35 jets made by Lockheed Martin would replace Germany’s decades-old Tornado fleet, according to media reports confirmed by the source.
Tornados are the only Luftwaffe planes capable of carrying US nuclear bombs stationed in Germany that are a key part of NATO deterrence.
Lockheed’s F-35 stealth jets are considered the most modern combat aircraft in the world, and their unique shape and coating make them harder to detect by enemy radar.
The additional Eurofighter jets Germany plans to purchase, made by a consortium that includes Airbus, would reportedly be used for other operations, including escort missions and electronic warfare like jamming enemy air defence systems.
In a landmark speech late last month, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz pledged to invest an extra 100 billion euros ($112 billion) in the nation’s chronically underfunded Bundeswehr armed forces.
The spending boost marks a major reversal for Europe’s top economy, upending its policy of keeping a low military profile in part out of guilt over World War II.
After years of criticism that the country wasn’t shouldering enough of the financial burden in the NATO military alliance, Scholz also vowed to spend “more than two percent” of Germany’s gross domestic product annually on defence, surpassing NATO’s own two-percent target.
The shift was prompted by the return of war to the European continent following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, shaking Germany’s sense of security and shining a harsh spotlight on the state of its armed forces.
A draft budget for 2022 unveiled on Monday confirmed Germany’s spending ambitions.
If approved by parliament, the budget will see Berlin spending more than 50 billion euros this year on defence, a government source said, calling it a “record high”.
The amount comes on top of Scholz’s promised “special fund” of 100 billion euros to upgrade the armed forces over the coming years.
The F-35 purchase however raises questions about the future of a common European fighter jet being developed with Spain and France.
Known as the Future Combat Air System (FCAS), the plane is slated to replace French-made Rafale jets and German and Spanish Eurofighter planes by 2040.
Scholz sought to allay fears that the project might become unnecessary in February’s speech, by saying the joint European project was an “absolute priority”.
But the Bundeswehr has to replace its 40-year-old Tornado fleet in the short term because it has become “obsolete”, Scholz added.
Germany’s planned jet deal is also bad news for US aviation giant Boeing, whose F-18 fighters were considered a frontrunner to replace the Tornados.
While cheaper than F-35s, the F-18 would have had to have been recertified to be able to transport atomic warheads.
There was no immediate indication of the price tag on Germany’s new combat jet plans.
But Finland ordered 64 F-35A jets in December, in a deal worth 8.4 billion euros.
Germany’s Scholz-led government, which replaced Angela Merkel’s cabinet in December, re-committed to finding a successor to the Tornado in its coalition pact.
The coalition is made of up Scholz’s Social Democrats, the Greens and the pro-business FDP.
Days after Russia launched its first attack on Ukraine, Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, who chairs the parliament’s defence committee, said the Tornado issue needed to be resolved urgently.
The war in Ukraine has shown “that attacks are being carried out from the air and must be responded to accordingly”, the FDP lawmaker was quoted as saying by German media.
The F-35 programme has in the past been plagued by cost overruns and technical issues, but the multi-role supersonic jets have since become increasingly sought after by US allies.
As well as supplying the US armed forces, Lockheed has contracts with 14 countries including Britain, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Poland.
On its website, Lockheed describes the “long-range, highly manoeuvrable” F-35 as “the most lethal” fighter aircraft ever built.