Germany has announced that it will buy 35 US-made F-35A fighter jets, the first major arms purchase to be publicly confirmed since Chancellor Olaf Scholz committed to ramping up his country’s defense spending in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The German government has made these decisions alongside a choice to become more active in European defenses. Scholz has also taken dramatic steps to limit Germany’s economic ties to Russia, including halting the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline.
The F-35s will replace Germany’s aging fleet of Tornados, the only planes in the Luftwaffe’s inventory capable of carrying US nuclear bombs that are stored in the country in case of war breaking out in Europe.
The decision to buy F-35s is significant as it will make Germany’s air force more compatible with the rest of NATO and other European defense partners who either operate or intend to purchase F-35s.
The US Defense Department said earlier this year that US Air Force F-35As in Europe would be certified to deploy the nuclear bombs before 2023.
The F-35 comes in three versions, A, B and C, with just the F-35A being outfitted with nuclear capabilities.
The fighter jets will be a significant upgrade for Germany. While the Tornado, which has been in active service since the 1980s and will be phased out by 2030, was capable of carrying US nuclear weapons, it has long been considered an out-of-date option in modern warfare.
“The Tornado was designed to penetrate air defenses by flying low, at transonic speeds. Going from that to the F-35 which combines stealth with unmatched situational awareness against aerial and ground-based threats, and its own electronic warfare capabilities … it’s just night and day,” said Justin Bronk, airpower and technology research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.
“Any situation where you are dropping a NATO nuclear weapon would involve penetrating the most formidable air defense networks in the world. Flying low and fast as the Tornado would into that is simply not credible in 2022,” he added.
The purchase of these jets comes in the broader context of an enormous Germany shift in defense strategy over the past three weeks. Germany, a country that has resisted becoming a military power since the end of World War II, has pledged to dramatically increase its defense budget in line with the 2% NATO requirement.
Scholz said that the increase in spending, which will leap from €47 billion in 2021 to €100 billion in 2022, was an acknowledgment that Germany “will have to invest more in the security of our country to protect our freedom and democracy.”
The increase in spending will make Germany the best-funded military in Western Europe and, post-Ukraine, it seems likely that Germany will be actively seeking to play a more prominent role in European security.
The prospect of Germany suddenly playing this larger role may cause some degree of concern in other European capitals. France, previously the biggest military voice in the European Union, has been a cheerleader of closer European defense integration. It is unclear how a new, better equipped German military will fit into the EU’s long-term defense thinking nor how it will act within NATO.