Defence Bones of Contention with Germany (3/3): The Luftwaffe’s Nuclear Mission for NATO
(Source:; posted Dec. 2, 2021)

By Alistair Davidson
PARIS --- Technically complex, expensive and politically stormy, the debate on the German participation in NATO's nuclear mission (Nukleare Teilhabe), bringing together the worst qualities for a coalition as motley as that of the "traffic lights", promised to be a major stumbling block dividing “Realos” and “Fundis”, i.e, the realists and the utopians. The new coalition surprisingly quickly ended the debate (I). Surprised, an observer has two immediate questions: why? (II) and is the debate definitively closed? (III) ?

The technical and budgetary debate

The starter: the impossible modernization of the Tornados
In order to maintain German participation in the NATO’s nuclear mission (20 B61s to be modernized by the United States to the standard-12), the Défense Ministry had to replace the old Tornados, most of which were no longer able to fly. According to the Bundestag Budget Committee (2019), the Ministry estimates the costs of keeping the Tornado in service at more than € 9Bn, broken down as follows: € 5.64 Bn for maintenance in service; € 1.62 Bn for the development of obsolete parts; €1.58 Bn to procure the new parts.

Exit a major upgrade of the fleet: time is to the replacement of old fighters by new ones.

The danger: the impossible choice of the F-35

Among the fighters capable of performing such a special mission, the then Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Karl Müllner, had always hinted his preference for the F-35: in November 2017, he said that the “Luftwaffe considers the F-35’s capability as the benchmark for the selection process for the Tornado and I think I have expressed myself clearly enough as to what the favourite of the air force is.” This public outspoken statement clashed with the MoD’s planning, which preferred a solution involving at least the Eurofighter.

Besides, the F-35 option thwarted the position of the German government in hard negotiations with France on the future combat aircraft (FCAS/NGF) and infuriated the whole defence industry in Germany. Conclusion was easy to draw: General Müller should leave. He left, fired in May 2018.

A compromise…so German

Exit Müllner and his F-35 plans. Curiously refusing the Rafale for its nuclear mission, although the latter is the sole European fighter available for it, the German MoD tried to strike the balance between a US and a European solution (except a French one).

The compromise painfully struck combines a mix of Super-Hornets and Growlers for the strategic mission and of the EF-2000 for the ECR/SEAD/DEAD capability. Half-American, half-German, the solution was sound. 30 Super-Hornets and 15 Super-Growler would be purchased through the FMS channel, and 38 Qadriga EF-2000s will be ordered from Manching, which is on dire need of new orders, having no export customer to fill the gap between the end of German orders and the NGF.

For Airbus, this future order of 38 brand-new fighters (26 single-seaters and 7 two-seaters; 5 in option) was not the only good news. Of the 143 EF-2000s ordered by Germany (up to “Tranche 3A” included) and today all delivered, 33 are “Tranche 1” fighters which were delivered to the Luftwaffe between April 2004 and March 2008 (average age: 14 years). These are considered obsolete and will be replaced by new EF-2000s (a new "Tranche 4", formerly known as "Tranche 3B").

A political opposition…

The SPD, now the ruling and dominating party, was deeply divided over this issue. Most of MPs stood against loudly. The co-chairman of the SPD, Norbert Walter Borjans as well as parliamentary group leader Rolf Mützenich and parliamentary group vice-Chairman Gabriela Heinrich were all in favour of ending nuclear participation.

Its new partner, the Greens, was still in January 2021 on the same hard line: “The United Nations Nuclear Weapons Prohibition Treaty will come into force on January 22, 2021. All non-signatory states have to decide how they stand to this new international law norm - including Germany. We want the federal government to create the conditions to be able to accede to the treaty. To this end, the remaining US nuclear weapons must also be removed from German soil and nuclear participation must end.”.

The strategic surprise: why?

Why did a coalition of so many opponents to the NATO’s nuclear mission ultimately accept it? The Biden Administration and NATO were quite nervous on the position of the three political parties on this issue and sent key-envoys. Some articles, published in the German press, predicted that the nuclear mission would be terminated by the coalition, accentuating the pressure on Olaf Scholz. All in vain: the new coalition endorsed the mission.

Why? The sole explanation is simple: “Regierungsfähigkeit”. Germany, albeit being ruled by social-democrats and Greens, wants to be a trusted partner inside NATO. The horizon of the German defence system remains NATO: the European strategic autonomy is no longer criticized, but simply ignored. Any European initiative in defence issues can only be integrated in and being complementary to NATO. The defence group set-up after the general position paper (15th of October) had paved the way to a clear statement on this issue: the exact words of its secret paper (16th of November) were simply reproduced in the coalition contract (24th of November).

On European defence initiatives:
“In all of these steps, interoperability and complementarity with the command structures and capabilities of NATO must be ensured” (page 135).

On NATO’s contribution to the defence of Germany:
“NATO remains an essential condition for our security. We are committed to strengthen the transatlantic alliance and equitably share the burdens. We are actively participating in the process of developing a new strategic concept to meet the new challenges facing NATO. We want to achieve NATO's capability objectives in close cooperation with our partners and invest accordingly. We are committed to strengthening NATO's political dimension, also in order to address existing tensions within the alliance.” (Pages 144 & 145).

On NATO’s nuclear dimension:
“As long as nuclear weapons play a role in the strategic concept of the NATO, Germany has an interest in participating in strategic discussions and planning processes. In the context of the continuing threat to the security of Germany and Europe, we take the concerns of our partner states in Central and Eastern Europe particularly seriously, we are committed to maintaining a credible deterrent potential and wish continue the Alliance's dialogue efforts. We support the Alliance's efforts in conventional and nuclear disarmament and arms control. We will strengthen the European pillar of NATO and work for more intensive cooperation between NATO and the UE. “(Page 145).

On German nuclear mission on behalf of NATO:
“We will procure a successor system for the Tornado fighter aircraft at the beginning of the 20th legislative period. We will accompany the procurement and certification process with a view to [continue] Germany's nuclear participation objectively and conscientiously. (Page 149).

The Realos have prevailed against the utopians. The words “zu Beginn” (at the beginning) has a clear political weight: quicker this issue will be fixed, quicker the coalition can deal with other issues. Jane’s confirmed the rapid development: “Germany is expected to issue a letter of request (LOR) to the US government in the coming weeks, as it seeks to procure the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and EA-18G Growler aircraft.” (24 November 2021).

Is the debate really closed?

German nuclear schizophrenia

The coalition contract is a well-balanced one: if it agrees to pursue the nuclear mission, it also calls for a global disarmament and a nuclear-free Germany. The sub-section relating to disarmament, arms control and export control (page 145 & sq) balances the previous subsection on maintaining the NATO nuclear mission led by the Luftwaffe by recalling the fundamentals of the coalition:

"We need a resolute policy in favour of disarmament and want to play a leading role in strengthening international disarmament initiatives and non-proliferation regimes, in particular with the Stockholm Nuclear Disarmament Initiative (…). “We will ensure that the 2022 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference gives real impetus to nuclear disarmament. Our goal remains a world without nuclear weapons (Global Zero) and, therefore, a Germany without nuclear weapons. We are firmly committed to a NewSTART follow-up agreement which, in addition to new strategic nuclear weapon systems, also includes short and medium range systems. We advocate negotiations between the United States and Russia on complete disarmament in the sub-strategic area. We want to involve nuclear weapon states like China more closely in nuclear disarmament and arms control”.

Germany accepts NATO's nuclear mission as the lesser evil, but fundamentally disapproves deterrence and strongly advocates for a nuclear-free Germany. It will not accept the “strategic dialogue” that President Macron proposed in February 2020 nor it will to participate to the nuclear version of the NGF. In short, it agrees to submit to the worst deterrence possible (no national independence for the strike’s decision and dropping gravitational bombs of old design instead of hypersonic missiles).

The technical and budgetary debate is still ahead

The political decision to exclude the F-35 poses a serious technical and budgetary dilemma for the Government. The Super-Hornet is not certified for the nuclear mission. The question then is when and at what cost such a capability will be available.

The previous government agreed to pay €9Bn for the whole package: does the future coalition want to pay such a budget at a time where the priorities will put on social, environmental priorities?

It is widely acknowledged in the parliamentary circles that the utopians could search a kind of revenge when this issue will be examined by the MPs.


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