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SPD stalls German fighter-jet replacement

February 1, 2019

Politicians in Berlin said they needed more time to decide how to replace an ageing fleet that must be nuclear capable. The Bundeswehr faces pressure to purchase European-made planes, though it favors American models.

German Tornado jets in Jordan
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler

A German military plan to buy new US warplanes to replace the ageing Tornado fighter jet fleet was delayed by Angela Merkel's coalition partners, the center-left SPD, on Thursday. 

Conservative Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen had hoped to lay out a procurement program to replace the Tornado, worth over €15 billion ($17 billion), by the end of 2018. But SPD politicians say they need more information and time.

The SPD's Wolfgang Hellmich, head of the parliamentary defense committee, said there was no rush to replace the Tornado fleet, as it is set to continue operating until 2035.

"We don't have to make an immediate decision," he said. "This is a complex issue, and we must understand it fully," Hellmich said.

Military officials have warned though that flying the ageing Tornadoes beyond 2030 could cost as much as €8 billion, due to the extra maintenance required.

Read more: German military lacks equipment and recruits, says damning report

New jet to have nuclear capabilities

The search for the Tornado's successor is one of the German military's key projects, as part of the country's efforts to invest more in improving its army.

Two key issues with the Tornado's replacement are that it must have the capability to carry a nuclear weapon and would have to be certified by the US, according to NATO rules.

US defense contractor Lockheed Martin's F-35 plane, along with Airbus' Eurofighter Typhoon and the Boeing F/A-18, was in the running to succeed Germany's ageing Tornado.

According to newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ), Germany's air force wanted the US-made F-35 jet, as it fulfilled the technical requirements.

Read more: What Germany's first armed drones could do

US plane purchases in doubt

But politicians in Berlin saw things differently. The deputy leader of the SPD parliamentary party, Rolf Mützenich, told SZ that the decision to replace the Tornado should also be evaluated in "the context of the arms race and the crises between NATO and Russia."

"In view of the foreseeable termination of the INF Treaty and the reintroduction of nuclear threats and warfare strategies, there must be no hasty decision," Mützenich warned of the Tornado's replacement.

Read more: Opinion: Europe caught in a dangerous nuclear trap

Pressure to choose a European-made plane has also come from neighboring France, which would see the F-35 purchase as an affront. Paris had warned Berlin that choosing the US-made plane would run counter to and derail plans to develop a new Franco-German jet fighter by 2040.

German defense ministry sources said the army will decide to replace the ageing Tornadoes with either the US-made Boeing F/A-18 or the Airbus' Eurofighter, but it will also consider the possibility of buying both planes.

jcg/aw (Reuters, dpa)

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