Germany plans to use the Boeing Super Hornet to fill a NATO requirement to field fighter aircraft capable of dropping the B61 nuclear gravity bomb. It will also buy Growlers to replace the Tornado Electronic Combat Reconnaissance aircraft.
According to German business publication Handelsblatt, the Luftwaffe (German Air Force) will reportedly buy up to 90 Eurofighters, 30 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and 15 EA-18G Growlers to replace the remainder of its Panavia Tornado IDS (InterDictor/Strike) and ECR (Electronic Combat Reconnaissance) fighter bomber fleet.
Germany plans to use the Boeing Super Hornet to fill a NATO requirement to field fighter aircraft capable of dropping the B61 nuclear gravity bomb. It will also buy Growlers to replace the Tornado ECR aircraft.
But, as reported by Defense News, the split procurement doesn’t offer an easy answer for Germany’s requirement to field a nuclear-capable jet, a U.K. defense think tank said.
Justin Bronk, a research fellow with the Royal United Services Institute, a U.K. based thinktank that covers defense issues, pointed out that only the legacy F/A-18 Hornet — not the Super Hornet — was ever certified to carry the B61. For this reason, the Super Hornet will have to go through the certification process, he explained. Bronk also called the split buy “the worst of all previously mooted outcomes.”
However even though the Super Hornet is not yet certified to carry the B61, Boeing spokesman Justin Gibbons said that the company has the US government’s support for future integration.
“The F/A-18 Super Hornet is capable of being certified to meet B61 requirements for Germany under its timeline. Boeing has a proven track record of successfully integrating weapons systems that meet the needs of both U.S. and international customers,” he said. Gibbons declined to comment on the timing of Germany’s deadline for competitive reasons.
Bronk also pointed out that while the Eurofighter offers greater power, lift and agility compared to the Super Hornet, it could be more politically difficult and time-consuming to certify the Typhoon as the Eurofighter consortium would have to hand over some technical details over the to the US government and US defense contractors to integrate it with the B61.
However, “neither Eurofighter nor Super Hornet are a credible delivery system for the B61 against Russian targets due to the vulnerability of both platforms to modern Russian air defenses,” he wrote.
Bronk said buying the F-35 represented the best chance to fielding a nuclear capable jet on a fast timeline: in fact, even if the F-35 is not yet capable of carrying the B61, integrating the Lightning II with the bomb is planned as part of the jet’s ongoing Block 4 modernization phase.
“If the DCA [dual capable aircraft] role is considered to require actual operational credibility from Germany, then the only feasible choice is the F-35A. Of all the potential aircraft on offer, the F-35A is the only one which represents an operationally credible B61 Mod 12 delivery solution. It will also be operated by all other European DCA members, offering shared training and maintenance burdens,” he said.
But, as already reported, in January 2019, defense officials eliminated the F-35 from the competition to replace the Tornado because picking an American plane would weaken the case for having such weapons be made by European companies in the future such as the Future Combat Air Systems (FCAS) program, led by Airbus and Dassault.
Germany has kept a subset of its approximately 80-strong Tornado fleet equipped to carry out the NATO nuclear-sharing doctrine. That means in the case of a hypothetical atomic war, German pilots would load their aircraft with U.S. nuclear bombs and drop them on their intended targets at the behest of the alliance.
While Germany’s nuclear mission periodically comes up as a source of controversy in the country, previous governments have left it untouched, portraying the largely symbolic assignment as a vital element of trans-Atlantic relations.
Photo credit: Luftwaffe, Boeing