Germany to buy US F-35 jets in first big deal since defence budget boost

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Germany will purchase American-made F-35 fighter jets capable of carrying nuclear weapons in its first major defence deal since Berlin’s landmark decision to inject €100bn into the country’s armed forces.

Christine Lambrecht, German defence minister, said the F-35s, made by America’s Lockheed Martin, would replace some of the country’s ageing Tornado aircraft that have been flying since the 1980s. Germany will also upgrade its Eurofighter Typhoon jets for electronic warfare, she said.

The decision to go with the F-35 comes two weeks after the country launched a €100bn military modernisation fund and announced plans to reach a target of 2 per cent of its gross domestic product going on military spending by 2024 in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Tornado is the only German jet capable of carrying US nuclear weapons, which are stationed at Büchel, in the west of the country, as part of Nato’s “nuclear sharing” arrangement.

The news marks an about-turn from the position of Germany’s previous government, which in 2019 had ruled out the aircraft in favour of either more Eurofighters from Airbus, the European group, or Boeing-made F-18s.

Ingo Gerhartz, Germany’s air force commander, said on Monday that it was clear that there could only be “one answer” to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. “Unity in Nato and a credible deterrent. This in particular means there is no alternative but to choose the F-35,” he said, adding that it was the “most modern fighter in the world”. 

The decision, however, raises questions about the future of Europe’s next-generation Franco-German “Future Combat Air System” or FCAS. Paris has previously voiced fears that a German order to buy the F-35 could have made the FCAS project — due to form the backbone of both countries’ air forces after 2040 — redundant.

The programme has been hampered by divisions between the two main industrial partners, France’s Dassault and the pan-European Airbus. Eric Trappier, chief executive of Dassault, said recently that he had taken his engineers off the programme until his company was able to agree a way forward with Airbus and Spain’s Indra on the next steps.

Lambrecht insisted the programme was not in danger, noting that the Eurofighter would be replaced from 2040 with the FCAS. She added that she had reconfirmed Berlin’s commitment to the project to her French counterpart only last week.

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