Germany is preparing to shortlist a number of aircraft to meet a strike fighter requirement to replace its 89 Panavia Tornados in service early next decade.
But a Reuters report says, as the Luftwaffe prepares to reduce its list in the next few weeks, the ability of the selected aircraft to employ B-61 nuclear freefall weapons could be a key factor in the selection. The current list of contenders to replace the Tornado includes the Eurofighter EF2000, Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and F-15 Advanced Eagle, and the Lockheed Martin F-35A.
Germany already operates about 130 Eurofighters of a requirement for 143, but these are operated in the air defence and conventional strike roles.
It is not widely known that despite not being nuclear powers themselves, some NATO countries’ fighters and strike aircraft are certified by the US to employ US nuclear weapons stocks in a time of crisis. Germany, Belgium, Italy, Turkey and the Netherlands are all believed to have the capability to employ the B-61 integrated with some of their F-16s and Tornados, all of which are scheduled to be retired in the next decade.
With the retirement of these aircraft, any replacement aircraft will need to be certified to conduct the nuclear mission by the US, and the Reuters report quotes sources who say this process can take many years. Some of the countries have said their F-16 or Tornado replacements would also be nuclear capable, while others have reportedly hinted they would allow this capability to expire as the aircraft are retired.
“As NATO nations – if they choose not to upgrade their own nuclear aircraft capabilities, then other NATO nations that have those capabilities from an operational perspective will pick up the load,” Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh told the US House Armed Services Committee on March 14. “That’ll be a NATO policy decision. The US will be part of that discussion. We do have the capacity to pick up the load.”
To this end, Reuters says Germany’s defence ministry has asked the US Defense Department whether certification of the European-made Eurofighter will be possible. While the F-35 and the Super Hornet will likely be nuclear certified ‘out of the box’ due to their similarities with their US equivalents, Boeing’s company-funded Advanced Eagle might be sufficiently removed from the USAF’s F-15E that it may require a new certification.
The report say Airbus officials are confident the Eurofighter could be configured and certified for the nuclear mission by 2025, and they cited the example of the Tornado needing to be re-certified after several major upgrades in the past few decades.
Comment – While there is no stated policy for Australia to become a nuclear power, with the US’s posture shift to the Indo-Pacific region amid heightened territorial and geo-political tensions, and greater use of Australian base and range facilities by visiting US forces, there may be a prospect in the near future to pre-position US nuclear weapons stocks on Australian soil.
Further, with the RAAF soon to have a modern frontline air combat force of US origin, if tensions continue to rise in the wider region there may be scope for RAAF F-35s and F/A-18Fs to assume a nuclear free-fall or stand-off missile capability.