Germany, the Tornado, and the future of NATO

Germany’s nuclear sharing role in NATO is no given – and what political leaders in Berlin do next will have implications for the whole alliance.

Germany’s struggle to decide on a successor for its aging Tornado fighter aircraft truly is a story that keeps on giving. Since the 2000s, the Eurofighter has assumed many of the old workhorse’s functions, but some of the 85 remaining Tornados still provide the capability to carry forward-deployed US nuclear bombs. In doing so, they facilitate Germany’s contribution to nuclear burden sharing in NATO.

German lawmakers have spent many years considering, reconsidering, and contemplating options to replace the Tornado. But it is possible that the story may now – slowly – be reaching its final pages: defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer recently notified her US counterpart that Germany was considering placing an order for 45 American-made F-18 jets to assume the Tornado’s electronic-warfare and nuclear-sharing roles. Her Social Democratic coalition partners were quick to cry foul, however, pointing to what they perceived as disregard for proper procedure.

Rather than the process of the matter, though, it is the politics that the Social Democrats are actually upset about. Some in the party’s anti-nuclear wing might have hoped that delaying tactics could solve the issue for them. This could have come about either by having the Tornado age out without a dual-capable successor in place to facilitate Germany’s participation in nuclear sharing, or by leaving the issue for the next government to solve. A future SPD-led government could then, once and for all, bring an end to Germany’s participation in NATO nuclear sharing. Or, if the SPD ends up in opposition – which looks likely, as things stand today – it could criticise the government from the sidelines. But Kramp-Karrenbauer’s initiative forces them to take a position now: either maintain Germany’s ability to contribute a dual-capable aircraft capability to NATO or risk a serious falling-out with their coalition partner.

Nuclear disarmament is not an invalid political goal – it is enshrined in international law no less. But were German politics in the coming years to move in this direction and fail to replace the Tornado, it could put the fundamentals of the European security order under great pressure.

Over the years, a string of issues has grown long enough to cause NATO members to question Germany’s place in the alliance. German defence spending may have risen very recently, but it still falls far short of the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP by 2024. The coronavirus is now sure to place tremendous downward pressure on the defence budget, such that Germany might not even meet its own goal of reaching the target by 2031. Germany is also signed up to committing 20 percent of its defence expenditure to major equipment spending, but is nowhere near reaching it. Add to all this a rejection of sharing the nuclear burden, the credibility of Germany’s commitment to NATO would seriously suffer.

Eastern members of NATO would interpret Germany’s dual-capable aircraft renewal as a direct expression of solidarity with them

It is not only the older members of the alliance that are anxious to see Germany live up to its oft-made assurances. During the cold war, West Germany was a net consumer of the security provided by its allies, first and foremost the United States. Today, it is Germany’s eastern neighbours that are on the frontline. And many of these neighbours consider extended nuclear deterrence essential for their own security. They would interpret Germany’s dual-capable aircraft renewal as a direct expression of solidarity.

Without dual-capable aircraft in its arsenal Germany could still contribute to the alliance’s SNOWCAT (Support of Nuclear Operations With Conventional Air Tactics) programme by having its non-nuclear Eurofighters escort allied dual-capable aircraft. It could also continue to participate in the high-level Nuclear Planning Group and related forums in which all NATO members apart from France confer on issues associated with nuclear forces. But its influence on nuclear matters within the alliance, including arms control and disarmament, would diminish considerably. The “détente” portion of NATO’s basic policy of combining deterrence and détente – traditionally of great interest to Germany’s political left – would lose an important champion. The loss of Germany’s influence might even extend beyond the nuclear realm: the US, France, and the United Kingdom would be unlikely to continue consulting with Germany in the informal Quad group if it is unwilling to share either the financial or the nuclear burdens of collective defence and deterrence.

Germany abandoning its dual-capable aircraft could even mark the beginning of the end for nuclear burden sharing in NATO. Public opinion in the three other countries that contribute dual-capable aircraft to the nuclear mission – Italy, Belgium, and the Netherlands – is even less enthusiastic about nuclear deterrence than it is in Germany. If Germany were to quit, such allies may eventually follow suit. In turn, other NATO members with more favourable views of nuclear deterrence, like Poland or Romania, might seek bilateral agreements with the US to satisfy their security needs. Either way, the alliance’s deterrence and defence posture would become even more beholden to Washington.

Finally, failure to replace the Tornado could affect the future of arms in Europe. Cold war arms control was not driven solely by moral concerns, but also by practical considerations centring around particular weapons. As the international arms control architecture crumbles, Europeans rightly lament the ending of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the less-than-certain future of the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. But moralistic arguments alone will hardly entice Russia to the negotiation table. Without forward-deployed US nuclear gravity bombs and European dual-capable aircraft to carry them to their targets, NATO would have much less to offer in exchange for Russia’s estimated 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons.

All German lawmakers should think these issues through and consider their implications for national and European security, Germany’s ambitions and credibility, and NATO cohesion and arms control. If they decide that renewal is necessary, they should work to convince their constituents of the arguments and not hide behind delaying tactics and purported concerns over “proper procurement procedure.” While the Social Democrats must address these issues most urgently, other parties – such as the Greens and the Free Democrats – could also end up taking this decision: Kramp-Karrenbauer has penned only the opening lines in the last chapter of the Tornado. Its story will finally conclude after next year’s federal election, when the renewal decision is due. Given the importance of this issue to the future of German and European defence, voters deserve – and NATO allies will want to scrutinise – political parties’ stance on Germany’s place in nuclear burden sharing. They should decide now where they stand, and do so in an open, transparent, and principled way.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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