Germany's decision to buy US-made F-35s has raised hackles among domestic arms producers. Image: US Air Force

The German government’s decision to purchase US-made F-35 fighter jets has the local defense industry up in arms, with contractors and others firing off that the deal will deepen dependency, undermine strategic autonomy and divert profits away from domestic arms producers.   

The EurAsian Times reported that leading German defense industry representatives have openly criticized the Olaf Scholz government’s F-35 purchase decision as inimical to the domestic defense industry, with some pillorying the lack of German involvement in the future maintenance and manufacturing of the top-tier stealth jets.

Citing the German publication Wirtschaft, the EurAsian Times report said that the Federal Association of the German Aerospace Industry (BDLI) erred in not involving the country’s defense industry in the maintenance, repair and support of the big-ticket American-made aircraft. The BDLI also criticized the purchase as encouraging dependency on the US at the cost of strategic autonomy.

“The new fighter jets or helicopters for the Bundeswehr could therefore be not maintained in Germany, but in other European countries in the network of the US Armed Forces, or by the US companies Lockheed (F-35) or Boeing (Chinook). This creates a dangerous dependency,” said BDLI President Martin Kroell, as quoted this month in a video by Crux.

He emphasized that German industry should sit at the table on an equal footing and “not leave everything to friends in the US.” However, Kroell acknowledged that the participation of German firms could increase slightly the cost of the acquisition and that the US could take advantage of this to raise prices.

Germany’s decision to purchase F-35s, made in March this year, was likely influenced by US pressure to ramp up purchases of American-made weapons amid the war in Ukraine. The acquisition decision was made even though France, Germany and Spain possibly have better fighter jets in the works via their joint Future Combat Air System (FCAS) program.

Division of labor issues, however, may push the planned 6th-generation fighter’s development further into the future, causing Germany to fall back on F-35s as a stopgap measure until the FCAS program gets up to speed.

In 2018, the Donald Trump administration identified Germany as a US ally that must increase defense spending to lessen the financial burden on America. In that spirit, the Trump administration said the F-35 was a suitable contender for Germany’s Tornado fighter replacement program.

A conceptual image of the sixth-generation FCAS fighter aircraft. Image: Handout, Illustration

Trump’s push came despite Germany’s known preference for the Eurofighter Typhoon and concerns that the F-35 was unproven in combat, carried a hefty price tag of US$85 million per jet and had unspecified mechanical issues, as reported by Express.

Germany nonetheless agreed to purchase the F-35 to replace its Tornado aircraft to maintain its nuclear-sharing strike role, with the country planning to buy 35 F-35 units, as reported by Breaking Defense this March.

Financial Times reported this month that Germany’s F-35 purchase has sparked concerns in France that Germany was cooling on or aiming to slow the FCAS project’s development timeline. In response, Germany argued that its F-35 purchase was necessary to ensure its continued role in NATO nuclear-sharing at a time Russia threatened to use nuclear weapons over its war in Ukraine.

In a bid to assuage French concerns, German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht stressed that it is essential for critical technologies to remain in Germany and Europe and that the FCAS development project will continue, as mentioned by Breaking Defense.

The FCAS program has appeared to stall for multiple reasons, including divergent strategic perspectives between France and Germany and issues over the division of labor.

Justin Bronk notes in a 2021 article for the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) that France views the FCAS project differently than Germany. He notes that France requires power projection capabilities due to its interests in North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East while at the same time maintaining a nuclear deterrent.

These requirements contrast with Germany’s pacifist political orientation, emphasis on counter-air capabilities over long-range strikes and its politically contentious nuclear-sharing agreement with NATO.

Apart from diverging strategic perspectives, division of labor issues have also stalled the FCAS project. In June, FlightGlobal reported that French Dassault and Airbus are at odds with providing the FCAS’ flight control software. Dassault insists that the software be shared among partners while Airbus is pushing for its software to be used in the project.

The report mentions that FCAS partners Germany and Spain will likely insist on full cooperation or technology access. However, the report notes that Airbus provides the flight control software for the Dassault Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon, which are rivals in current-generation fighter sales and that Airbus is unlikely to cede any advantage in this area.

These contentious issues have resulted in unacceptably long delays in the FCAS’ development. For example, in a September 2022 article, Breaking Defense quoted an unnamed French defense expert saying the FCAS is “behind schedule not only because the German Bundestag has to vote for every defense procurement but also because the three partners are bickering over who gets to do what.”

A French Rafale fighter jet is catapulted from the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle off the eastern coast of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea on February 10, 2020. Photo: AFP / Mario Goldman

The report notes that these disagreements have pushed plans to deploy the FCAS to replace French Rafales and German Eurofighters from 2040 to the 2050s.

Nevertheless, France and Germany are determined to push on with the FCAS project, with both sides agreeing to iron out their differences. Financial Times reports this month that Dassault and Airbus are close to formally advancing the FCAS project into building a demonstrator jet.

The report notes that France and Germany are determined to make the FCAS project work despite delays and competing projects such as the UK-Italian and possibly Japanese Tempest project, as FCAS has significant implications for Europe’s strategic autonomy, European defense and security ties, and the European aerospace industry.