The coronavirus crisis has intensified the financial strain on national budgets and defense expenditures globally. Germany, whose armed forces already face significant equipment gaps, is no exception. Now, an internal debate over a major defense acquisition has revived public arguments over Germany’s nuclear-weapons cooperation with the United States and NATO, a longstanding issue that led to widespread protests in the 1970s and 80s.
The dispute is aggravated by the political tensions with the Trump administration – most recently over its unilateral announcement that it would withdraw a third of the 34,000 U.S. troops in Germany. The turmoil threatens to distract the German public and political class from the reality of the country’s defense posture, and highlights their uncertainty about Germany’s future role in the global order.
Critics of defense spending on Germany’s political left have vowed to take a closer look at planned projects of the German Bundeswehr, especially proposals to replace its aging Tornado fighter jet fleet by 2030. The Tornados are the only nuclear-capable fighter jets in the German arsenal. They make it possible for the German air force to deliver U.S. nuclear bombs based in Germany in the unlikely, but not impossible, case of a nuclear conflict. This arrangement allows Germany, which does not have its own nuclear weapons, to participate in NATO’s nuclear-sharing agreement and to be protected against adversaries by the U.S. nuclear umbrella.
Although the precise number and location of the U.S. nuclear warheads is a state secret, it is estimated that Germany hosts 15 to 20 B-61 bombs at Büchel Air Base in the country’s far west. Germany’s relationship with nuclear weapons and nuclear energy generally has been contentious throughout the history of the Federal Republic, and large parts of the German public remain critical of nuclear weapons on German soil.
Some critics in the German Bundestag have used this procurement question to re-launch a debate on whether the country should host nuclear weapons at all. Interestingly, this criticism is not only coming from the parliamentary opposition, which includes the Green Party that was founded on an anti-nuclear platform. The issue has also made waves in the Social Democratic Party (SDP) — the reluctant junior coalition partner of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The chairman of the SDP’s parliamentary group made headlines earlier this summer with his call to remove all nuclear weapons stationed in Germany.
Decreased Trust, Increased Fears
This has not only led to internal disagreements in the SDP. It has also put an uncomfortable spotlight on Merkel’s cabinet, which has to balance anti-nuclear sentiment among the German public, while at the same time demonstrating Germany’s commitment to NATO. General German distrust of the United States under President Donald Trump has made support of the alliance more complicated. So has his decision to withdraw the United States from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which limited the deployment of U.S. and Russian ground-launched missiles in Europe, citing evidence of Russian breaches of the treaty.
These developments, along with the Trump administration’s push in its Nuclear Posture Review for greater reliance on low-yield nuclear weapons as a flexible option to counter Russian aggression, have increased fears of a potential nuclear conflict, and bolstered calls within Germany for the European defense sector to build greater autonomy. Some Germans worry that Trump will hit the nuclear button in a fit of fury, or that the U.S. bombs on their soil make the country more of a target. Others, meanwhile, are concerned that the United States will not come to the defense of Europe in a potential nuclear standoff with Moscow.
None of these fears is really justified. The U.S. president could not unilaterally order the Bundeswehr to deploy the bombs — the German Chancellor and other Allies’ heads of states would be part of the decision. Moreover, without the nuclear umbrella, Germany would be more exposed to Russian threats.
A decision to remove the bombs, moreover, would place into question the country’s commitment to its allies on both sides of the Atlantic, potentially further damaging an already strained alliance. In an interview with the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung in late April, Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said that, while she supports the goal of global disarmament in the long term, removing the bombs would weaken Germany geo-strategically and undermine the country’s commitments to its NATO allies, neither of which she is willing to support.
Over the last months, Kramp-Karrenbauer and other German officials, including Foreign Minister Heiko Maas of the SDP, have been clear that at this time there is no alternative to NATO when it comes to German security alliances. However, wariness of U.S. commitments has made French President Emmanuel Macron’s push for greater European autonomy more attractive. The recent U.S. troop withdrawal announcement will likely add fuel to the fire.
A Joint French-German Fighter
In 2017, Merkel and Macron announced that their two countries would be developing a French-German New Generation Fighter, or NGF, as part of a European combat system, the Future Combat Air System, or FCAS. The development of the system is driven by the European aerospace industry, with heavy French involvement, namely by Airbus, whose Defense and Space unit is based in Bavaria, and by Dassault Aviation. The NGF, which is considered a sixth-generation fighter, is set to replace the Tornados in the long run. One problem: It is not expected to be operational until 2040.
So Germany has been looking for interim options to bridge this 10-year gap. According to the Defense Ministry, a smooth transition would require procurement to begin in 2025. For that to be achieved, the ministry envisions parliamentary approval by 2022 or 2023, at the latest.
Potential successor models include two American and one European fighter jet: Lockheed Martin’s F-35, favored by many NATO Allies as the most advanced model, Boeing’s F-18, and Airbus’ Eurofighter Typhoon. Germany eliminated the F-35 from its shortlist last year, amid concerns that the procurement could take the steam out of the French-German joint fighter program. As a compromise, the German Defense Ministry has now recommended the acquisition of approximately 45 upgraded Boeing F-18 jets to fulfill the nuclear-sharing capabilities of the current Tornados, and 90 additional Eurofighters to be used for other missions.
This proposed compromise of accommodating allies on both sides of the Atlantic has not eased tensions at home. On the contrary, reports indicating that Kramp-Karrenbauer told the Pentagon about Germany’s intent to buy Boeing’s F-18, without the required parliamentary approval, caused outrage in the German Parliament in late April. While the minister denied that she made any commitment to buy the American fighter jets, the development has nonetheless further strained relations with factions in the German parliament.
Germany’s uncomfortable balancing act between preserving relations with the United States and propping up the European defense industry is creating an opening for domestic critics of Germany’s defense posture. It is also further complicating relations with the United States. Trump’s troop withdrawal announcement is just one more step in this downward spiral.
No Alternative to the United States
European member states unquestionably need to shore up their investment in the European defense industry – to be better prepared to deter against both conventional and new threats ranging from hybrid to bio warfare. But an independent “eurodeterrent” remains a pipe dream in the foreseeable future – not only due to prohibitive cost and logistical hurdles, but also given inter-European political differences. There is not — and will not be — an alternative to the U.S. nuclear umbrella in the short- or medium term. In fact, projected shortages in defense spending and gaps in capabilities in the aftermath of the current crisis make this security guarantee more important than ever.
With this in mind, German policymakers must weigh their steps carefully – despite U.S. provocations — and understand what their decisions are communicating to allies on both sides of the Atlantic. Rather than dancing around the nuclear question, they should be honest with their constituents to help them understand what’s at stake, despite the difficulties of that public debate.
The pandemic has revealed a number of unforeseen vulnerabilities, while once again demonstrating the importance of global cooperation and the danger of nationalist approaches. Responding to Trump’s “America First” policy in kind with a “Europe first” approach may be tempting in the short term, but it is not in Germany’s or Europe’s interest in the long term.
Alliances, once broken, are hard to mend. There will be a time after Trump. And when that time comes, Europe will still need the United States, and the United States will still need Europe. In the meantime, German policymakers across the political spectrum should let cooler heads prevail. Infighting within Germany and within the transatlantic alliance will benefit none of the parties. It will only play into the hands of revisionist powers like Russia and China, and make Europe less secure.