The Ukrainian crisis has given Germany the opportunity to completely rethink its defence policy. Chancellor Olaf Scholz has declared himself in favour of a massive increase in the German military budget, to the point of exceeding the 2% of GDP threshold recommended by NATO.
While Germany is the fourth largest arms exporter in the world, with a record set in 2021 for the number of contracts signed, the German military is not in the best shape. The army has undergone a continuous process of downsizing—from around 500,000 at the time of reunification in 1990, to just 200,000 today. Its equipment is ageing, making it unfit for function in the field, be it to help its neighbours or to defend its own territory. The head of the army himself stated, following the outbreak of war by Moscow, that the Bundeswehr was “naked.”
It is therefore time for investments. But the investments that Germany is preparing to make will not benefit the European arms industry. The German government has announced that it will buy 35 F-35 fighter jets from U.S. aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin to replace the old fleet of Tornados, at a cost of $15 billion. The Tornado, the multi-role fighter developed jointly by Italy, the UK, and West Germany in the 1970s, had become obsolete. Germany is therefore replacing a product of European cooperation with an American-made aircraft, pointing to the “modernity” of the aircraft and its use by several of Germany’s partners: “Now we need the F-35, the most modern fighter in the world and used by many of our partners,” explained MEP Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, chairman of the Defence Committee.
The Tornados were previously the only German aircraft capable of carrying U.S. atomic missiles in the event of a conflict. The F-35s will also have the main task of carrying U.S. atomic missiles in NATO operations.
Olaf Scholz’s decision is a blow to European cooperation, even though a fortnight ago the German Chancellor supported the joint programme underway between Paris, Berlin, and Madrid. France, Germany, and Spain were indeed working on the FCAS project (Future Combat Air System) which was intended to replace the French Rafale fighter aircraft and the German-Spanish Eurofighters by 2040. The project was launched by Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel in July 2017 in order to strengthen European strategic autonomy. When it was launched, it was far from unanimous. Ursula von der Leyen, who was Minister of Defence at the time, was criticised for France’s excessive control over the project. Italy, the United Kingdom, and Sweden had also expressed their desire to develop a competing project.
Although Olaf Scholz has insisted that the construction of a European fighter should remain “an absolute priority,” the acquisition of the F-35 could lead to Germany simply eliminating its need for a European fighter aircraft. This risk has been highlighted in a parliamentary report by French MPs.
The FCAS project, often presented as being at the heart of the European defence project, has also been weakened by ongoing rivalries between France’s Dassault and Airbus, which represents German and Spanish interests. At a time when the Ukrainian crisis is highlighting Europe’s diplomatic fragility, the German order to the United States has further elevated doubts that a project for military collaboration between EU countries will happen.
Hélène de Lauzun studied at the École Normale Supérieure de Paris. She taught French literature and civilization at Harvard and received a Ph.D. in History from the Sorbonne. She is the author of Histoire de l’Autriche (Perrin, 2021).