The Weekly Wire: For Your Situational Awareness 4/23/20
Germany Makes A Long-Awaited but Complicated Fighter Decision
Hamilton Cook, Research Associate
On April 21, German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbaur announced that the government had finalized plans to replace its aging fleet of Tornado fighter-bombers and outdated Tranche 1 Eurofighters in a decision fraught with political and industrial implications.
The plan would see the Luftwaffe receive 30 F/A-18F Super Hornets, 15 E/A-18 Growlers, and up to 93 new Tranche 4 Eurofighters. The new Eurofighter acquisition would replace 38 aging Tranche 1 aircraft which have been significantly outpaced by the advancements of newer variants. 40 Eurofighters would replace the Tornado’s role in conventional operations, and there would be an option for 15 Eurofighters designed to replace the Tornado ECR in electronic warfare operations. These would augment the 15 E/A-18 Growlers currently being procured to lead air-based electronic warfare. The Luftwaffe would receive 30 two-seat F/A-18F Block III Super Hornets for use as nuclear strike aircraft.
The decision has been fraught with high-level industrial and political drama as the German government was forced to grapple with the significant military and industrial implications of replacing what would seem to be an innocuous fighter-bomber. Due to the Tornado’s role as the Luftwaffe’s nuclear delivery platform and electronic warfare aircraft, there was a significant push by the American government, Lockheed Martin, and portions of the Luftwaffe to have the F-35 serve as the primary replacement for the Tornado. However, some in the German government and industry feared the cascading impacts of providing the F-35 more foothold in Europe, particularly for its potential impact on future European fighter programs and follow-on Eurofighter orders. Further complicating the issue was the US government’s insistence on the use of American aircraft as the delivery platform for American nuclear bombs in the region. Thus, this compromise was struck, and the Luftwaffe will receive the F/A-18 instead.
The acquisition of Tranche 4 Eurofighters has significant implications for the Eurofighter industrial base. It will likely extend the production line an additional five to seven years beyond the conclusion of the Kuwait order in 2023. More importantly, it will provide a major launch customer for the Tranche 4 Eurofighter. This will put additional pressure on other members of the Eurofighter consortium who are also looking to replace aging fighter fleets in the outyears, particularly Spain. Meanwhile, an electronic combat variant of the Eurofighter would challenge an E/A-18 that is effectively unchallenged in defense markets and align with the Luftwaffe’s previously stated ambitions to develop an A400M-based rival to the EC-130.
For Boeing, this is also a boon. The sale of an additional 45 Super Hornets will help extend the St. Louis line out an additional two to four years, but also offset the US Navy’s cut of the Super Hornet production in favor of increasing the F/A-XX spending. This will keep the Super Hornet line in play, and economical, for other international opportunities, particularly the F/A-18 replacement in Finland, even as St. Louis shifts back toward increased F-15 production.
On April 16, German public media reported that the government is facilitating talks to potentially merge the largest German naval shipbuilders. These are Lurssen, German Naval Yards Kiel (GNYK), and ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS). This follows the selection of Dutch-shipbuilder Damen for the MKS 180 frigate project. Damen leads a team that includes Lurssen, which is slated to build the ships in Germany. Unlike other European naval shipbuilders like Fincantieri and Navantia, German naval shipbuilders are still privately owned as opposed to state-owned. But competition has increased greatly, forcing the German shipbuilders to merge into a national shipbuilding champion. Consolidation in European naval shipbuilding has already taken a big step with a joint venture between Fincantieri and Naval Group signed last June. Consolidation is hoped to improve competitiveness and help European shipbuilders win export orders.
But European shipbuilders are not alone. Mergers are also taking place in China, Japan, and South Korea, which together account for about 90% of 2020 global shipbuilding orders by tonnage. China State Shipbuilding Corporation and China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation merged last November to form the world’s largest shipbuilding company. South Korea’s Hyundai Heavy Industries (recently renamed to Korea Shipbuilding & Offshore Engineering) and Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering are attempting to merge pending an anti-trust probe. In Japan, Imabari Shipbuilding and Japan Marine United signed an alliance agreement last December. These Asian shipbuilding giants will have naval shipbuilding arms supported by large commercial shipbuilding expertise and facilities.
On April 21, the US and Norway announced their continued partnership on researching solid fuel ramjet technologies, specifically focusing on Tactical High-speed Offensive Ramjet for Extended Range (THOR-ER). The hypersonic research efforts are part of the Allied Prototyping Initiative, a program that was launched in January 2020 in which it “leverages existing frameworks for international cooperation in research and development to expand prototyping opportunities on a shared-contribution basis” with allied countries. Agency’s involved in the THOR-ER research and development include the US Navy’s Naval Air Warfare Center, the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, and the Norwegian firm Nammo. The goal of the THOR-ER program is to develop full-size prototypes capable of reaching hypersonic speeds with an extended range that would eventually lead to co-production efforts between both nations. Norway’s Nammo has been developing extended range ramjet propulsion for artillery since 2018, and revealed its missile engine with ramjet propulsion during the 2019 Defence and Security Equipment International. Nammo’s new missile engine has a range of 400 kilometers but could be extended with a booster capability and can reach speeds between Mach 3.5-5. Artillery with hypersonic propulsion and extended range is an attractive capability, especially for European countries bordering Russia or within reach of Russia’s air-and-missile defense systems as regional tensions continue.
On April 20, Estonia commissioned the construction of two new 18-meter patrol vessels. The new ships will be built by Baltic Workboats, and the contract is valued at approximately $4.2 million. Currently, construction is set to begin by the end of 2020 and the new patrol ships are expected to enter service in 2021. Estonia appears to have made the decision to choose Baltic Workboats based on a desire to support its indigenous defense industry, and to help bolster Estonian defense exports by providing proof of their construction capabilities. The new ships will most likely be used to protect visiting warships from Estonia’s allies, and to perform limited intelligence operations.