A Tornado in a Teacup? Examining Germany's Alleged Nuclear Strike Aircraft Modernisation

Leaked information to the German press alleges that the coalition government has reneged on a previous pledge to remove US tactical nuclear weapons from Germany. The subsequent reporting frenzy heightens the decades-long national anxiety over nuclear issues. But it seems no one has paused to ask whether the original allegations stand-up to scrutiny. 

The German government has decided to commit €250 million to modernise its ageing Tornado fighter jets - the delivery vehicles for US tactical nuclear weapons stationed in Germany as part of the NATO nuclear deterrent. It has also reversed its previous pledge to remove US bombs from German soil, contributing to Obama's vision of a nuclear weapons-free world and appeasing a German public sensitive to nuclear issues. This effectively makes the country's future a nuclear one for at least the next decade. Or so the German press is claiming.

Citing 'military experts', the Berliner Zeitung reported a two-part decision by the coalition government: they will agree to have 'American [tactical nuclear] weapons stay in the country' and be modernised, effectively reversing the government's election promise to evict the bombs; and the military will put in €250 million to extend the life of its nuclear-capable Tornados until 2024. Berlin allegedly told NATO counterparts at the Chicago Summit of these intentions back in May. Its change of heart, the Berliner Zeitung claims, allowed for a consensus agreement on NATO's Defence and Deterrence Posture Review (DDPR), which said that 'the Alliance's nuclear force posture currently meets the criteria for an effective deterrence and defence posture' and that NATO will 'remain a nuclear alliance for as long as nuclear weapons exist'.

Germany's Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to the paper by saying that it remains committed to removing US tactical nuclear weapons from the country. 'No one in the federal government... thought this would be an easy task'. And Germany has already made notable progress within NATO towards promoting and realising the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from Büchel air base. Indeed, unlike previous NATO statements, the DDPR explicitly mentions that the Alliance 'is prepared to consider further reducing its requirement for non-strategic nuclear weapons assigned to the Alliance', albeit in the context of reciprocal reductions by Russia.

The story has sparked furious debate in the German press, playing off the historical attentiveness of the German electorate to any political decisions that can be construed as pro-nuclear. Representatives of each of the three opposition parties in the Bundestag have already taken the opportunity to lambast the coalition. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who was famously characterised as a 'wild card' in a Wikileaks cable, has been especially targeted.

Bombs Away?

This is a classic case of a media echo chamber. The entire story rests on a leak from an unidentified military expert. And it is a peculiar leak at that. Most remarkably, the first revelation in the Berliner Zeitung is that Germany has acquiesced not only to the continued presence of nuclear weapons in the country, but also to their billion dollar Life Extension Program and modernisation. The bombs are US-owned, and Washington has made clear that any decision over their future is one which the twenty-eight NATO Member States should take collectively. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle pledge that 'In the coming government term Germany will at last become free of nuclear weapons', sparked fears amongst many in NATO that the 28-nation consensus on this issue would be rendered impossible. To have backed down from this position would, as the press suggests, be a massive shift in policy for the coalition government.

It seems politically unwise for the government to take a concrete decision on this now. Next year, Germans will go to the polls to elect a new Bundestag. Were the coalition to push through an unpopular Dual Capable Aircraft modernisation package as part of this autumn's budget, they may feel the consequences in 2013.

In a similar vein, the idea that Germany would have to acquiesce to the planned, though delayed US B-61 Life Extension Program is curious. The life extension of the B-61 is purely an American decision. Surely the question for the German government is not whether the bombs should be modernised, as the end of their shelf life is rapidly approaching, but whether or not tactical nuclear weapons should be on German soil at all. Compounding misinformation, the opposition has jumped on the chance to convince the German public that the government is agreeing to station effectively new and scary weapons at Büchel air base. 'The US modernisation of these weapons threatens to void the strict division between tactical and strategic weapons', said the Social Democratic Party foreign affairs member Gernot Erler.

Tornado Life Support

Unsurprisingly, questions surrounding the first part of the Berliner Zeitung's revelation cast doubt over the leak's overall reliability.  But we should also pause to consider the enormous uncertainty that associated with the allegation that Germany has decided to keep its aircraft in service until the 2020s. This second reported component of the report, that the government would extend the life of its Dual Capable Aircraft (DCA), seems more plausible. Perhaps the Berliner Zeitung inadvertently, but falsely conflated delivery vehicle modernisation with warhead modernisation, and concluded that Angela Merkel's coalition has determined the entire package should stay.

There are a few possible explanations for Berlin's reported Tornado upgrade announcement at the NATO Chicago Summit. Firstly, as the Berliner Zeitung suggests, it is possible that German officials told their NATO counterparts that the coalition would extend the life of their delivery aircraft until the Alliance could formulate a unified approach to withdrawing, reducing, or consolidating, the nuclear weapons stationed in Europe. Indeed, Berlin will have been under great pressure not to prevent Alliance cohesion on this already divisive issue.

The government's public silence from May until now may have been the result of a careful strategy to release news of the commitment at a time when it would be least detrimental to the coalition's public approval ratings. Surely, the 'black-yellow' coalition has learned that their population's traditionally emotional reaction to nuclear issues carries political consequences. The Christian Democratic Union surrendered its hold on Baden-Württemberg to the Greens, after finding itself on the 'wrong side of the nuclear debate' over Fukushima. Managing news of a policy reversal, or at least a 12-year deferral of the pledged expulsion of nuclear weapons, is always tricky business.

Secondly, the decision to modernise the delivery aircraft may not even have been taken. The coalition may have told the Chicago Summit that it has not yet ruled out the option of modernising its Dual Capable Aircraft. But this does not mean that Berlin has settled on the idea. The source of the Berliner Zeitung's story may have personally disapproved of the prospect that some strike aircraft would continue to have a nuclear role until the 2020s. As Jeffrey Lewis reminded in Foreign Affairs, leaked information is generally 'half the story'. And it is usually the half which a source is inclined to see appealed through the press. Alternatively, the German government, aware of the sensitivity of nuclear decisions, may be testing the waters for the public's reaction in the year preceding the next federal election.

An Unreliable Revelation

In light of these myriad uncertainties, it is premature to conclude that any of the Berliner Zeitung's allegations are based in fact.* Deciding firmly that the bombs will stay so close to an election would be an obvious political blunder. And there may be alternate explanations for the Tornado life extension revelations which do not involve a firm decision by the government. In fact, the Social Democratic Party - the second largest in the Bundestag - has already called for a debate over the issue to be held in parliament in the coming months. Should that take place, more reliable details will likely emerge. However, until that time, the press debate is a storm in a teacup.

*Update 10.09.2012: New details on the story have clarified the source of the Berliner Zeitung's information. Contrary to what is implied in the original report by the Berliner Zeitung  (and in the numerous other media reports in its wake), the paper did not base its piece on a conversation with an unnamed military expert, but on an article written by Karl-Heinz Kamp of the NATO Defense College in Rome. In that article he mentions that the government will be spending €250 million to extend the life of the Luftwaffe's Tornados to 2024. Further investigation suggests that the €250 million figure relates exclusively to Germany's nuclear-capable Tornados. Extension of the Tornado's life to 2018 may also have been discussed by the German government and Bundeswehr already in 2011, and amended to 2024 following announced delays to the US B-61 modernisation programme. Therefore, the situation points to our first postulation - that the government may have disclosed its plans to the NATO Chicago Summit, but kept details quiet for fear of inviting public backlash at a crucial juncture in federal politics. (A reading of Kamp's article also highlights that media claims of the German government's 'approval' of the B-61 modernisation are purely journalistic license on the part of the Berliner Zeitung and others.)


Andrea Berger

Associate Fellow

View profile

Explore our related content