Germany’s Panavia Tornado ECR fleet is slowly but surely nearing the end of its operational life. Commissioned to service in 1974, these aircraft are now “suffering” from a low rate of availability and very high maintenance costs, according to the German Court of Auditors, so the decision was made to have them replaced by the end of 2030. The problem that the Germans now have is that they need, as part of their obligations as a NATO member, an aircraft that could both carry a tactical B.61 thermonuclear bomb and could take over the missions of the Panavia Tornado ECR. In need of about 138 aircraft, the Luftwaffe officials began prospecting the market in order to find a replacement. Obviously, they looked first at the European aircraft industry as Germany had played an important part in the research and financial effort during the development of the European fighter. And as there is no other available European made fighter, they obviously stopped at the Eurofigher Typhoon 2000. But they also took a good look at the F-18 aircraft manufactured by Boeing, which would be the only one, at this moment, that could be rapidly certified (much faster than the Eurofighter Typhoon) as a nuclear-capable aircraft.
In the end, the decision was a rational one, but especially diplomatic, as Berlin chose to buy 93 Eurofighter Typhoon 2000 aircraft from Airbus and 45 aircraft produced by Boeing, more precisely 30 F / A-18 Super Hornet and 15 EA- 15 Growlers, according to the German Defense Minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.
Germany has been trying since 2017 to find a replacement for the Panavia Tornado ECR. At the moment Luftwaffe reports 93 Panavia Tornado ECRs and 143 Eurofighter Typhoon operational aircraft. Half of the 93 Typhoons will replace the Panavia Tornado, while the other half will replace the EF 2000 from the first series. The F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft will take over the task of carrying the thermo-baric nuclear B.16, while the EA-15 Growlers will replace the Panavia Tornado ECR (Electronic Combat / Reconnaissance), which have systems capable to identify and suppress the opponent’s air defense capabilities.
Although the option of purchasing F-35As had been initially analyzed, the Germans considered it safer to go with the EA-15 Growlers, which are already in production and operated both by the US Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force, so they could be available sooner than the F-35A. In 2019 Airbus also announced that it was preparing a two-seater version of Eurofighter Typhoon to carry out ECR (Electronic Combat / Reconnaissance) missions, but the arguments mentioned above turned the F/A-18 Super Hornet and EA-15 Growlers into a winner.
Beyond all the criticism towards this decision we must admit that the Luftwaffe made a smart and oriented decision, managed to reconcile both diplomatic and military aspects. But this story will only be concluded when the German government has approved the military to buy the aircraft they need. Or, until now it hasn’t approved anything. They will not be able to postpone a decision for very long, no matter which plane or manufacturer we are talking about, as the Panavia Tornado planes are at the end of their life span.