The potential risks of buying F-35 fighter jets from the U.S., revealed by SPIEGEL, are causing nervousness and anger in Berlin. On Monday, Christine Lambrecht’s Ministry of Defense wants to dispel the worries.
Previously unknown risks in the introduction of the modern Fighter Jet 35 by the German Armed Forces are causing considerable unrest within the CDU/CSU coalition. After SPIEGEL reported for the first time last Thursday on hitherto unknown pitfalls in the ten-billion project, various budget holders from the Bundestag notified the ministry of the need for talks. The pressure became so great that Parliamentary State Secretary Thomas Hitschler has scheduled a telephone call for Monday, 1 p.m., in which he hopes to allay the concerns of the MPs.
Details about the risks involved in the F-35 project, which is intended to modernize the Air Force, emerge in the so-called 25-million-euro bill. The classified paper had been handed over to the budget committee in recent days, as it is due to sign off on the first tranche of the budget for the 35 F-35 jets shortly before Christmas. In total, the project will cost just under ten billion euros. The first F-35s are scheduled to arrive in Germany in 2027 and will be stationed at Büchel air base in Rhineland-Palatinate.
However, the ministry is apparently not entirely sure about the price. The prices are based “on conservative forecasts and derivations of the U.S. government” and are “expressly subject to adjustment,” the document states. In addition, as with “all contracts, there are risks” – for example, because German standards could not be met or necessary approvals could not be granted. The passages prompted questions from the members of parliament, since procurement for the German armed forces is considered to be very susceptible to breakdowns.
Trouble over Büchel air base
The most concrete risk concerns the Büchel air base. The draft states that “a timely realization of the weapons system-specific infrastructure by 2026” under the aforementioned general conditions is “highly ambitious.” “Time delays and additional financial requirements until completion of the infrastructure” must be expected, it says. The infrastructure refers to the modernization of the runway at Büchel, where U.S. nuclear weapons are stored, and the construction of new hangars for the F-35.
The modernization of Büchel is considered a basic prerequisite for the F-35 project. According to insiders, the work there must be completed by 2027, otherwise the U.S. will not send the jets for the air force. In principle, such a construction project in Germany is considered risky because of the short time involved. Nevertheless, the Air Force is confident that it is feasible. If the budget committee gives the green light, the line is, the project managers want to immediately give the go-ahead for the work that has already been prepared.
Consequently, the head of the Air Force expressed himself on Sunday almost angrily about the unrest in the coalition. The German Air Force’s Twitter account quoted Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz as saying that when it comes to the F-35, Germany is looking for problems where other European nations don’t see any. “And neither do we, for that matter. Is the air there a different one?” said Gerhartz. The general had long fought for the F-35 project because of the urgent need to replace the Air Force’s completely outdated “Tornados.” Consequently, Gerhartz engaged a task force very early on to make sure nothing went wrong with the F-35.
Growing criticism of Lambrecht
Nevertheless, there is great uncertainty within the coalition. Almost more harshly than the opposition, members of the traffic light coalition are accusing Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht (SPD) of not paying enough attention to the project. Lambrecht’s party colleague Andreas Schwarz, for example, causticized in the “Bild am Sonntag” newspaper that it was “unacceptable that Parliament is only now learning about the problems.” He expects “comprehensive clarification of how it intends to get the risks under control. This is just an attempt to get rid of responsibility.” Green Party House Speaker Sebastian Schäfer also warned that there were “still many questions” for Lambrecht.
The defense policy spokesman for the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, Florian Hahn (CSU), even demanded that Lambrecht be removed. “The troops and all of Germany can only be ashamed of this new information. The question is whether there is incompetence or intention behind it,” Hahn told the Deutsche Presse-Agentur. Addressing the chancellor, Hahn recommended replacing Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht “before it is too late.”
From the ministry, however, came only empty phrases on Sunday. A spokesman merely stated that the ministry was in constant contact with parliament and provided information on major armaments projects.
Possible mockery from overseas
For the German government, the wrangling over the F-35 project is more than a trifle. With the U.S. fighter jets, Germany wants to ensure so-called nuclear sharing. In the event of an emergency, German fighter jets are to carry nuclear bombs stored in Büchel and deliver them to their target on behalf of NATO. If word got back to the U.S. that the Bundeswehr could not even manage to modernize Büchel, it would certainly cause a lot of ridicule.
But the construction work at Büchel is apparently not the only risk in the project. According to the submission, there is also a risk “that timely issuance of a national certification for flight operations would not be possible in a timely manner, as the relevant documents are not available (in a timely manner) or cannot be made available in the future due to legal requirements.”
In addition, the F-35A model currently “does not meet, and is not expected to meet in the foreseeable future, all air traffic control equipment requirements for flights under instrument flight rules.” As a result, there is “a risk that flight operations will be restricted if there are deviations from the relevant requirements for operation in German, European and international airspace under instrument flight rules.” In short: Christine Lambrecht has a problem.