Germany’s decision not to buy the F-35 stealth fighter jet is a “retrograde step” that could hamper the country’s ability to operate at the same level as its Nato partners, according to the European head of Lockheed Martin, which manufactures the aircraft.
Jonathan Hoyle, vice-president for Europe at the US defence group, said the German decision in January to exclude the F-35 from further consideration as a replacement for its ageing Tornado fleet had caught a lot of governments “on the hop”. The German defence ministry said at the time it had decided to acquire either more Eurofighters from Airbus, the European group, or Boeing-made F-18s.
With the German rhetoric in the past three years having been about stepping up its defence capabilities, the decision not to consider the F-35 had prompted questions among other European governments over “Germany’s position going forward, and therefore what does it mean for Nato”, Mr Hoyle told the Financial Times in an interview.
He added that during a recent visit to Nato several ambassadors had expressed “disappointment” at the German decision. They had noted that while many of their countries were investing in fifth-generation fighter jet technology by opting for the F-35, “Germany, which has the biggest defence budget, has just taken this retrograde step and isn’t going to be there”.
“So when we go off and collaborate together operationally, if you are flying stealth, fifth-generation jets, you don’t want a fourth-generation jet in the middle of your operations because everyone can see that,” he added.
The German decision was seen by many defence observers as a signal by Berlin that it remained committed to pursuing a next-generation Franco-German “future combat air system” (FCAS). Paris had previously voiced fears that a German order to buy the F-35, widely seen as the most advanced aircraft on the shortlist, could have made the FCAS project — due to form the backbone of both countries’ air forces after 2040 — redundant.
A key issue for Germany, according to defence analysts, will be how a new fleet can continue to carry and deploy US nuclear weapons stationed at Büchel, in the west of the country, as part of Nato’s “nuclear sharing” arrangement. Any replacement for the Tornado will have to be able to do the same and be certified to do so by the US.
Germany’s position on defence has come under repeated fire from US president Donald Trump, who has criticised the government for not spending enough. Mike Pence, the US vice-president, renewed the criticism at Nato’s 70th anniversary celebrations this month.
Despite the setback on the F-35, Mr Hoyle said Lockheed continued to regard Germany as a “big addressable marketplace”. Lockheed has an interest in a number of significant defence programmes in the country, including heavy-lift helicopters, as well as missile defence, where Germany has a lead Nato role.
Europe remains a key growth area for Lockheed, added Mr Hoyle, notably Poland, which will become a regional hub for the group. Poland has pledged to spend 2 per cent of its strongly growing gross domestic product each year on defence as part of a 10-year modernisation plan outlined in 2013.