The Luftwaffe and Working Forward Defense

By Robbin Laird

Shaping German defense forces which can support defense in depth in Europe, both in terms of the defense of allied and German forces operating from Germany and forward for Germany’s allies within the German, Central and Northern European defense perimeters, is a critical requirement.

As the very experienced Bundeswehr General (Retired) Egon Ramms put it during my visit to Germany in 2019: “We have to have forces which are able to conduct enduring defense operations. From 2011, the German Government focused completely on global deployments, stabilization operations and providing a contribution along those lines.

“That meant giving up the kind of capability we had in the 1970s and 1980s for common defense, home defense, enduring defense operations and Host Nation Support.

“It is clear that such an approach has led to a military much less capable of providing for the kind of direct defense requirements we now face.”

And during that same visit in a meeting with Lt. General (Retired) Klaus-Peter Stieglitz, former Chief of the German Air Force, the General underscored that rebuilding of the core force structure was a pressing concern and to do so in ways that could reinforce the proximate allies of Germany which had been added to the NATO via the enlargement process.

“We are no longer talking about defense at the inner-German border or supporting out-of-area operations; we are talking about providing an umbrella for new allies who wish to see that NATO has a credible defense strategy and deterrence capability.

“Germany needs to focus on this challenge and build the appropriate force.”

Following that 2019 visit to interview senior retired Bundeswehr and Ministry of Defence officials in Germany, I reached this conclusion: “What exactly constitutes direct defense of Germany that is focused on Poland, Central Europe, and Ukraine?

“What mix of forces would be most useful here?

“Again, this not a question of simply increasing defense spending; it is a question of spending it on what capabilities and with whom to work to provide for enhanced direct defense.”

Now with the decision of the Chancellor of Germany to ramp up defense spending, providing answers to these questions then comes to the fore.

Part of the answer is to reverse an earlier decision NOT to buy the F-35.

Later in 2019, I returned to Berlin to attend the International Fighter Conference.

A key element of that conference was a vigorous debate about F-35 and Germany.

The Eurofighter and Airbus participants argued for a new fighter program versus Germany buying the F-35.

Indeed, a head of Luftwaffe had been recently fired for advocating buying the F-35 vice simply waiting for a new fighter in the 2040s.

The co-host of that fighter conference was Lt. General (Retired) Klaus-Peter Stieglitz who had earlier that year co-authored a piece with that recently fired head of Luftwaffe arguing for moving ahead with a F-35 buy.

In that piece, they argued that the F-35 was a key part of any German defense rebuild.

This is what they argued:

The political decision to exclude the F-35 from further consideration in Germany is thus a victory for the German armaments lobby, it weighs heavily for the Bundeswehr.

Which security policy consequences arise from this?

First, the Ministry of Defense continues to explore two ways to succeed the tornadoes. However, without a specific timetable. Given the political environment, no one believes that the grand coalition will decide yet. The decision is therefore postponed indefinitely.

At the same time, however, this means for the Bundeswehr that it must continue to fulfill its mission with the decrepit tornadoes indefinitely. In addition to incalculable high costs and risks for availability, this also brings with it growing risks in operation.

As a successor are theoretically still the Eurofighter or the US F-18 for election. However, both options have the serious disadvantage of being less effective and less efficient than the F-35, despite higher costs and development risks. Order fulfillment is not possible with any of these options without significant limitations.

For both the F-18 and more of the Eurofighter are lagging not only because of the lack of stealth cap, but also their sensors and management systems at least one generation of aircraft behind the F-35.

In concrete terms, they have little chance of achieving their goals and fulfilling their mission in an action against an enemy with a decent air defense. For the pilots this would be like a hardly survivable Ascension squad.

The desired deterrent effect would remain.

The threshold to an armed conflict would be lowered. And all in times of the termination of parts of the European contract-based security order, such as by Russia with the illegal international occupation of the Crimea or INF-contracted missile armor.

Neither in an armed international conflict nor for conventional and nuclear deterrence in the context of Alliance and national defense Germany will be able to contribute significantly to European or NATO air forces without fifth-generation combat aircraft.

The pledge to NATO to be able to lead one of the future multinational Air Force Groupings can also not be fulfilled.

The same applies to the EU.

The loss of credibility that Germany is suffering with the decisions taken so far also weighs heavily.

For years, Germany has spoken of its willingness to take on more responsibility for peace and a just order in the world – as documented in the 2016 White Paper on Security Policy. It also manifests itself in the right to a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.

However, the assurances and claims quickly reach their limits when it comes to the concrete creation of military capabilities with which they can be exercised in the first place. For the Tornado fleet is the only major German contribution to NATO for deterrence and peacekeeping in Europe.

Deterrence, however, only works if it is credible.

It does not live by symbolism, but by concrete skills.

However, due to its age, the German contribution to the Tornado has already lost credibility. The discrepancy will be even greater as the F-35s become operational in Italy, the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium and Turkey within a few years.

If the German contribution continues to be untrustworthy or can no longer be provided, this would also have negative effects on the strategically indispensable US guarantee and the nuclear disposition of NATO because of the resulting imbalance in the risk and burden sharing in NATO.

A termination of the NATO-Russia Basic Act and the stationing of nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe could be the result. When deciding on the successor to the Bundeswehr’s Tornado fighter plane, it is not just an important military decision with a European political and industrial significance, but a strategic decision with an impact on the European security order as a whole and Germany’s role as a leading nation.

If Germany sticks with the path it has now taken, it will leave the circle of security leadership nations in the EU and NATO, degrading itself to become a secondary support force.

It is necessary and corresponds to responsible policy for our country to deal with the issue of succession to the tornado of the Bundeswehr once again objectively and with the necessary strategic vision and to revise the decisions taken so far.

They argued that the F-35 acquisition would be part of shaping a way ahead for building a credible German defense force.

Clearly, this is a necessary but not sufficient condition for such a rebuild.

But shaping ways to fight forward in the support of allies is also a key part of this effort, notably with regard to airpower and its ability to move and support combat capabilities in support of allies.

It is therefore no surprise that the Luftwaffe has taken advantage of the new defense spirit in Germany to leverage an RAAF invitation to participate in Pitch Black to highlight one key airpower package necessary to fight forward – fighter, tanker, and airlifter moving combat capability forward.

Moving a force to Australia to engage in an exercise is rather dramatic, but actually underscores what is necessary to move force forward – kinetic force, lift and tanking.

This is how the Australians announced the visit in an article by Flight Lieutenants Jessica Aldred and Steve Reutter published by the Australian Department of Defence on August 15, 2022.

The German Air Force, known as the Luftwaffe, will participate in Exercise Pitch Black for the first time.

Travelling to Australia as part of the Rapid Pacific deployment, the Luftwaffe will arrive in mid-August with more than 200 personnel, six Eurofighter Typhoons, three A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transports and an A400M transport aircraft.

Chief of the German Air Force Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz said this is the first time the German and Australian air forces have trained together.

“The Indo-Pacific is of great importance to Germany. We share the same values with many partners in this region,” Lieutenant General Gerhartz said.

“Defending those values in case of a war emergency and being able to support our partners is something that needs to be practised.”

The German Eurofighter is a multi-role aircraft employed in air-to-air as well as air-to-ground combat – both at close range and from a long distance.

The German Air Force with its Eurofighters also assumes responsibility in Europe and within NATO for securing the airspace – this includes the quick reaction alert element in Estonia, and working closely with Italian and UK air forces in Romania.

The German government has recently agreed to procure F-35 aircraft to replace the Tornado weapon system, with Pitch Black providing an opportunity to integrate more closely with Australia’s F-35A.

“The F-35 aircraft will further expand the broad spectrum of our capabilities. Since the Royal Australian Air Force is already flying this combat aircraft, we will be able to learn from them as well,” Lieutenant General Gerhartz said.

Following Exercise Pitch Black, the Luftwaffe will participate in Exercise Kakadu before continuing their Rapid Pacific deployment to Japan and the Republic of Korea.

Lieutenant General Gerhartz will fly himself in a Eurofighter during Exercises Pitch Black and Kakadu, through to Japan following the exercises.

And part of the function of participating in Pitch Black is to work Eurofighter integration with F-35s.

As an article by Adam Thorn published by Australian Aviation on August 17, 2022 underscored:

It is hoped that Exercise Pitch Black will enable the Luftwaffe to integrate with Australia’s F-35A capabilities.

“The F-35 aircraft will further expand the broad spectrum of our capabilities. Since the Royal Australian Air Force is already flying this combat aircraft, we will be able to learn from them as well,” LTGEN Gerhartz said.

While the Eurofighter is a multi-role aircraft, the German government has confirmed that it will also acquire F-35 systems to replace its ageing Tornados.

Exercise Pitch Black will also mark the first time the RAAF’s own F-35s have taken part in the training program.

“Exercise Pitch Black is the largest Australian-based international exercise 81 Wing has participated in since transitioning to the F-35A and we’re excited by the opportunity to integrate the jet’s advanced capabilities with so many of our international partners,” Commanding Officer of No. 3 Squadron, Wing Commander Adrian Kiely said.

“Across the exercise, we aim to improve our collective air combat capabilities in a complex and contested environment.

“Our focus for Pitch Black is on strengthened international integration, which is paramount to further improving our ability to come together as a highly effective and interoperable force.”

Such integration will not only be important for the Luftwaffe in terms of working its own future force structure but working forward defense in its immediate defense perimeter as three Nordic nations have or are acquiring F-35s along with Poland and the Czech Republic.

Of course, the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Switzerland are also flying F-35s as well. And that force package of fighter, tanker and lift will be part of that future as well.

In other words, the projection of airpower as far as Australia is really an exercise with regard to the projection of airpower for the forward defense of Germany and its evolving defense role within the direct defense of Europe as well.

Featured Photo: Chief of the German Air Force Lieutenant General Ingo Gerhartz

For my discussion of the shift towards 21st century direct defense strategies for Europe, see the following: