Europe still shopping for fighters


Slovakia has just opted for14 F-16V fighters to replace its decaying Mig-29s, and according to, the Defense Minister Mihai Fifor announced that it plans to purchase 5 additional F-16 fighter jets from Portugal to progressively replace part of the aging Russian MiG-21 fleet.

That said, other ageing fighter fleets will soon need replacement in Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Finland. Buying a new combat aircraft is a highly political choice: would you prefer interoperability with the US and the F-35’s, or securing the European industrial footprint with hopes for a future domestic combat system? Choices to be made in these 4 countries by 2021 will likely be decisive for the future of European fighter fleets in the decades to come.

As part of its “2016-2030 Strategic Plan” the Belgian government plans on spending €3.6bn on 34 new fighter-bomber jets (a figure that would stretch to €15bn throughout the whole life-cycle) to replace its aging 54 Lockheed Martin F-16s, which should retire between 2023 and 2028.

The RfGP launched in March 2017 closed in last April and received two responses, one by the US for Lockheed Martin’s F-35 and one by the UK for Eurofighter’s Typhoon. Meanwhile, France decided to bypass the RfGP (which is believed by some observers to have been technically tailored for the F-35) and offer a broader strategic and industrial partnership including a 100% industrial offset, some “training and parking slots” on the Charles de Gaulle Aircraft carrier, as well as a seat in the Future Aerial Combat System along with the German. On July 4th, PM Charles Michel said all three proposals would now be studied with a decision to be made by October, but his government is encountering strong resistance within his own coalition as Bart De Wever of the Coalition’s leading party Flemish N-VA, is a frontal detractor of the French proposal. He recently stated about the offer that “spending €3.4bn for a useless aircraft is nonsensical” and argues that because it was not made within the RfPG, it is null and void.

In Switzerland, head of Department of Defense Guy Parmelin plans on organizing a referendum in 2020 on the need of replacing the Swiss fleet of 29 F-5Es. Such political process is frequent in Switzerland, but rather touchy when it comes to defense procurement matters. In 2014 the Swiss had rejected a referendum on the extension of the Army’s budget with a CHF3.1bn (€2.6bn) fund, stretched over ten years, for the procurement of Saab Gripen. This time the government has decided to shape the referendum differently. The Swiss won’t be asked which new fighter should be bought and in which number, but instead if the federal government should be tasked with renewing means of defense of the Swiss airspace through the procurement of new fighters and new surface-to-air (SAM) missile systems, for a ceiling cost of CHF8bn (€6.9bn) and the obligation for selected companies to provide a 100% compensation to the Swiss industry. A first call for bids on the fighters’ side was launched earlier this week requesting information such as the cost for 30 to 40 aircraft and options for an industrial partnership among others. Tests will be performed in Switzerland in July 2019 and a second call for bids will then be launched in November 2019.Though the selected aircraft shouldn’t be known by the time the referendum is organized in 2020, initial candidates include Lockheed’s F-35, Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet both represented by the US, Dassault’s Rafale represented by France, Eurofighter’s Typhoon represented by Germany and Saab’s Gripen E represented by Sweden. Should the referendum be positive and the initiatives also gain Parliament support, contracts could be signed by late 2022 or early 2023 with first deliveries to begin in 2025.

Germany needs to replace its aging 1970s-era 87 Tornado IDSs (Interdictor/strike). These play a highly strategic role as they are fit to carry American nuclear weapons as a part of the NATO nuclear-sharing policy – a mission that cannot be performed by the Luftwaffe’s Eurofighter Typhoons at this point. This summer will begin the Tornado fleet’s “quality gate” review; political discussions about the aircraft’s eventual costly life extension and most of all, the question of its succession. There is no clear retirement date for the Tornado but it will likely be replaced at some point between 2025 and 2030. According to Reuters, this deadline was questioned in March when an MoD report warned about the fighter’s obsolescence and unfitness to carry out NATO missions, especially because of its lack of data encryption system, meaning there’s a risk that information streaming through the aircraft may be intercepted. The competition for the fighter’s replacement should officially begin later this year or in 2019 after a bid released in last April received an offer by Airbus for more Eurofighters and two others by the US government representing Lockheed and its F35 on one hand and Boeing and its F-15E and F/A-18E/F jets on the other. Some in the Luftwaffe argue the F-35 is the only viable option, especially from a stealth point of view, such as Air Force chief Lieutenant General Karl Muellner which was sacked for publically stating so earlier this year. Others argue this option would have vicious consequences such as jeopardizing the future combat aircraft project with France. In April defense chief Dirk Hoke told German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag that “as soon as Germany becomes an F-35 nation, all cooperation with France on combat jet issues will die”. The same opponents argue it’s more rational to buy additional Typhoons as Germany already operates 130 (they are the “backbone” of the Luftwaffe according to Airbus), that such an order would feed the German industry and help preserve precious European know-how with hopes it will contribute to a future generation of combat systems to be developed with France and replace the Typhoon around 2040. The main problem, as mentioned, is that the Typhoon cannot currently be fitted with US nuclear weapons without US approval and technical assistance! In April the German MoD sent a letter to the US DoD asking whether or not such retrofitting was possible (it is, according to sources familiar with the aircraft cited by Reuters), to which Washington has yet to respond. US Sources suggested the process could take up to ten years while, on the other side, the F-35 should be fit for carrying out nuclear weapons as soon as the early 2020s…

Finland at last, plans on replacing its Boeing F/A-18C/D Hornets which are to be phased out from 2025. Under its “HX program”, it will spend €7bn to €10bn to buy 64 fighters including weapons, sensors, support, training systems and spares. In 2016 it sent a request for quotation to France, Sweden, the UK and the US for Dassault’s Rafale, Saab’s Gripen, Eurofighter’s Typhoon, Lockheed’s F-35 and Boeing’s upgraded F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, all of which responded. The next phase in the competition is negotiation of final offers with each bidder in the second half of 2019, with selection expected for 2021. The bids will be assesses based on the ability to fulfill five military missions, reported IHS Jane’s: counter-air; counter-land; counter-sea; ISR; and long-range strike. It is required that 30% of the industrial workload is performed locally and the MoD has formed a task force charged with identifying opportunities for the Finish industry, especially in areas needed to maintain and service the new fighters along with their weapons and information systems throughout their lifecycle. The MoD estimates that some 300 firms could benefit from industrial cooperation within the HX contract.

Aside these replacement programs, debates in Europe are crystalizing around future combat aircraft projects. While the UK is considering the options it has left for cooperation, France and Germany confirmed their political will of jointly developing their Future air combat system (SCAF – Système de Combat Aérien du Futur). A study phase should be launched this year, a first demonstrator is expected for 2028-2030 and entry into service in 2040, say the letters of intent. Such ambition is possible, but only if involved Nations place their faith in their industry and invest boldly – which means taking a political leap. Does Europe have what it takes?

Written by ADIT – The Bulletin and republished with permission.