Original Contribution
January 2013

Germany’s Tornado Nuclear Weapons Carrier

von Otfried Nassauer

The Federal Republic of Germany has been participating in NATO nuclear sharing for decades. Currently it provides up to 46 dual-capable Tornado fighter bombers at various stages of readiness in support of NATO. These aircraft can be used to deliver nuclear weapons[ 1 ] Recently, this commitment was indirectly renewed during NATO’s Chicago Summit, when the alliance decided to retain about 180 U.S. B61-Mod 3 and Mod 4 nuclear free-fall bombs deployed in Europe for the foreseeable future.[ 2 ] Germany agreed to continue to provide Dual Capable Aircraft (DCA) for their delivery. However, the Tornado is a legacy aircraft, produced during the 1980s, and now approaching the end of it’s useful lifetime. This raises two questions: How long can Germany continue to provide these aircraft? Moreover, can these Tornados still be used once the successor to the current nuclear bombs, the B61-12, is deployed in Europe during the first half of the 2020s?

German Air Force Planning

From 1981/82 to 1992 the German Air Force procured a total of 357 Tornado aircraft. 185 of them have been operating until recently. [ 3 ] This number will be reduced to 85 aircraft in the near future. The German Air Force is planning to keep 65 Tornado Interdiction Strike (IDS) and 20 of the younger Tornado-ECR aircraft in operation. 25 of these planes will form a squadron of manned aircraft in Reconnaissance Wing 51 "Immelmann" at Jagel Airbase in Northern Germany. These aircraft will also perform missions such as suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) or naval strike missions. 14 additional aircraft will continue to be deployed at Holloman AirForce Base in the U.S. for training purposes. The remaining 44 Tornados will be deployed at Buechel Airbase, which is home to GAF Fighter Bomber Wing (FBW) 33, a long-term nuclear-capable unit. Buechel will have two squadrons specializing in missions such as close air support (CAS), long range air-to-ground attack and nuclear sharing. A recent GAF planning document from June 2012 states: "FBW 33 at Büchel will be restructured by April 1, 2013 and it’s two flying squadrons will be responsible for its mission (conventional air-to-ground attack / nuclear sharing) with unguided weapons, precision-guided weapons (GBU-24, GBU 54) and long-range stand-off weapons (MAW TAURUS). On October 1, 2013, FBW 33 will be renamed Tactical Air Force Wing 33.”[ 4 ]

Once the U.S. President has authorized their use, B61-3 and B61-4 nuclear freefall bombs would be made available at Büchel AB for use and mounted on these German Tornado aircraft. According to current U.S. plans these bombs are due to be replaced by a new guided and improved version, the B61-12, by 2019/20 or a couple of years later[ 5 ][ 6 ]

The Operational Life of the Tornado

Since NATO will retain nuclear sharing for the time being, the question arises as to how long the 1980s Tornado aircraft can be operationally used as a nuclear weapons carrier. The answer has proven to be a "moving target".

In 2008, the Federal government responded to a parliamentary question of the Greens thus: "The Bundeswehr plans to keep the TORNADO weapon system in service at least until 2020.” [ 7 ] On October 6, 2010 a spokesman for the German Ministry of Defense confirmed that "at least until" could mean “well beyond”. He said: "The utilization of the Tornado weapon system is planned to last beyond 2020. No date has been determined for decommissioning the aircraft."[ 8 ] In October 2011, this game with words and dates repeated itself: "The Tornado weapon system will probably be used until 2025 for missions, centering around close air support, aerial reconnaissance, suppression of enemy air defenses, attacking naval targets from the air and as a delivery system in the context of nuclear sharing. (...) Currently, there are no considerations to operate the Tornado weapon system beyond 2025”, said the Ministry of Defense in a written answer to a question by a German parliamentarian.[ 9 ] Only one year later, on September 3, 2012, a spokesman for the MoD, Christian Dienst, commented during a government press conference: "It’s like this: The Tornado weapons system, which inter alia – and I stress inter alia - has the role to act as a nuclear-capable delivery system (...) will have to be kept in use by the Bundeswehr beyond 2025 according to current planning - irregardless" in how many of its current roles.[ 10 ] Finally, the political leadership of the Defence Ministry confirmed this position. Parliamentary State Secretary Christian Schmidt replied on September 26, 2012 to questions of MP Paul Schäfer: "The Tornado Interdiction Strike version is capable of acting as a delivery system in nuclear sharing. (...) It is planned to use the Tornado weapon system beyond 2025 in reduced numbers." [ 11 ] (Emphasis added by the author.)

There are strong reasons to believe that the remaining technical life of the Tornado can be stretched out quite deliberately. The German Air Force can influence how long it will last. The airframes and the engines have a guaranteed technical minimum lifetime of 8,000 and 7,500 flight hours respectively, neither of which will be reached anytime soon. It was only during 2011 that one of the oldest aircraft, a 29-year-old Tornado used for pilot training, became the very first Tornado to pass 5,000 flight hours. Shortly thereafter it was decommissioned.

The GAF has several options to influence how long the Tornado can be kept in service. For the time being it could predominantly fly aircraft which are to be decommissioned during the planned reduction of the Tornado fleet. It could primarily retain aircraft with a low number of flight hours. It could also try to stretch out the retirement phase or keep a few more aircraft in service than necessary for the next several years in order to reduce the number of hours individual aircraft will be flown per year. Keeping in service the full complement of 46 Tornado aircraft for NATO nuclear sharing while only 10-20 nuclear weapons are currently deployed in Germany could reflect a strategy to keep a larger number of aircraft, each of which would be used for low numbers of flight hours. Such a strategy could also allow for a future additional modernisation of some of the remaining 85 Tornados. These 85 could be retired in two sequential steps. Finally, the GAF could keep the number of annual flight hours low for its aircrews. All of these options could prolong the lifetime of the remaining aircraft. From 2012 to 2017, the German Air Force is planning to make use of its entire Tornado fleet for a total of approximately 11,500 to 13,310 flight hours per year. Thus on average each aircraft will be flown for only 135 to 157 flight hours per year. Given such low numbers of hours per year the Tornado might be easily be flown until 2030 or even still be airworthy by 2035. [ 12 ]

Theoretically the lifetime of the Tornado could be even further extended. However, this would require large financial resources and another program to modernise both the airframe and the engines. The Bundeswehr does not have such plans at present.

Tornado Modernis ation Programs

Currently, those 85 Tornado aircraft which will be kept in service are being upgraded under various programmes at a cost of approximately € 900 million. All of these upgrades are scheduled to be completed by 2017. Such a large effort only makes sense if the intention is to operate the Tornado beyond 2025. Since all of these programmes were initiated years ago, the intention to fly these aircraft beyond then must have also existed a long time ago. The main programme is called "Avionics System Software for Tornado in Ada 3" (ASSTA 3). Within this programme. among other things, the communication systems and electronic warfare and jamming capabilities are upgraded, the night vision capability is enhanced, some cockpit displays are exchanged and a laser-guided precision bomb, the GBU -54 (V) 3 (LJDAM) is integrated to enable the Tornado to engage moving targets under all kinds of weather conditions. By August 15, 2012, the German Air Force received the first of these modernised aircraft. [ 13 ] No modernisation effort specifically dealing with the integration of modernised B61-12 nuclear bombs is currently underway and none has been planned so far. [ 14 ] Another Tornado upgrade called ASSTA 3.1 is under development in industries for implementation during 2018 onward. However, it has not yet been contracted. Industry investment into this programme demonstrates its level of interest and belief, that the Tornado can be operated for several more years beyond 2025. As far as is publicly known, integrating the B61-12 is not yet part of this programme either.[ 15 ]

If the B61-12 bomb is to be deployed in Europe, the German Tornado aircraft will probably have to be modified in some way to become interoperable with the new fully digitalised weapon. At least some adjustments will become necessary. A new Interface Control Unit – a module connecting the bomb and the aircraft – is believed to be necessary to enable the old aircraft to “communicate” with the new bomb. Development of this component is likely to happen in the US. However, it is not yet clear who will bear the cost.

Otfried Nassauer is a freelance journalist and director of the Berlin Information Centre for Transatlantic Security - BITS


[ 1 ] BMVg: Priorisierung Materialinvestitionen – Handlungsempfehlungen, Berlin, 25.6.2010, pt. W_3-G-2, online: http://www.geopowers.com/sites/default/files/PrioMat.pdf

[ 2 ] Dr. James Miller (PDUSDP / DoD) in Cable 09USNATO0378 4.9.2009, online: http://wikileaks.org/cable/2009/09/09USNATO378.html

[ 3 ] By the autumn of 2006, 129 aircraft had been lost through accidents and crashes (44) or withdrawn from service for other reasons (85). See: Deutscher Bundestag: Drucksache 16/3169,  p. 6

[ 4 ] Bundesministerium der Verteidigung: Realisierungsplan für die Einnahme der Luftwaffenstruktur, Teilplan 03, Berlin, 12.Juni 2012, p.2. Kormoran (anti-ship) and HARM (SEAD) missiles are reaching the end of their technical life in the near future and must be retired.  Replacement is not currently planned. Once this has happened the Tornado can only be used for SEAD and anti-ship missions with “dumb iron-bombs”, i.e. in a more or less basic training mode.

[ 5 ] NNSA expects it can provide a First Production Unit (FPU) in 2019 and the series production models from 2020 onward. The Pentagon predicts the FPU can be provided in FY 2022 and the serial production deliveries are to be expected from 2023 onward. These timelines are based on the assumption that the project will be fully funded over the years to come.

[ 6 ] The original plan was to replace the Tornado aircraft of FBW 33 at Buechel by non-nuclear-capable Eurofighter aircraft from 2012 onward. This plan was given up in the context of restructuring Bundeswehr planning during the autumn of 2011. See Bundesministerium der Verteidigung: Realisierungsplan für die Einnahme der Luftwaffenstruktur, Teilplan 03, Berlin, 12.Juni 2012, p.2. On plans to modernise the B61-bombs, see Nassauer, Otfried & Piper Gerhard: Atomwaffenmodernisierung in Europa – Das Projekt B61-12, Berlin, September 2012, online: http://www.bits.de/public/pdf/rr-12-1.pdf

[ 7 ] Deutscher Bundestag, Drucksache 16/9834 vom 26.6.2008, p.36, online: http://dipbt.bundestag.de/dip21/btd/16/098/1609834.pdfhttp://dipbt.bundestag.de/dip21/btd/16/098/1609834.pdf

[ 8 ] Bundesministerium der Verteidigung - Presse- und Informationsstab: Sprechererklärung zur Nutzungsdauer der Tornado-Jagdbomber, Berlin, 6.10.2010

[ 9 ] BMVg: Bericht des Bundesministeriums der Verteidigung zur Zukunft des Waffensystems Tornado, Berlin, 12.10.2011

[ 10 ] Transcript of Government Press Conference, Berlin, 3.9.2012

[ 11 ] Deutscher Bundestag, Drucksache 17/10875, p.46

[ 12 ] The initial guaranteed operational lifetime of the Tornado airframe was 4,000 flight hours and 3,000 flying hours for the engine. The operational lifetime of the airframe was later extended to 8,000 flight hours and for the engine to 7,500 hours. See: Europäische Sicherheit 4-2010, online: http://www.europaeische-sicherheit.de/Ausgaben/2010/2010_07/04_Gei%DF_Berndt/2010,07,04.html On the Tornado aircraft first reaching 5,000 flight hours, see: Flugrevue, 8.8.2011, online: http://www.flugrevue.de/de/luftwaffe/streitkraefte/erster-tornado-der-luftwaffe-erreicht-5000-flugstunden.60484.htm.

[ 13 ] Rachow, Volker: Luftwaffe – Tornado MLU, Air International, Dezember 2011, p. 74f

[ 14 ] Deutscher Bundestag: Drucksache 17/10875, p.47 „Currently no plans exist to undertake modernisation measures for Tornado IDS, specifically resulting from nuclear sharing.”

[ 15 ] Since the technical parameters of the B61-12 still have to be finalised, the interfaces can not yet be finally defined either, and therefore preparatory measures to integrate the B61-12 into the Tornado do not yet make sense.