(Corrects date in penultimate paragraph to 2025 from 2035)
By Andrea Shalal
BERLIN, April 24 (Reuters) - The German defence ministry on Tuesday received bids from Airbus and the U.S. government - representing Lockheed Martin and Boeing - for the replacement of its fleet of 90 ageing Tornado fighter jets that were developed in the 1960s.
The competition, worth billions of euros to the winning bidder, could have consequences for a separate, fledgling Franco-German programme to develop a next generation Eurofighter that will eventually replace the Eurofighter Typhoon.
Airbus is pitching the Eurofighter, a joint programme with Britain’s BAE Systems and Italy’s Leonardo, and says it could take over the Tornado missions when that aircraft is phased out starting in 2025.
Buying more Eurofighters would also allow Germany to streamline maintenance costs since it already has a fleet of 130 Eurofighters, the company said.
The ministry plans to give priority to the European warplane to retain aircraft expertise in Europe and continue use of a proven system, but it has also asked for information about Lockheed’s F-35 fighter jet and the F-15E and F/A-18E/F jets built by Boeing.
The ministry in December publicly rebuked remarks by German Air Force chief Lieutenant General Karl Muellner after he indicated a preference for the F-35 as the only aircraft that met the military’s stealth requirements. Muellner is now due to retire in May.
The ministry has said it will only make a final decision on the Tornado replacement after a comprehensive assessment of data provided by the aircraft manufacturers.
Airbus defence chief Dirk Hoke told German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag this weekend that a decision to buy the F-35 would kill off plans by France and Germany to develop a new European fighter.
“As soon as Germany becomes an F-35 nation, all cooperation with France on combat jet issues will die,” Hoke told the paper.
Lockheed officials argue that it would make sense for Germany to buy a certain number of F-35s, especially given that many of its close military allies in Europe, including Britain, Italy and the Netherlands, are also buying the jets.
U.S. officials are legally bound to equally represent all possible U.S. bids, but experts say the F-35 would be the best option since it is already slated to carry nuclear weapons beginning in the early 2020s.
Germany has committed to having that capability as part of its responsibilities to the NATO alliance.
The Eurofighter would still need to be certified to carry nuclear bombs, a process that could take until 2030 or longer, and might force Germany to extend the life of some Tornado jets at great cost, according to U.S. military experts.
An Airbus spokesman said the company was confident that Eurofighter could be certified by 2025.
“We do not advocate for a particular U.S. platform, but we encourage Germany to consider a suitable platform that is interoperable and survivable in the context of the modern threat environment,” said U.S. Air Force Colonel Alex Walford, air attache at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal, editing by Ed Osmond)