A flagship project for changing times

14. February 2024

The invasion of Ukraine demonstrated just how important a powerful air force is for national and Alliance defence. It will not be long before Germany will be taking delivery of the F-35A, the successor to the ageing Tornado and the most advanced combat aircraft in the world. The centre fuselage sections for these aircraft are to be made by Rheinmetall at a state-of-the-art factory currently being built in Weeze. An array of top officials from politics, business and the armed forces reached for their shovels at a symbolic groundbreaking ceremony.
(Image: IMAGO / Björn Trotzki)

F-35 Lightning II

The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II is set to be a cornerstone of many NATO and allied air forces. The F-35 is a single-seat jet aircraft with exceptional stealth capabilities, meaning that unlike other aircraft, it is virtually invisible to enemy radar. The jet can perform all the roles expected of a fighter aircraft – in other words, engaging aerial targets – but is also capable of striking ground targets. Depending on equipment, it can conduct reconnaissance and surveillance missions as well as electronic warfare. There are three versions of the F-35 in production. The F-35A is designed for conventional take-off and landing, version B for short take-off and vertical landing and the F-35C for deployment on aircraft carriers.

Ask most people in Germany about Weeze and aircraft and, until now, they will have associated them with the regional airport there. Soon, though, Weeze is once again going to be taking on a prominent role in the field of military aircraft. That is because there on the site of the former air station of the UK’s Royal Air Force, Rheinmetall is currently building a state-of-the-art factory for one of the world’s most important defence systems: the F-35 Lightning II multi-role combat aircraft. With the new factory, Rheinmetall will be working closely in partnership with Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman on a flagship project for transatlantic defence cooperation. Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the F-35, and Rheinmetall have enjoyed an excellent and close working relationship for years, and as of this year, that partnership also includes Northrop Grumman – the biggest supplier to the global F-35 programme – as a result of the cooperation on centre fuselage production.

“Democracy needs to be capable of ­defending itself,” says Hendrik Wüst

With Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine very much in mind, Hendrik Wüst, state premier of North Rhine-Westphalia, said in his address to the groundbreaking ceremony that the defensive capabilities of democratic societies were essential to safeguarding our values. “We are being put to the test in terms of our willingness and ability to do more than merely pay lip service to these values but instead to make sure that we are capable of quite literally defending our way of life.” Wüst went on to say, “If you disarm democracies, you render freedom and the rule of law defenceless.”

More than just an investment

Rheinmetall CEO Armin Papperger made it quite clear just how important the EUR 100 million capital expenditure is for the company and for Germany as a place to do business. “We’re proud that our long-standing partnership with Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin and our decades-long relationship with the Bundeswehr are resulting in a genuine transfer of know-how to Germany. And we’re very pleased to be contributing to the future viability of ­Ger­many as a technology powerhouse, and especially NRW, our long-standing corporate home. Close to the state capital in Düsseldorf, we’re going to build a factory that sets standards Europe-wide.” The technology company is intending to produce at least 400 F-35A centre fuselage sections at its Weeze factory.

The start of a new era for the ­German Air Force

In the first stage of the process, the German Armed Forces are purchasing 35 F-35A combat aircraft, which are currently due to replace the Tornado system from 2027 onwards, representing a clear sign of the promised new era in national defence and a vital element of Germany’s nuclear sharing as part of its role within NATO. The federal government will retain its obligation in the event of nuclear war to use the German Armed Forces to fly the US nuclear warheads stored in Germany and allow them to be deployed. Numerous other countries aside from Germany have also opted to purchase the F-35.

In planning for the project, Rheinmetall very much switched on the afterburners, as it were. Production of the first parts is due to start as soon as 2025. “We’re pleased with Rheinmetall’s swift site selection for the upcoming F-35 centre fuselage production facility. This marks an important milestone in the German F-35 programme – this increase in capacity helps meet the growing global demand that further enables the F-35 to stay ahead of evolving threats in the 21st-century landscape,” said Mike Shoemaker, Vice President of F-35 Customer Programs at Lockheed Martin.


was when the F-35 flew for the first time


aircraft have been commissioned to date


countries have ordered the jet so far

Know-how from the USA

When it comes to the production of aircraft components, Rheinmetall is able to bring to bear its experience as an integrated technology group in manufacturing complex systems. Furthermore, on this assignment, the Düsseldorf-based company is working closely with US partner Northrop Grumman, for which Rheinmetall works as a contractor. “Northrop Grumman will replicate our automated and manufacturing technologies of the Integrated Assembly Line in Weeze,” said Glenn Masukawa, Vice President and F-35 Program Manager at Northrop Grumman. “Combined with Rheinmetall’s capabilities, our collaboration with Lockheed Martin to manufacture the centre fuselage is critical in bolstering global security.”

A win for the local region as well

The factory will give the local region an economic boost much like the F-35’s vertical take-off. More than 400 highly skilled new jobs in a wide range of fields are to be created in Weeze itself, as the factory will include not only the assembly line but also logistics and storage areas, labora­tories, training facilities and quality control. Rheinmetall and its partners will also be getting a number of other companies on board as sup­pliers and service providers to the programme. That could mean an estimated 1,500 jobs at small and medium-sized enterprises in the region. Mona Neubaur, Minister for Economic Affairs, Industry, Climate Action and Energy for the state of NRW, commented, “Amidst changing times, it is essential for industrial policy to include the defence industry as well, which is why the announcement that a critical section of the F-35 jet is to be manufactured here marks a great day for Weeze, the wider region and the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.”

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