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Social Democrats put brakes on German fighter-jet replacement

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By Andrea Shalal

BERLIN (Reuters) – Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD), junior partners in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition, are putting the brakes on plans to buy some U.S. warplanes as part of broader plans to replace the German military’s 85 ageing Tornado fighter jets.

German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a conservative, had promised a decision on a procurement programme valued at over 15 billion euros (13 billion pounds) by the end of 2018, but SPD politicians now say they need more information.

Sources familiar with the process say the ministry wanted to split the order between the Eurofighter Typhoon – built by Airbus, Britain’s BAE Systems and Italy’s Leonardo SpA – and the U.S.-built Lockheed Martin F-35, or potentially the Boeing F/A-18.

Washington is pressuring Germany to raise military spending and would welcome an order of U.S. jets. But Paris, Germany’s closest European partner, has warned that could derail plans to develop a new Franco-German fighter by 2040.

Wolfgang Hellmich of the SPD, who heads the parliamentary defence committee, said there is no rush to replace the Tornado fleet, since it is slated to continue flying until 2035.

“We don’t have to make an immediate decision,” he said. “This is a complex issue, and we must understand it fully.”

Hellmich said lawmakers needed more information from the ministry, and hoped it would be provided by mid-year.

Military officials warn that extra maintenance needed to fly the Tornados beyond 2025 could cost over 8 billion euros.

The issue was discussed by senior leaders from the coalition partners on Wednesday. A ministry spokesman said no decision had been made.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal, editing by Thomas Escritt and Elaine Hardcastle)

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