Bundeswehr drone projects: further delays to Global Hawk, Euro Hawk and Triton

The US company Northrop Grumman is constructing several derivatives of the Global Hawk drone, including the Euro Hawk, which was once prized by the Bundeswehr, and its successor model Triton. NATO is procuring five Global Hawk drones, which are to be stationed in Sicily. They are scheduled to have initial capability from the end of 2017.

Five Global Hawk high-altitude drones are currently being procured and will be stationed in Sigonella, Sicily, as part of NATO’s Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) programme. These drones will be deployed for surveillance and reconnaissance purposes in the context of NATO missions. Their express focus is on flights in countries bordering Russia. All NATO member states are required to provide financial assistance for the programme to the tune of an estimated 70 million euros annually. The first procurement is only being financed by a handful of member states, however. The majority of the costs of around 1.45 billion euros is being met by the US (42 per cent), Germany (33 per cent) and Italy (15 per cent). The 13 countries involved in these procurements include the three Baltic states, as well as Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

The Global Hawk is being constructed by the US defence technology company Northrop Grumman. Delivery of the first models was initially scheduled for 2016; the drones have been tested at the Edwards Air Force Base in California since December 2015. According to the Federal Ministry of Defence, there has been another delay to programme planning. The first drones are now scheduled to be delivered and handed over in the first six months of 2017. Following contractual approval of the drones, test flights will be carried out at the NATO base in Sigonella. Should everything proceed according to plan, they are due to have operational capability from the end of 2017. All five Global Hawk drones would then be ready for deployment by the end of 2018.

49 German drone pilots for Sicily

The first Global Hawk to be completed was assigned the military designation “NATO 1”. This designation was only symbolic, however, as certifications under aviation law fall within the competence of the Italian certification authority. There have also been delays to this process as the manufacturing company was unwilling to release all of the necessary documents. One reason for this could be the confidentiality rules of the US Government that Northrop Grumman must abide by. The Bundeswehr had experienced similar problems with the Euro Hawk, a derivative of the Global Hawk that was likewise manufactured by Northrop Grumman. The German certification process ended in fiasco; the delivered prototype has since been stored in a Bundeswehr hangar in Manching in Bavaria.

The communication and analysis components required in Sigonella will be delivered before the end of this autumn. Work to set up a satellite communications system commenced in January 2015. It remains unclear whether Global Hawk flights can also be controlled via relay stations in the same way as they are operated by the US military in Ramstein. Although the Federal Government is the second-largest financial contributor to NATO AGS, it claims to have “no information” with regard to this matter. The Federal Ministry of Defence also has no knowledge regarding the number of NATO drones that can be controlled simultaneously from the base in Sigonella. The air force should actually be informed on this issue. Three soldiers currently hold what is known as a type rating for the Global Hawk; a further 46 soldiers are to receive training to become qualified drone pilots.

Surveillance of Russia: conspicuous number of flights in June

The US Government also operates an air force basis in Sigonella, where it has likewise stationed at least two Global Hawk drones. For over a year, the US has undertaken flights as part of a corridor from Sicily to the Baltic Sea, via France and Germany, in order to perform reconnaissance missions with respect to activities in Russian sovereign territory. The Federal Ministry of Defence had authorised the overflights for a limited period and extended this clearance on two occasions. A further year-long extension was given the green light this week. The reconnaissance missions over the Baltic Sea take place about twice a month; there was, however, a conspicuous rise in the number of missions with a total of eight flights in June of this year, five of which took place during NATO’s Anaconda manoeuvre.

There have also been developments with respect to the Bundeswehr’s Euro Hawk system, which, from April 2017, is scheduled to resume flights to test the interception system ISIS manufactured by Airbus. The flights to resume these tests have now been postponed until the first quarter of 2018. The collision risk detection system Sense and Avoid Assistance Function (SAAFu), developed by the German military equipment supplier ESG, will also be tested in the first quarter of 2018.

A lack of collision avoidance procedures and the failure to install de-icing systems were the principal reasons why the Euro Hawk was not certified at that time. However, the SAAFu is not an automated system for avoiding collisions, but only supports controlling drone operators.

Dispute with Euro Hawk GmbH allegedly resolved

The Euro Hawk prototype’s return to service is to be completed in three phases. Negotiations on the phase 2 agreement are currently underway. The agreement is scheduled to be signed in January 2017. The flights themselves will then take place as part of phase 3. According to the Federal Ministry of Defence, this will require additional funding of at least 160 million euros. The Euro Hawk GmbH consortium consisting of Airbus and Northrop Grumman has yet to submit a binding offer, however. Only then will information on the actual cost planning be available.

The reason for this delay was a dispute between Euro Hawk GmbH and the Federal Government surrounding services that had allegedly not yet been rendered. These pertained to the antiquated reconnaissance sensor technology, as well as to the components encrypting transmissions of data. According to the Federal Ministry of Defence, an agreement has now reached “the final stages of negotiation”; the agreement is to be signed in the autumn of 2016. Thereafter, Northrop Grumman and Airbus will receive a request to submit a bid for phase 3 of the Euro Hawk flights. However, the certification for Euro Hawk GmbH as an aviation company has expired and must be reapplied for.

Triton is coming soon

Despite the Euro Hawk debacle, the Federal Government remains committed to acquiring giant reconnaissance drones. The Federal Minister of Defence has now opted to procure the MQ4-C Triton, also manufactured by Northrop Grumman, which has also been dogged by delays. The Ministry intends to issue a statement on their “certification prospects” prior to reaching a final selection decision. This was initially scheduled to be announced in the third quarter of 2015, but was then pushed back to February 2016, before being postponed once again until the autumn of this year.

The Bundeswehr Aviation Office has now compiled a “projection regarding certification prospects”. No information is available regarding its contents, however. Among other things, the authority has initiated investigations into the extent to which the certification regulations of the US Navy, which also flies Triton type drones, are applicable to German laws and ordinances.

This text first appeared here.

Image: First Global Hawk for NATO named „NATO 1“ (NATO AGS)