German Airbase in Jagel: Waiting for the drones

Only 23 years after a military drone airport in Jagel was decided, large drones could actually be stationed there. But the squadron is already analysing images and videos of drone missions in Mali. In this way, „terrorists“ and „smugglers“ are also being pursued from Schleswig-Holstein.

On 12 April 2005, Peter Struck (SPD), the Defence Minister in office at the time, decided to expand the Jagel airbase between Kiel and Flensburg for large military drones. Since 1994, the 51 „Immelmann“ reconnaissance squadron with „Tornado“ jet fighters has been stationed there with currently 37 aircraft. From 2009, the first „Euro Hawk“ spy drone was to be transferred to Schleswig-Holstein, and a little later armed Bundeswehr drones were also to be stationed in Jagel. For this purpose, the military airbase was extensively converted, and the Air Force spent some 33 million Euros on a new hangar, parking areas, work on the runway and the necessary technology.

However, the German drone programme turned out to be a disaster. After delivery of only one prototype, in 2011, the Bundeswehr had to bid farewell to the „Euro Hawk“ due to certification problems. The failed 600 Million Euros project almost led to the resignation of the then Minister of Defence Thomas de Maizière (CDU). As a replacement, the German government wanted to station three „Triton“ drones from the same US manufacturer in Jagel from 2025 onwards; the Defence Ministry also abandoned this project in favour of a manned aircraft.

Stationed in Israel, „home base“ in Jagel

As is well known, the German procurement of armed drones has been delayed by almost ten years. Although the first „Heron TP“ will be delivered in November this year, the drones leased from Israel will remain unarmed until a supplementary decision is taken by the Bundestag. The reconnaissance squadron in Jagel is the „home base“ of the five „Heron TPs“, but until they are transferred to the Bundeswehr operational areas they will be stationed at a German base on an Israeli air force base near Tel Aviv.

So 15 years after the decision to establish a German drone base, the Air Force is still waiting for the announced unmanned systems at Jagel. Now and then, pilots pass by there to train on a simulator for the flight on the „Heron 1“. They are flown by the German Armed Forces in Afghanistan and Mali for reconnaissance, and from 2021 they will be replaced by the „Heron TP“. Airbus has installed the simulator in 2014. The defence contractor is responsible for all major Bundeswehr drone projects.

„Eurodrone“ delayed again

The airbase Schleswig in Jagel. At present 37 „Tornados“ are stationed there (Ralf Roletschek).

In a few years, however, drones should then really be flying in Jagel. In the European „Eurodrone“ project, the Bundeswehr intends to procure a total of 20 unmanned aircraft and station them in Schleswig-Holstein from 2027. The „Eurodrone“ will be able to carry out unarmed reconnaissance and, if necessary, be equipped with guided missiles and bombs. Airbus is the main responsible for the production, while the French company Dassault and the Italian company Leonardo are subcontractors. A Bundestag decision on development expenditure was planned for this autumn, but a date is still not known. As a result, the conclusion of the contract, which is only possible after that decision, could be delayed, so that the delivery of the first aircraft, planned after seven years, will probably not take place until 2028.

The Bundeswehr is now planning to invest further millions in Jagel. The infrastructure of the airbase is to be modernised at a cost of around 84 million Euros; this sum does not yet include the requirements for the „Eurodrone“. According to a media report, the additional drone expenditure could amount to up to 250 million Euros. Colonel Kristof Conrath, Commodore of Air Force Wing 51, explains that a maintenance hangar of the „Eurodrone“, for example, would cost 15 million Euros.

No ground control stations in Jagel

It is technically possible to steer the Bundeswehr drones from a location outside the operational area. For the two planned missions in Afghanistan and Mali, one stationary ground station each would be needed, as well as the necessary satellite communication systems. However, this is not planned for the base in Jagel, and the Ministry of Defence has not ordered any stationary equipment for the „Heron TP“ there.

Nevertheless, the Luftwaffe in Jagel already plays an important role in the German drone war. Since 2016, the German „Heron 1“ have been under the command of the United Nations Headquarters in Bamako as part of the MINUSMA mission. The image and video material recorded by the drones is first transmitted to Jagel and then sent back to the German mission contingent „in almost real time“. A copy will be sent to the German and Canadian operational headquarters of the mission in Mali.

90 „Aerial photo evaluators“

Afterwards, the images are analysed by „aerial photo evaluators“ of the squadron, the employees have a maximum of 48 hours time for this. The department with a total of 90 soldiers is also responsible for processing reconnaissance data from the „Tornado“ aircraft. Among the known missions of the squadron were overflights of the 2007 G8 protests in Heiligendamm, where activist camps were to be explored and imminent blockades discovered.

The image material processed by the „aerial photo evaluators“ is finally transmitted to the headquarters of the MINUSMA mission in Bamako and to a German Armed Forces surveillance and reconnaissance department in Gao. In the first three years of the Mali mission, the Air Force has produced some 800 such reports. The recipients of the information and reports also include the Strategic Reconnaissance Command and the Ministry of Defence. These departments can then be involved in the further operational command of the drones.

Support for the anti-terror operation „Barkhane“

The official aim of the MINUSMA mission in Mali is to „secure peace“ and to ensure that the ceasefire is respected. However, with the „Heron 1“ in Mali, the Bundeswehr is also supporting the French-led anti-terror operation „Barkhane“, in the course of which French special units have killed leaders and allies of suspected terrorist groups. The „Immelmann“ squadron may therefore have been directly involved in these operations.

Only when asked did the Ministry of Defence declare that the command in Jagel would also be used to „monitor known smuggler routes“ in Mali. A member of the Bundeswehr had previously divulged this in the Ministry of Defence’s „drone debate“. The extent of such „reconnaissance missions“ cannot be understood, allegedly no statistics are kept. „Smuggling“ is usually also understood to mean assistance in fleeing or „trafficking human beings“. The Ministry of Defence emphasises that the pursuit or prevention of irregular migration is not part of the Bundeswehr’s mission spectrum for drones in Mali. Nevertheless, the Jagel missions of the German military probably contribute to securing Fortress Europe far from its borders.

Image: In Jagel, the Air Force has only an unairworthy model of a „Harfang“, which Airbus markets for the Israeli defence company IAI. All rights reserved Bundeswehr/ Falk Bärwald.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

Knowledge worker, activist, editor of the German civil rights journal Bürgerrechte & Polizei/CILIP.