Big business with throw-away military drones

The defence company Airbus is expected to have produced 2,000 target drones soon, at a unit price in the six-digit range. The Bundeswehr uses them for air defence training. Further missions are testing swarms of drones.

To train air defence forces, the military simulates another aerial vehicle or an approaching missile with so-called target drones. The unmanned aircraft is then not always shot down, sometimes only the detection and tracking of the target is tested.

The Bundeswehr has been using target drones since the 1980s at the latest. Initially, the troops flew a petrol-powered model aircraft, for example the KZD-2 („Kleinziel-Drohne 2“).

Drones with a „hot nose“

Airbus is one of the manufacturers of today’s target drones, the defence contractor offers its jet-powered Do-DT („Direct Target“) models in four sizes and with different capabilities. The Do-DT45, for example, has a heated „hot nose“ that simulates a thermal target for approaching cruise missiles. Exercise scenarios also include attacks by aircraft or other drones. The Do-DT can emit infrared or radar signals.

The Bundeswehr does not purchase the target drones directly from Airbus, but instead acts as a service provider for so-called flight campaigns. Airbus flies the drones „according to customer requirements“ and delivers the aircraft, required infrastructure and personnel to the operational site. The drones weighing up to 75 kilograms are launched from a catapult. If the aircraft has not been destroyed as a target, it lands on a parachute.

Training on the Baltic Sea

According to Airbus, it carries out around ten such campaigns each year with 150 to 200 flights, including for the German Bundeswehr. The drones are operated at the military training areas Putlos on the Baltic Sea and Todendorf near Hamburg.

Since 2010, the German Ministry of Defence has, according to its own statement, concluded 137 contracts for the provision of „unmanned target displays“, the majority of which involved the simulation of air strikes or air combats. Ten percent of the campaigns were in support of „technical campaigns“, including surveying or „integration projects“.

„Manned-unmanned teaming“

Several Do-DT 25s were used, for example, to test the European „Future Combat Air System“ (FCAS), which Airbus is developing together with the French defence company Dassault Aviation. The target drones have simulated a swarm of drones that will accompany the combat aircraft. In military circles, this is known as „manned-unmanned teaming“ (muT), in which the accompanying drones are also to be armed.

All information on the cost of the flight campaigns ordered from Airbus has been classified by the German Ministry of Defence. The number of drones flown in individual campaigns is also not disclosed. Finally, it is not clear how many target drones were actually shot down.

Export licences to Saudi Arabia and Israel

Airbus also sells its Do-DT to the US and Israel, export licences (but without naming the manufacturer) have also been granted by the German government to Italy, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and Canada. It is likely that these are unmanned aircraft from Airbus.

The price of the exported systems can be inferred from the answer to a parliamentary question from 2015: an order for „100 target drones and parts“ for Saudi Arabia, for example, had a volume of 11.6 million euros. The costs for each individual aircraft could thus be around 100,000 euros. It is however unclear whether the export licences were service contracts for flight campaigns or the sale of individual drones including launchers.

In 2017, Airbus announced the production of 1,500 units at its Friedrichshafen factory, compared to 1,000 four years earlier, so the 2,000 Do-DTs are expected to come off production soon. At the beforementioned estimated unit price, Airbus might have generated around 200 million euros with target drones and its flight campaigns.

Companies from Great Britain and China

Airbus is not the only manufacturer to market the unmanned aerial target system to the Bundeswehr. As the British manufacturer QinetiQ explains, it also purchases services for German troops. However, it is unclear whether QinetiQ also offers complete flight campaigns or whether the drones are in the Bundeswehr’s inventory.

According to the Bundeswehr’s Facebook site in Schleswig-Holstein, drones from the Chinese manufacturer DJI are now also flown in Putlos for air defence tests. However, they are not shot down but are used for training with drone defence systems.

Image: Stahlkocher, EADS DO-DT 25, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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