Germany abandons plans for own NATO drones

In Sicily, NATO has stationed five and the US Air Force two high-flying GLOBAL HAWK. An additional „national provision“ was to cost German taxpayers over half a billion euros

The German government is refraining from plans to acquire its own spy drones for NATO. This is what the Ministry of Defence writes in its answer to a parliamentary question on German participation in the NATO programme „Alliance Ground Surveillance“ (AGS). According to this, there are no longer any intentions to provide NATO „with its own high-flying drones of the High-Attitude-Long-Endurance class“.

As part of the AGS, NATO is stationing five GLOBAL HAWKs at the Italian airbase Sigonella in Sicily. The drones are made by US manufacturer Northrop Grumman and carry optical and radar-based surveillance technology („Imagery Intelligence – IMINT). The platform includes a high-resolution radar for ground observation, which according to media reports has a range of at least 200 kilometres. The drone programme is under the command of the NATO European Air Command in Ramstein.

A quarter of the personnel from Germany

The NATO member states agreed on the AGS, which will cost around 1.5 billion euros, at their 2012 summit in Chicago. The two largest contributors are the USA (41.7%) and Germany (33.26%, or 483 million euros). In total, the AGS is to comprise around 600 soldiers and civilian personnel, almost a quarter of whom come from Germany. The Luftwaffe will also provide 14 drone pilots for the GLOBAL HAWK.

The plans to contribute up to four own IMINT drones and the necessary ground stations in addition to the five GLOBAL HAWKs were announced by the German Ministry of Defence also in 2012. As with the AGS, these were to be high-altitude drones. In 2015, the Ministry of Defence even made „planning provisions“ for the project in the federal budget; 566 million euros were initially reserved for the period from 2019 to 2024.

Back then, the Ministry of Defence did not want to commit to a specific model. At the time of the commitment for the NATO, the Bundeswehr had also planned to equip several high-flying drones with an interception module („Signal Ingelligence“ — SIGINT) in the EURO HAWK project. The aircraft came from the same manufacturer as the GLOBAL HAWK. Since the failure of the EURO HAWK project, the government Germany has been pursuing the European development of a EURODRONE, which can also be equipped with optical sensor technology.

NATO drones soon operational

Eight years ago, the Ministry of Defence dated the deployment of its own GLOBAL HAWK to „2023 at the earliest“. By 2019, the Inspector General of the Bundeswehr should have made a decision on the model. A final decision was targeted for the time after the operational readiness of the NATO AGS in Sigonella had been established. This moment is soon beeing reached. Six weeks ago, the last of the five GLOBAL HAWKs arrived in Sigonella, and the aircraft are currently undergoing test flights.

Their deployment could first target Russia. According to the German Ministry of Defence, NATO drones are allowed to use a corridor through German airspace that has been set up for US drones. The United States Air Force has also stationed two GLOBAL HAWK at Sigonella. They fly as part of the „European Deterrence Initiative“, which was started by NATO after the Crimean crisis in 2014. Missions take place over the Baltic Sea, Poland and Ukraine to observe activities on Russian territory. Currently, GLOBAL HAWKs from Sigonella mainly fly in an air corridor that leads over Bulgaria to the Black Sea.

Image: The last of five NATO HALE drones arriving in Sigonella/ Sicily (NATO).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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