Where have all the military drones gone?

The German Bundeswehr is one of the armies that flew unmanned systems for reconnaissance already in the 1960s. The first aircraft resembled a model aeroplane and came from the US Army, later they looked like a rocket. From the turn of the millennium, Airbus in particular benefited from the German drone programme.

According to various answers given by the Ministry of Defence to parliamentary questions, the Bundeswehr today has almost 1,000 unmanned aerial vehicles in various designs and sizes. Not counted are aircraft that have been lost; as explained by a list from 2013, about one in seven Bundeswehr drones crashes or is destroyed during an emergency landing.

It is little known that Germany is one of the countries that have been using unmanned military systems for many decades. The first projects date back to the early 1960s, when the Ministry of Defence sent 22 soldiers to the Grafenwöhr military training area to train on US drones. Further soldiers were trained as maintenance and repair personnel in the USA.

Own drones from 1972

At that time, a RP-71 of the US manufacturer Radioplane was flown, which was later taken over by the armament company Northrop Grumman. The drone operated under the name SD-1, the letters stood for „Surveillance Drone“. The aircraft resembles a model aeroplane with a propeller, but was launched with the help of two rockets. After reaching a cruising speed of around 370 kilometres per hour, these boosters were dropped. The pilots were able to track the course using radar and switch on an aerial camera if necessary. The drone landed by parachute. Afterwards, the film had to be removed and developed.

As early as 1961, the Bundeswehr itself is said to have had two SD-1 in service, and a year later 18 more were delivered. They were stationed at the Immelmann barracks in Celle Wietzenbruch. After the experiences with the US drones, the Ministry of Defence set up a „Drone Training and Experimental Squadron“. It was to prepare the procurement of the Army’s own drones and take over the training.

From 1972 onwards, the Army received the CL-89 reconnaissance drone, which was developed by the Canadian company Canadair on behalf of the governments of Canada and Great Britain and later also of the then Federal Republic of Germany. Weighing about 100 kilograms, the rocket-shaped device also took off with a booster and carried an optical camera. By 1988, the CL-89 is said to have made a total of 2,000 flights.

„Combat enhancement“ with infrared camera and GPS

After 30 years the Bundeswehr switched to the CL-289 (Karsten Franke, CC-BY-SA 2.0).

When the CL-89 was introduced, the Bundeswehr was already working on its successor, the CL-289, with the main subcontractor being the Canadian manufacturer and the German company Dornier. Like the CL-89, the drone was launched by a rocket and had a range of 150 kilometres. The equipment included a daylight and an infrared camera. Reconnaissance took place at an altitude of around 1,000 metres.

The new system was supposed to be available from 1982. However, it was not until 1990 that the system was delivered, and another two years later it was ready for use. A total of 189 units were delivered to the German Armed Forces; missions were subsequently carried out in Bosnia and Kosovo, for which the drones were stationed in Macedonia.

From 2001 onwards, 140 CL-289s were modernised to increase their combat effectiveness. The navigation improved with GPS, new reconnaissance capabilities with infrared and radar as well as the transmission of data via satellite cost the Bundeswehr 53 million German marks at the time. On 18 March 2009, the CL-289 was finally taken out of service. The German government subsequently put the total cost of the system at 917 million euros.

Delivery to Turkey

One of the 189 CL-289 drones made it into the museum (Dirk1981, CC-BY-SA 3.0).

What happened to the Bundeswehr’s first-generation drones is allegedly difficult for the German government to comprehend. In its answer to a question posed by Christine Buchholz, a member of the Bundestag, the Ministry of Defence writes that it has no information on the CL-89s‘ deliveries to the militaries of other countries.

According to various sources on the internet, however, an unknown number of CL-89s were exported to Turkey. This is also stated in a Bundestag document from 1994, according to which the Bundeswehr took over the training of Turkish personnel. Because of too many accidents, however, the system was soon taken out of service there, as a recent Turkish study explains. Nevertheless, the drones originating from Germany formed the cornerstone of the Turkish programme for reconnaissance drones.

According to the German government, it is also not aware of the fate of the CL-289. The events concern periods that go back more than ten years. Because they are „not weapons of war“, documents on the aircraft used at the time no longer have to be kept. This is what it says in a letter from the State Secretary in the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, Ulrich Nußbaum, to the MP Christine Buchholz. But the ministry did do some digging in the archives. It „investigated“, according to the letter, that 12 CL-289 systems were delivered to France and the remaining 177 were scrapped.

Foundation stone for Airbus drone programmes

A target drone DO-DT 25 (Stahlkocher, CC BY-SA 3.0).

Airbus in particular benefited from the early deployments of unmanned systems. At the turn of the millennium, the defence company (then still known as EADS) took over the military branch of Dornier and was thus responsible for the Bundeswehr’s drone programme at the time.

Today, Airbus is the prime contractor for several German unmanned systems projects, including the Bundeswehr’s weaponised HERON TP. The company also builds so-called target drones, which are used for training with rockets and cruise missiles. They come from the business that EADS took over from Dornier and look a bit similar to the US military’s SD-1, with which the Bundeswehr gained its first drone experience in 1961.

Image: The RP-71, which operated under the name SD-1 in the Bundeswehr, here from the British Air Force (Nimbus227, Public domain).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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