On its website, the German Ministry of Defence gives the impression that the mass production of an EU combat drone has already been decided. First, however, the Bundestag is to vote on it. The Social Democratic Party is thus faced with a decision of great consequence.
The „Eurodrone“, for which the German government, together with the governments of France, Italy and Spain, wants to spend 7.1 billion euros, is also to be used for signal intelligence (SIGINT) purpose. This was announced by the Ministry of Defence on Friday under the headline „Eurodrone will improve Bundeswehr reconnaissance“ on its website. Until now, only imaging intelligence (IMINT) and armament had been discussed as possible applications.
The „Eurodrone“ could thus succeed the „Euro Hawk“ project, which failed miserably. High-flying drones of the HALE class (High Altitude, Long Endurance) were to carry three digital interception modules ordered by the Bundeswehr from the Airbus Group. After the US manufacturer Northrop Grumman had delivered a first prototype for test flights, the then Defence Minister Thomas de Maizière (CDU) pulled the „ripcord“ on the project in summer 2013. To operate in German airspace, the drones needed a system to detect and avoid other aircraft. The US government and Northrop Grumman had withheld important documents needed for the approval process.
Lobbying by Airbus
In the posting on its website, the Ministry of Defence gives the impression that the introduction of the „Eurodrone“ has already been approved. However, the Bundestag is to decide on this only (probably on 24 March) in the context of a so-called 25 million bill. This involves money to start series production of initially 63 aircraft and several dozen ground stations, which will be divided among the four participating nations. The European Airbus Group is in the lead of the project, together with the defence companies Dassault Aviation (France) and Leonardo (Italy). The current German government also wants to arm the „Eurodrone“.
Until the delivery of its 21 „Eurodrones“ planned for 2028, the German Air Force will use several „Heron TP“ from Israel as a new „bridging solution“, according to the plans it will be available from spring 2021. Last December, however, the Social Democraric Party (SPD), which is the junior partner of the Conservatives (CDU/ CSU) provisionally withheld its consent to the armament of the „Heron TP“ at the last moment. At present, it is unclear whether this vote will be taken before or after the Bundestag elections.
Airbus (then still known as EADS) had been lobbying intensively for the „Eurodrone“ since 2012. In the same year, the company took over the drone division of the defence company Rheinmetall and incorporated it into its Cassidian division. Until then, Cassidian had continued Dornier’s business with so-called target drones and had developed various drones of its own, but these were hardly marketed internationally. Until 2012, Airbus had also been researching three major drone projects with the „Barracuda“, the „Sagitta“ and the „Talarion“.
Advocacy from de Maiziere and von der Leyen
The „Talarion“ can be regarded as the forerunner of the „Eurodrone“; the MALE class drone (Medium Altitude, Long Endurance) was also designed for IMINT and SIGINT missions in addition to armed operations. In addition to France and Spain, Italy and Turkey were among the possible partners; the government in Ankara had promised investments worth millions in the event of series production.
However, because no money had been allocated in the German federal budget, Airbus stopped the project in 2012. At the same time, however, the company lobbied the Ministry of Defence and the Bundeswehr for a continuation. Subsequently, de Maizière pushed for the „European Drone“ and also conducted negotiations on this at the EU level.
At that time, the minister already brought the arming of drones into play. De Maizière received support from Ursula von der Leyen (CDU), who took over as Defence Minister at the end of 2013. The following year, the minister reiterated her „conviction that we must enter into the development of a European weaponised drone“.
Six other EU governments interested in the „Eurodrone“
Two years later, in autumn 2016, the governments of Germany, France and Italy finally got the „Eurodrone“ off the ground. As a first step, the defence ministries of the three countries agreed on a two-year definition study proposed by Airbus, Dassault Aviation and Leonardo. Subsequently, Spain also joined the project.
Coordination of the overall project was entrusted to the Organisation for Co-operation in Armaments (OCCAR), where defence ministries from Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United Kingdom co-operate in major armament projects. Within the framework of the European Defence Industrial Development Programme (EDIDP), the European Union is supporting the development of the „Eurodrone“ with 100 million euros.
The European Union also included the „Eurodrone“ as a joint armament project in the Permanent Structured Cooperation (SSC), in which the member states cooperate more closely in the field of security and defence. The programme set up for this purpose is led by the German Ministry of Defence. The Czech Republic joined the SSC project first. Later on, other governments could buy the „Eurodrone“ in larger numbers. According to the German government, the countries Belgium, Finland, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Hungary are observers of the project.
Social Democratic Party decides on proliferation of EU combat drones
According to the acting Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (CDU), the arming of the German „Eurodrones“ will be decided shortly before the system goes into operation, as is the case with the Israeli „bridging solution“. However, the „Eurodrone“ is being developed in principle to be capable of carrying weapons, as confirmed by the minister and now also by the Ministry of Defence on its website. The envisaged combat mission is described as an attack „against enemy stationary and moving targets“. According to a Bundeswehr general, the „Eurodrone“ is to be equipped with US guided bombs of the type „GBU 49“ as well as the „Brimstone“ anti-tank weapons of the European defence company MBDA.
As things stand at present, a human being would still decide upon the use of lethal weapons during missions of the „Eurodrone“. But as early as the next decade, the Bundeswehr wants to have combat aircraft that are accompanied by a computer-controlled swarm of armed drones. They would be launched from the air by the „A400“ military transport aircraft, as Airbus recently demonstrated in a promotional video.
The decision to be taken in the Bundestag on 24 March on the serial production of the „Eurodrone“ is therefore of an extremely high importance. Even if the Bundestag does not approve its arming in a few years, numerous other EU member states would foreseeably want to procure and arm the „Eurodrone“ developed with German taxpayers‘ money. So, in six weeks, the Social Democrats will be faced with the decision of whether to open the gateway for the production and proliferation of an EU combat drone.
Image: For the first time, the Ministry of Defence shows the envisaged „Eurodrone“ as a mock-up with missiles. But arming it has not been decided yet (BMVg).