Germany’s long road to drone power

The German Bundeswehr has been flying reconnaissance drones for 60 years, and now they are to be armed. In a study, the author describes all German military drones and the role of the Airbus Group.

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Agnès Callamard, more than a hundred states have drones in military use. Most of these are reconnaissance and surveillance systems that date back to well into the last century. Germany is one of the countries that have been using unmanned systems for decades.

In the early 1960s, the Ministry of Defence sent 22 soldiers to the Grafenwoehr military training area for training on US drones, and others were trained as maintenance and repair personnel in the USA. They flew a drone made by a US manufacturer that was later taken over by Northrop Grumman. Today, the US defence contractor builds the world’s largest military unmanned aerial vehicle, the „Global Hawk“; several air forces of NATO countries and also the military alliance itself fly the giant drone for surveillance and reconnaissance.

Airbus took over drone business from Dornier

After the experiences with the US drones, the Ministry of Defence had set up a „drone training and testing squadron“. It was to prepare the procurement of the army’s own unmanned systems and train its operators. From 1972, the Army finally received the CL-89, which was built by the Canadian company Canadair on behalf of the governments of Canada and Great Britain and later also the German Federal Republic. Weighing about 100 kilograms, the rocket-shaped reconnaissance drone carried an optical camera.

At the same time, the Bundeswehr was already working on a successor. The main subcontractor for this CL-289 was the Canadian manufacturer and the German company Dornier. The drone had a range of 150 kilometres and was equipped with a daylight and an infrared camera. Missions took place from 1997 in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia. After the turn of the millennium, 140 examples were modernised by EADS (now Airbus), which had taken over the military branch of Dornier in the meantime. In 2009, the Bundeswehr finally took the CL-289 out of service and passed some of them on to France and Turkey.

Today, around 800 unmanned aircraft of various sizes fly for the German Air Force, the Army and the Navy. They are used to monitor bases in the area of operations and are also intended to intimidate enemy forces there. For attacks with fighter jets and ground troops, they can mark targets with laser designation. Companies like Airbus also do business with drones for practicing air defence. The German offshoot of the European corporation (then still EADS) also took over this business with „target drones“ from Dornier.

Plans for „loitering munitions

Already in the noughties, the German Ministry of Defence planned the procurement of armed drones; on the wish list was a composite system with „loitering munitions“ like those recently used by the military in Azerbaijan in the war over Nagorno-Karabakh.

Since 2004, the Bundeswehr has been flying the „Kleinflugzeug Zielortung“ (KZO) from Rheinmetall Defence Electronics. The all-weather drone can stay in the air for up to five hours and fly 4,000 metres high. Together with the Israeli kamikaze drone HAROP, the KZO was to form an „Effective Means for Stand-off Engagement of Single and Point Targets“ (WABEP).

So while the KZO would have observed and marked a target, the HAROP was to attack on it. Rheinmetall had already conducted „practical tests and flight trials“ on behalf of the Bundeswehr, including convoy escort, „knocking out“ enemy installations and attacking vehicles on the move. In the end, however, the German government decided against the system. Around the same time, Rheinmetall merged its drone business with EADS into a joint venture.

Airbus benefited from „rip cord“

According to the Ministry of Defence, the introduction of the WABEP would have been delayed to at least 2019, by which time it would have been „technically obsolete“. About ten years ago, the ministry and the Bundeswehr procurement office therefore set their sights on developing a „European drone“. EADS had persistently worked on the then Defence Minister Thomas de Maizière (CDU) to continue the TALARION development project developed by the defence company, on which Airbus had already spent 600 million euros, according to its own figures.

It was only many years later that de Maizière admitted that he had even considered resigning during this time. The reason was the failed „Euro Hawk“ project, which was originally intended to carry three spy modules from EADS. However, the giant drone did not receive approval in Germany, which is why the minister pulled the „ripcord“ in 2013 and left the only prototype ending up in the military museum in Berlin-Gatow.

According to the then new plans, the „signal-capturing reconnaissance“ intended for the „Euro Hawk“ was to be built into the „European drone“ yet to be developed. At the same time, de Maizière also mentioned arming it. He said that there were also cost reasons for this, because at that time there were supposedly mainly armed drones available on the world market. If the Bundeswehr wanted an exclusively unarmed aircraft, it would „possibly have to make expensive modifications“.

Control from distant ground stations

Initially, the European drone project operated under the name FEMALE („Future European MALE“), and EADS won defence companies Dassault from France and Leonardo (then Alenia Aermacchi) from Italy as partners. In 2014, the companies suggested government funding for a definition phase to determine the requirements for the jointly built drone.

In 2016, the governments of Germany, France and Italy finally launched the „Eurodrone“ with a two-year definition phase. With a take-off weight of over ten tonnes, it is to carry around 2.3 tonnes of payload, including guided missiles and bombs. As things stand, the „Eurodrone“ has a „remote split capability“ and can thus be controlled from distant ground stations with the help of a relay station.

First, however, the Bundestag must decide whether to release funds for the development of the „Eurodrone“; the vote is expected to take place next week on 24 March. The costs for this are not yet known, and this also applies to the distribution among the four developer nations, which now include Spain. Delivery to the Bundeswehr is then planned for 2028 at the earliest. The Ministry of Defence wants to procure 21 aircraft and 16 ground control stations and station them at Jagel Air Base in Schleswig-Holstein.

Handover of the weapons-capable „bridging solution“

For at least seven years, the Bundeswehr will have to make do with its „bridging solution“. For unmanned reconnaissance with high-flying unmanned systems, the Bundeswehr has been flying the „Heron 1“ from Israel for eleven years. It will be replaced by the successor model „Heron TP“. As with the Heron 1, the prime contractor for this second „bridging solution“ is Airbus with its German branch in Ottobrunn.

According to a November statement, the first four Heron TP drones will be handed over tomorrow, Friday, and will be stationed at the Bundeswehr base in Tel Nof near the Israeli capital. It is unclear, however, whether the date will be kept.

The „Heron TP“ can be armed. Plans to munitionise the „bridging solution“ have been cherished by the CDU, CSU and SPD for two legislative periods, but before that the parties had promised a „societal debate“. It took place as a „drone debate“ in the form of a short series of events in the summer of last year. The government coalition then wanted the Bundestag to decide on the weaponisation before the Christmas holidays. The leadership of the SPD parliamentary group did a last-minute about-face, so the issue of an armed „stop-gap solution“ is presumably off the table until after the Bundestag elections.

Decision for armed drone swarms

Not only the arming of the „Heron TP“ is a decision of great consequence. With the financial participation in the development of a „Eurodrone“ and an acquisition guarantee for a total of 63 aircraft, Germany, France, Italy and Spain are also launching an EU combat drone that could subsequently be marketed worldwide. The „Eurodrone“ is also seen as an essential pillar of the future „Future Combat Air System“ (FCAS), which will consist of a new type of combat aircraft and be accompanied by swarms of drones („Remote Carriers“). As with the „Eurodrone“, a decision on this is planned before the Bundestag elections.

The SPD leadership has already signalled that it wants to agree to the development of the „Eurodrone“, but will not decide on arming it for now. Even if the Bundeswehr later only flies the „Eurodrone“ unarmed, the SPD’s promise would significantly advance the worldwide proliferation of combat drones.

With the „bridging solution“, the „Eurodrone“ and the „future combat aircraft“, Germany is thus at the crossroads of arming unmanned systems in three respects. After the green light for the „Eurodrone“ next week, the SPD parliamentary group in the Bundestag could approve the next FCAS technology study in the summer. This includes the development of autonomously acting combat drone swarms. According to the current status, Airbus is to be awarded this contract again.

The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s study „The Long Road to Drone Power“ is available for download here (in German).

A German „Drone Survival Guide“ is published here.

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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