From 2030, European air forces want to have a drone for surveillance, interception or attack. The weapon system could be exported worldwide.
The German Bundestag has just given the go-ahead for the development and procurement of the Eurodrone. A so-called 25 million bill of the governing coalition of Christian and Social Democrats was voted on in the budget committee, the Defence Committee also gave its approval this morning. Their decision clears the way for the series production of a new unmanned system, which is to be delivered to the currently participating countries Germany, France, Italy and Spain from 2029.
The bill now passed for „industrial support for initial flight operations“ allows the Ministry of Defence to sign a contract with the German defence division of Airbus. The European company will be the prime contractor for the final assembly, working with Dassault Aviation (France) and Leonardo (Italy). The total project will cost at least 7.6 billion euros, of which Germany will account for exactly half.
Operational readiness targeted for 2030
The contract guarantees the later acceptance of initially 63 Eurodrones. Germany will receive the largest portion of these, with 21 aircraft and 12 ground stations. Italy promises to buy 15 drones, Spain and France want 12 each. The order includes flight simulators and additional ground stations for training pilots and sensor operators.
Because the German government placed the largest order, the first delivery will go to its Army, the Bundeswehr. Initial operational readiness there is targeted for 2030. As things stand at present, the German Eurodrones will be stationed at Jagel Air Base between the North and the Baltic Sea. For this purpose, the military airbase was extensively rebuilt; the Ministry of Defence spent 33 million euros alone on a new hangar, parking areas, work on the runway and necessary technology.
The German Air Force intends to use its Eurodrones for Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) and Imagery Intelligence (IMINT). The aircraft will carry either an interception module called ISIS, also built by Airbus, or sensor technology such as cameras, infrared and radar systems. These are presumably produced by the Airbus spin-off Hensoldt, in which the German government recently secured a blocking minority to guarantee its „key security and defence industrial technologies“.
Delay of the weaponised „bridging solution“
Until the Eurodrone is usable, the Bundeswehr continues to fly its „bridging solution“ from Israel. In 2010, the Air Force received five Heron 1s from the then prime contractor Rheinmetall for deployment in Afghanistan, of which two are still left after several crashes. In 2016, another three Heron 1s followed for Mali, the business having already been taken over by Airbus at that time. In both theatres of operation, the systems are now being replaced by the successor Heron TP. However, the delivery of this „second bridging solution“, planned for March, has been delayed by half a year due to the Corona pandemic.
The third purpose of the Eurodrone is considered to be „responsive and highly precise close air support“ for the German Army fighting on the ground. However, the Bundeswehr does not want to wait until 2030 for this air attack capability and has been planning for years to equip its „second bridging solution“ with missiles from a secretive manufacturer in Israel.
To the disappointment of the Air Force, however, the Bundestag initially approved the leasing of the Heron TP three years ago without ammunition. A decision on arming was planned by the ruling coalition for last December, but the Social Democratic Party leadership pulled the emergency brake at the last moment. The reasons given were that the drone war over Nagorno-Karabakh, won by Azerbaijan with Turkish support, had created a new need for discussion on armed drones.
Finance minister let draft bill disappear
The way in which the Social Democrats evaded the vote on the arming of the Heron TP drones had caused astonishment at the time. The draft resolution prepared by the Ministry of Defence was already with the SPD Finance Minister Olaf Scholz, who was supposed to pass it on to the relevant budget committee. However, after several peace-minded socialdemocratic MPs and party members, including the Federal Chairman Norbert Walter-Borjans, expressed reservations, Scholz simply kept the paper on hold.
It was therefore unclear recently whether the SPD parliamentary group would agree to an armament-capable Eurodrone. It is true that the current government – and thus also the SPD – is expressly in favour of its later munitionisation. However, the decision on this is to be taken at a later date. This is also stated in the resolution voted on today, according to which no ammunition is to be procured for the Eurodrone for the time being and no weapons training for the operating personnel is to take place yet.
However, this is a smokescreen. It is sufficient if the Bundestag does give its approval until the next or even the following legislative term. Like any new weapon of the Bundeswehr, the missiles and guided bombs planned for the Eurodrone must undergo certification, which takes about two years. If the system is operational in 2030 as planned, such a decision then would have time until 2028.
Bundeswehr to monitor cost development
In the approaching federal election campaign, leading Social Democrats apparently want to give the impression that the SPD is reflecting on its tradition as a peace party. In a similar tricky way as with the question of arming the Heron TP, the finance minister has therefore submit the bill to the budget committee for a decision, but tried to push it to reject it. The responsible State Secretary Bettina Hagedorn warned the MPs of „unpredictable additional costs“ for the development of the new system.
According to media reports, this includes additional contracts for the Eurodrone, which are not included in the cost breakdown. The largest item, however, is the dovetailing with other armament projects. France, Germany and Spain want to develop a Future Combat Air System (FCAS) by 2040, consisting of a new type of fighter jet, swarms of drones and a „Combat Cloud“. The prime contractor for this FCAS is, as with the Eurodrone, Airbus.
Should this largest armament project ever carried out in Europe will not materialise, Airbus wants to claim higher costs for the Eurodrone. Against this, however, the MPs in the budget committee have set a firewall and demanded to have a say in any „contractual linkage“ with other armament contracts. In addition, the Bundeswehr is to set up a „Eurodrone project organisation“ to monitor the costs of the project. Originally, the coordination of the overall project is in the hands of the Joint Organisation for Armaments Cooperation (OCCAR), in which the defence ministries of Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK cooperate on major armament projects.
Start-up funding from the EU Commission
Even though the Bundestag would only allow the Eurodrone for military reconnaissance in a few years, the SPD today gave its de facto approval to the development of an EU armed drone. At the instigation of the German government, the system was included as a joint armament project in the European Union’s „Permanent Structured Cooperation“ (PESCO), in which EU member states cooperate more closely in the field of security and defence. Its subsequent operation will be funded in this way with ten per cent from the European Defence Fund, and as „start-up financing“ the EU Commission is providing 100 million euros for its development.
The French government has already made it clear that it wants to arm the Eurodrone, and the same can be expected for Italy and Spain. Other EU states will follow: In addition to the four developer states, the Czech Republic has announced that it wants to buy the Eurodrone in larger numbers from Airbus. After all willing EU member states are then equipped with the Eurodrone, the three manufacturers could start exporting it to other countries. Without the SPD, such a worldwide proliferation would not have been possible.
It should not be forgotten that the biggest profiteer of today’s decision is again Airbus. With the Heron 1, the Heron TP, the Eurodrone, the lucrative business with target drones and the swarms of drones planned in the Future Combat Air System, the armaments company has become the complete supplier of all major unmanned projects of the German Air Force. Reason enough then, for all anti-militarists and peace activists, to campaign at Airbus an important European drone warmonger.
Image: Airbus/ Bundeswehr.