Heron TP in Israel: Germany now arms its drones

With the decision to buy 140 missiles, the German „drone debate“ comes to an end after eight years. All details about the weapons are top secret.

At the request of the government’s parliamentary groups, the Bundestag’s Budget and Defence Committees last week gave the green light to arm the Bundeswehr’s Heron TP drones. As an „interim solution“, they are to provide the air force with a new weapon system until the Eurodrone is fully developed in six years at the earliest. The missiles cost €152 million.

The decisions bring to an end an eight-year-long „drone debate“ in which initially only the Greens and the LEFT opposed the plans of the governing coalition of Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD). It began in 2014 with a public hearing of the Defence Committee on „legal and ethical aspects of armed drones“ in the Bundestag, followed in 2018 by the decision to procure „weaponisable“ Heron TP from Israel.

SPD backs down temporarily

However, the Budget and Defence Committees had postponed the munitionisation of the unmanned systems to a later date and first demanded the clarification of open questions. Also according to the coalition agreement of March 2018, the Bundestag should only make a final decision after a „detailed international legal, constitutional and ethical assessment“ of combat drones and after the creation of the „conceptual basis for their deployment“.

Two years later, the Ministry of Defence organised a series of events to continue the „drone debate“, which took place without an audience because of the Corona pandemic. The hearings were mainly attended by advocates of armed drones. One of the arguments was that they were necessary to protect German soldiers, for example by patrolling over military camps or escorting armed convoys. Critics countered that no German soldiers have been killed by hostile acts since 2014, so the required capabilities are not needed at all.

At the end of 2020, the Budget and Defence Committees were finally to decide for the last time on arming the Heron TP, but this time the SPD was on the sidelines. A procurement application sent by the Ministry of Defence to the Federal Ministry of Finance was not forwarded to the two committees as agreed. This decision fell to the then SPD Finance Minister and current Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Airbus as prime contractor

The Heron TP is the successor model to the smaller Heron 1, which has been part of the Bundeswehr’s operational assets in Afghanistan since 2010 and has also been flying in Mali since 2016. The manufacturer is the Israeli armaments company Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). The drone is powered by a turboprop engine and reaches a speed of around 500 kilometres per hour.

For reconnaissance purposes, the Heron TP carries optical and infrared sensors from the Israeli companies ELTA and Elbit on board. The equipment also includes a laser target marker that enables fighter jets or artillery to fire on a target illuminated in this way. Also from Israel are a radar unit and satellite communications equipment.

The Bundeswehr has designated the German-based armament division of Airbus as prime contractor for the provision of initially five Heron TP and four ground stations. The basic operation, which also includes maintenance and repair in the stationing country, will cost the German government €717 million, and the contract period is nine years. The first deployment to an operational area is to cost a further €100 million after a one-year preparation period.

Stationing in Israel

All Heron TPs were to be delivered to the Bundeswehr last year and subsequently flight-tested. The equipment will remain in Israel and will be moved from there to Bundeswehr operational areas as needed. For another €176 million, the Ministry of Defence has concluded an agreement to this effect with the government in Israel. The reason for this is that the drone is not authorised for use in German airspace, which means that cumbersome permits would have to be applied for in Germany for training flights.

For the „sustainable deployment in two areas of operation“, around 80 German crews with pilots and payload operators are to be trained in Israel, and weapon system operators will be added when the drones are armed. Most of the personnel will be taken over from the Heron 1.

For the stationing of the Heron TP, the German Armed Forces moved into an area at the Israeli airbase Tel Nof near Tel Aviv at the beginning of 2019, shortly after the Bundestag’s decision to procure it. The Israeli-German cooperation operates under the name „Red Baron“, a designation determined by the Israeli military, according to the Ministry of Defence.

Drafted rules of deployment

The decisions in the budget and defence committees allow for the procurement of 140 missiles for the Heron TP, 60 of them for training. Which weapon systems are involved was already determined in 2018, but the Ministry of Defence is keeping this a top secret. It is said to be a globally unique missile from Israel, whose attack can be aborted or its effect downgraded until shortly before impact. For this purpose, the weapon system operators are in contact with the weapon via a seeker head until impact.

According to the draft agreed last week on the procurement of the missiles, a combat deployment of the Heron TP must be authorised for each mandated area of the Bundeswehr by a separate Bundestag resolution. This should also determine the „limits under international and constitutional law“ of the capabilities to be deployed. The drone crews would be stationed exclusively in the area of operations, and so-called „targeted killings“ would be prohibited as a matter of principle.

These supposedly narrow rules of deployment, which the Ministry of Defence has already published in a draft, can hardly reassure critics, however. For the Ministry of Defence praised the Heron TP in an tender procedure before the Düsseldorf Higher Regional Court as being so precise that it could „also be used in urban areas“. The availability of and belief in such a miracle weapon will thus presumably promote its use and lead to even more deaths in combat operations.

Image: Heron TP (Boevaya mashina, CC BY-SA 4.0).

Autor: Matthias Monroy

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