The Drone that Took Down a Government

Peter Dörrie on Germany’s disastrous Euro Hawk

The Drone that Took Down a Government The Drone that Took Down a Government

Uncategorized July 1, 2013 1

Euro Hawk. Northrop Grumman photo The Drone that Took Down a Government Peter Dörrie on Germany’s disastrous Euro Hawk  Drones usually hunt the enemies... The Drone that Took Down a Government
Euro Hawk. Northrop Grumman photo

The Drone that Took Down a Government

Peter Dörrie on Germany’s disastrous Euro Hawk 

Drones usually hunt the enemies of the state. A growing roster of countries use unmanned and — to one degree or another — autonomous aerial vehicles to track down and kill terrorists and spy on trafficking operations around the world.

In Germany, though, the latest drone victim is the government itself, represented by Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière. The minister is embroiled in a widening scandal tied to a botched drone procurement — one that is quite characteristic of Germans’ relationship with their armed forces.

The scandal has roots stretching back 13 years through three former administrations. Under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, a Social Democrat governing in a coalition with the Green Party, the German government decided to start the procurement process for the Euro Hawk, a variant of the U.S.-developed Global Hawk spy drone built by Northrop Grumman. The unarmed Global Hawk is the world’s largest operational Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, with a wingspan rivaling that of a Boeing 737.

The Euro Hawk would use the same basic platform as the Global Hawk, but the payload — cameras, sensors and communications equipment — would be provided by a European consortium, EADS. Flight tests commenced in 2002 and the project was sustained by Chancellor Angela Merkel, a Conservative, who ruled first in a coalition with the Social Democrats and today is in a partnership with the Liberal Party.

After investing around 500 million Euros (roughly $650 million) over 13 years, Thomas de Maizière surprisingly pulled the plug on the project last month. The reason was simple: the drone wouldn’t actually be allowed to be used in European airspace because it lacks an anti-collision system — necessary for certification by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA).

The EASA would only certify the Euro Hawk for use over unpopulated areas, which would render it pretty much totally useless. Adding the anti-collision system would theoretically be possible, but requires extensive re-engineering of the platform, increasing the costs of the project by hundreds of millions of Euros.

European airspace has always been heavily regulated — and the German military knew this. The political opposition has had a field day, calling the Euro Hawk’s cancellation over a known issue a “squandering” of taxpayer money.

Hearings have been scheduled and de Maizière hasn’t helped the sour mood by repeatedly making false statements about a key question. At what point did he first hear about the problems with the project? First insisting that he only heard about the certification issues days before the final cancellation, he later had to row back and admit that he had known about the problem probably months before.

At this point, there were calls for his resignation.

Euro Hawk. Northrop Grumman photo

Hottest seat in government

Minister of Defense is the post in German government most likely to get you fired. In all, seven ministers of defense in post-war Germany left their office in disgrace, either while in the post or as a consequence of their actions in the Ministry of Defense.

In the current administration the first casualty was Franz Josef Jung. He had to resign for his role in the Kunduz Affair. His successor, the enigmatic Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg, had to leave office because he had obtained his PhD by fraud.

There are two possible reasons for the lethality of this particular ministry on the careers of its leaders. Like military bureaucracies, it is riddled with corruption and Byzantine power relationships. And more than most other nationalities, Germans react touchily if a military leader misbehaves — a consequence of 20th-century history.

Considering the general unease with drone warfare among Germans, the opposition couldn’t have asked for a better scandal to come along only months before the next general elections. And Thomas de Maizière is doing them the favor of widening the scandal.

Since the Euro Hawk debacle, reports have surfaced that of the German military’s other drones, 124 have been lost in accidents and crashes since the 1990s. This is a sizable portion of the 871 drones in service and a much larger number than previously published by the ministry. Even worse, not all of the crashed drones were recovered, making it likely that some of them ended up with third parties, again a detail not mentioned before.

And the minister doesn’t only have problems with UAVs . The parliament’s defense committee just put the procurement of 157 helicopters of various types on ice after the Federal Court of Auditors, an independent government body, found the proposed price to be extraordinarily high.

Readers from the USA, Britain or France might wonder what all the fuss is about. Cock-ups on a similar scale are frequent in these countries and wouldn’t even put the head of a minor project manager on the block, much less a minister. But it serves as a valuable reminder that attitudes towards many aspects of the military in Germany are different than in other countries.

De Maizière, for his part, hasn’t been fired yet and may well pull through. But he stands close to the cliff and if this scandal costs him his job, he will go down into history as the first commander in chief knocked off by his own drone.