BONN — Political and social considerations have turned UAVs into a controversial topic in Germany, especially with German national elections coming this fall.
The German Air Force operates three Israel Aerospace Industries Heron 1 medium-altitude long-endurance (MALE) UAVs for reconaissance in Afghanistan. Its first large high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) UAV for signals intelligence missions, the Eurohawk, is undergoing certification.
Armed UAVs, such as the US-built Reaper, are viewed by some as killer robots. Others object to the US practice of using them to kill suspected terrorists.
Opposition parties in Parliament are campaigning against them, and with elections approaching, some politicians of the ruling conservative-liberal coalition also have said any decision about new purchases should await the new legislative term.
Parts of the military and Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière are promoting purchase of armed MALE UAVs. The Defense Ministry is checking possible candidates.
“The current problem of de Maizière and the Defense Ministry is that they cannot give any good reason why the German military needs them,” said Marcel Dickow, UAV and technology expert at the Berlin-based Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik. “They would have been useful in Afghanistan a couple of years ago, but Germany wants to be out of the country with major parts of its troops by 2014-15.”
Following Afghanistan, military leaders reported the value of an enduring “armed overwatch” to rapidly respond to sudden changes on the ground. An armed UAV can strike a target precisely, even if that target is near friendly troops or civilians, a Defense Ministry spokesman said. An armed UAV should be viewed as an extension of existing weapons that can attack ground targets, he said.
Possible candidates could include the Heron TP and the Predator B, he said.
A procurement contract for a temporary bridging solution for a future MALE UAV, whether armed or not, will likely be presented at the beginning of the next legislative session, the spokesman said.
The military also wants to extend the current lease contract for the Heron, which runs until October 2014, to April 2015, the spokesman said.
Three to five MALE UAVs should be available from 2016.
Another issue is the licensing of large UAVs for civilian European airspace because the risk of collisions with other aircraft cannot be ruled out unless the airspace is closed. This problem would be especially challenging if US systems are used because the US refuses to share details of certain parts of the technology with customers, even allies, Dickow said. For UAVs, this would include the flight control systems.
“Therefore, it will probably not be an off-the-shelf solution from the US in the area of MALE UAV systems in the end,” the UAV expert predicted. “For the short term, I believe the leasing contract of the Heron will be prolongated, and in the medium term it will probably be a European solution.”
The three Heron systems in Afghanistan are leased from a joint venture of EADS’ defense and security subsidiary, Cassidian, and German company Rheinmetall Defence. The joint venture is responsible for ground operations, transit flights, takeoffs and landings in theater. The military operates them only during reconnaissance missions.
A future European MALE UAV is what the industry wants to develop.
“As of today, Cassidian has a proposal for a complete system design, including subsystems,” a company spokesman said.
“In the case of a near-time order, we would be able to present the system with the initial operational capabilities by 2020/2021,” the spokesman said.
In the interim, his company is testing how to arm the Heron 1.
“We expect that a conversion would take no longer than the procurement of an interim solution, which already offers that capability,” he said.
The spokesman did not want to comment on the possibility that Germany’s prestigious Eurohawk project might be canceled. The HALE UAV for signal intelligence missions is based on Northrop Grumman’s Global Hawk airframe while Cassidian provides the mission payload and sensors.
Cassidian and Northrop formed a joint venture to develop Eurohawk. Flying at a height of about 20,000 meters, the aircraft is able to detect electronic signals in an area of 5,000 square kilometers.
The prototype is undergoing its final certification in Germany with the third test flight scheduled for the end of April.
According to Cassidian, the system will be handed over to the Bundeswehr in the second half of 2013.
However, the process was longer and more expensive than expected, and may cost an additional €500 million (US $652.4 million).
In this context, Thomas Kossendey, parliamentary secretary of state for defense, responded to a parliamentary questionnaire at the end of March: “With this new knowledge, a decision is momentarily prepared how to further proceed with the procurement of the serial Eurohawks.”
Originally, Germany wanted to buy another four of these systems to replace retired naval signals intelligence planes. “I do not believe that it is dead yet, but it is not far away from it,” Dickow said, adding that flight certification problems should not have surprised the Defense Ministry or EADS.
In the beginning, Germany considered buying up to four HALE imagery intelligence systems based on the Euro/Global Hawk aircraft. They would have been operated nationally, but also been involved in the NATO AGS system. These plans have changed to a “not yet specified system in this capability spectrum.” ■