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German Political Intrigue Drove Euro Hawk Debacle

Jul. 2, 2013 - 03:57PM   |  
By AARON MEHTA   |   Comments
Germany's cancellation of the Euro Hawk could affect sales of the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft, on which it is based.
Germany's cancellation of the Euro Hawk could affect sales of the Global Hawk unmanned aircraft, on which it is based. (Northrop Grumman)
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Germany’s defense minister confirmed in June that his country is ending the Euro Hawk program, citing concerns that aviation authorities would not certify the UAV due to its lack of an anti-collision system, despite having spent more than 500 million euros ($665.5 million) on the program.

The program’s fate is as much about politics as it is strategy. German Defence Minister Thomas de Maiziere is a close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel and has been identified as a potential successor; opponents have seized on the scandal to score points ahead of September elections.

The weekly Der Spiegel reported that ministry officials were aware of certification concerns as far back as February 2012, leading to questions about why the program was continued. Speaking June 5, de Maiziere took responsibility for not shutting down the program sooner.

“I regret that,” he said, according to Agence France-Presse reports. “I should have organized my ministry in this area so that I, as the minister, would be involved in decisions with this kind of scope.”

The Euro Hawk is a modified Northrop Grumman Global Hawk, with European company EADS acting as the local partner. Northrop Grumman delivered a prototype in 2011, with plans to deliver four more systems.

“Northrop Grumman and the Euro Hawk team are working with the German customer to understand the path forward on the program,” Northrop Grumman spokesman Tim Paynter said. He added that Northrop Grumman believes certification for the UAV could be achieved for “significantly less” than has been reported. Government officials have estimated a cost of nearly 600 million euros to getting the platforms certified.

The German government announced it was canceling the program May 14, but supporters hoped that decision might be reversed.

Now that de Maiziere has defended the cancellation, it “seems very unlikely” to be brought back, said Phil Finnegan, the Teal Group’s director for corporate analysis, adding that the decision could affect the Global Hawk program as a whole.

“It could raise concerns in [NATO’s Alliance Ground Surveillance] program about buying the Global Hawk and operating it in Europe,” Finnegan said. “It also causes Northrop problems with efforts to export the system elsewhere. South Korea, in particular, has been in a lot of discussions on the system.”

In December, the U.S. agreed to sell South Korea four Block 30 Global Hawks for $1.2 billion. However, the South Korean government has not decided whether to purchase the UAVs, a decision driven partly by the high unit cost.

U.S. Air Force officials have been trying to retire their fleet of Global Hawk Block 30s. Congress has pushed back. The 2014 defense authorization bill approved by the House Armed Services Committee on June 6 requires the Air Force to fund the program through 2016, but the cancellation of Euro Hawk could bolster arguments against the system.

“It’s going to be a serious concern for Northrop,” Finnegan said. Global Hawk “is still alive, but the issue becomes, is it perceived as being affordable and ... usable by foreign customers?”

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