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GÖTTINGEN — The German armed forces plan to lease advanced Israeli UAVs, Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said Tuesday.

In a statement, she pointed out that the inspector general of the Bundeswehr has decided to rent the drone Heron TP, manufactured by the Israeli company IAI, to protect German soldiers in deployments overseas. The German Army already uses the smaller predecessor drone Heron 1 for years in Afghanistan with good results.

According to the minister, the leasing contract is intended to bridge the period until 2025 when a new European combat drone will enter service. Last year, Germany, France, Italy and Spain agreed to build such an UAV. In this project Germany wants to take the lead role.

The lease of three to five Heron TPs will cost roughly €600 million (US $650 million), with the deployment's start scheduled for 2018, government sources disclosed. The contract is to be concluded by the end of this year. Apparently, the UAVs are to be stationed initially in Israel for training purposes, but a relocation to an air base in northern Germany is planned in the long run. However, in case of problems with the registration, a deployment in Israel seems to  be possible.

Heron TP is considered a MALE drone (Medium Altitude, Long Endurance) for reconnaissance tasks and can be armed when needed, which is not possible for Heron 1. The partner for the Bundeswehr is primarily Airbus Defence and Space, the company operates and maintains the aircraft. With the Israeli manufacturer IAI, Airbus has completed a so-called teaming agreement without establishing a new company.

According to sources in the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament, a major reason for the Heron TP's selection was Israelis' willingness to give Germany a deep insight into the drone's technology. "All the technical information we might need, was promised to us", said a well-informed person linked to the Social Democrats of the Bundestag. According to the source, the Israelis also assured that the know-how could be used for the development of a European drone. IAI sees the Bundeswehr as an important reference customer for Heron TP drone, and the state of Israel is backing the deal, the person said. So far this UAV is only in use by the Israeli Defense Forces.

Another argument for Heron TP is its significantly faster availability in comparison to a procurement of US model Predator, insiders said. The technical resemblance of Heron 1 and Heron TP should also facilitate the training of operating personnel.

Nevertheless, with the selection of the Israeli aircraft the Bundeswehr goes a special path, as British, French, Italians, Dutch and Spanish opted for US drones produced by General Atomics. In case of problems with logistics, maintenance or operations Germany can't tap resources of European partners.

According to media reports, it is currently being discussed to arm the Heron TP with the air-to-ground missile Brimstone from European manufacturer MBDA, which was confirmed by well-informed sources. Britain has used the weapon already in Libya and Iraq. The German Air Force checks apparently procurement of this missile for its Typhoon Eurofighters. However, IAI should have a say in the selection, as the Israelis would have to disclose their interface for the integration of weapons. Brimstone is manufactured by MBDA UK.

As of November, the Heron 1 UAVs had logged more than 25,000 flight hours in Afghanistan, Airbus announced. In its contracts, the Bundeswehr acquired a guaranteed number of flying hours of this aircraft type from Airbus. In addition to the maintenance, staff from Airbus is responsible even for takeoffs and landings of the Heron 1. A contract for Heron TP could look similar.

As the Cabinet had decided a couple of days ago to extend the mission of the German armed forces in Mali to fight Islamist terrorists, there are discussions to employ Heron 1 for reconnaissance in that African country. Sources familiar with the subject expect that UAVs will not be operational before autumn.

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