The German armed forces will lease three Israeli-built Heron 1 unarmed surveillance drones to support the Bundeswehr mission in Mali.

The contract, worth about $100 million, will start in November and last through February 2018. Officials from the German Defence Procurement Agency (BAAInBw) and Airbus Defence and Space signed the deal on Wednesdey.

As in a similar mission in Afghanistan - active since 2010 - the unmanned aerial vehicles will be leased from Israeli manufacturer IAI and operated by Airbus. In Afghanistan, where a similar number of the Heron 1 is in use and has completed more than 27,000 flight hours so far, Airbus has around 40 ground personnel deployed, a company spokesman said. He expects a similar number to be sent to Gao, the future home base of the UAVs in Mali.

Military missions will be flown solely by military personnel, the procurement agency says in a statement. The analysis of the information gathered by the drones will be done by the German forces. Germany urgently needs surveillance capabilities in Mali because the Bundeswehr on July 1 took over responsibility for the intelligence unit from the Netherlands.

While Germany has now two contracts for Heron 1 in place, the lease of the armed successor model, the Heron TP, as an intermediate solution until a new European drone will enter service in 2025, could be delayed. That is because US company General Atomics lodged a complaint with the German procurement authorities on June 22 over the selection of the Heron TP instead of its own UAV.

According to the ministry of defense, it is unclear if the project will suffer setbacks, as this depends on decisions by the federal public procurement tribunal in Bonn. Sources familiar with the subject expect an initial ruling by the end of this month.

However, the Airbus spokesman said his company was confident a contract for Heron TP would be signed in the first quarter of next year, at the latest.