COLOGNE, Germany — Government leaders are close to winning parliamentary approval for the country’s first weapons-capable drone, pitching a plan this week to lease the aircraft now and negotiate for the missiles later.
While the plan had been in the works for months, Bundestag staffers in Berlin were nevertheless relieved to see the defense ministry stick to its promise of forgoing a fully armed aircraft at this time. That is because many here are still skeptical of the weapons as legitimate instruments of war or counterterrorism operations, roles in which U.S. forces have used them for years.
The government’s funding petition arrived at the Bundestag in the form of a so-called €25-million request. Its approval would enable the defense ministry the spend roughly $1 billion on the program. Given that the investment would without any strike capabilities, observers say passage is likely.
The plan is to lease five aircraft from manufacturer Israel Aerospace Industries, managed by Airbus under a contract to be finalized in June. The fleet would be stationed in Israel and, lacking missiles, simply provide intelligence for German forces.
The likely deal comes one year later than defense leaders had planned. A similar request fell through in June 2017 after the governing Christian Democractic Party’s coalition partner, the Social Democrats, walked away because of what they said was a last-minute inclusion of a “weapons-ready” configuration of the Heron-TP.
Lawmakers must now decide on the program before June 15, when the contractors’ offer terms expire. If parliament gives the thumbs-up, an industry contract would be signed as well as an intergovernmental agreement with Israel.
The deal with industry includes having the aircraft available for deployment into a conflict zone within two years of contract signing, a defense ministry spokesman told Defense News. At that time, training flights out of Israel also would commence.
The Heron TP is something of a trial balloon for Germany in the field of armed drones. An envisioned joint European drone project — with Germany, France, Italy at the core — is widely expected to produce a strike-capable unmanned aircraft by roughly the middle of the next decade. Still, officials are making a distinction in the so-called “Eurodrone” program, arguing that the base configuration will include a reconnaissance capability only, to be augmented by weapons if national policy permits it.
Meanwhile, a last-ditch effort by U.S. vendor General Atomics risks coming up empty in trying to prevent the Heron-TP leasing deal. The company has been trying to lobby defense leaders for some time to buying the MQ-9B Sky Guardian, a variant of the Certifiable Predator B, instead.
General Atomics last year fought, but lost in court, the Berlin government’s decision to effectively sole-source the drone deal to Israel without giving the U.S. company a chance to bid.
Chief executive officer Linden Blue appealed to Peter Tauber, one of the defense ministry deputies, in a March 2018 letter, arguing that the Sky Guardian acquisition would cost roughly half of what Heron TP would require.
Tauber wrote back one month later, simply noting General Atomics’ defeat in court and asking for the American’s understanding that the source selection would go ahead as planned.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.