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Drones

De Maiziere's Euro Hawk problems drone on

Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere says there were clear grounds for Germany to cancel orders for the Euro Hawk drones. But as questions mount, some say the minister's arguments don't hold up.

What did German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere know about the Euro Hawk problems? And why did he choose to stop the project? As the debate on Germany's decision to cancel its drone program drags on, more and more questions are coming to the fore.

The minister initially stated he would not make a public statement before June 5 when the Defense Ministry's report was due to be published. But now, in an interview with German public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk, he said he - as the minister in charge - was responsible for what went wrong despite the fact that he hadn't been informed of all the details concerning the project.

"With dimensions like this, it's impossible," he said. "You have to keep in mind that we spend more than 5 billion euros ($6.5 billion) on planned purchases each year."

He also dismissed criticism as to why he didn't put on the brakes on the Euro Hawk project sooner saying, "If we were to pull the plug on every complicated purchase every time there is a problem we wouldn't have any defense projects at all."  

Will the defense minister's arguments hold?

According to Michael Brzoska, professor at the University of Hamburg's Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy, de Maiziere's claims are hardly convincing. It was nothing new that a drone of Euro Hawk size would require approval to be used in German airspace.

"It would have been reasonable to check this more thoroughly," Brzoska told DW. "Apparently authorities had simply hoped for the best - and then failed."

German Defence Minister Thomas de Maiziere speaks to a soldier as he visits OP North near Masar-i-Scharif, March 5, 2013. REUTERS/Maurizio Gambarini/Pool

De Maiziere has taken up a defensive position on the Euro Hawk issue

The defense minister's own defense was also problematic when it comes to addressing the issue that ultimately led to axing the project. The argumentation seemed to make sense at first: The drone lacked a collision protection system it would require for approval to operate in German airspace. Costs would have skyrocketed if this feature would have been added on so the entire project was stopped.

However, Global Hawk manufacturer Northrop Grumman has dismissed such claims - the US company went on to say that it had not yet officially been told that the German government had cancelled its order. The only source of information was media reports, company spokesman Tim Painter said.

"The reports we've read in the media are in fact baseless claims," he said. In principle, all Hawk models had been equipped with the necessary technology, but the models that had been delivered to Germany so far did not include that bit of hardware - as explicitly requested by German officials.

However, all necessary slots are there which makes it quite easy to expand the drones. "It would be as easy as plugging a CD changer into the trunk of your car if your car was prewired for a CD changer," Painter explained.

The German Defense Ministry has claimed additional costs of 500 million euros ($647 million) would have been necessary to upgrade the drones. That figure is by far too high, according to Northrop Grumman, but the company refused to give an estimate based on its own calculations. 

Missing features and data

As the German Defense Ministry's reasons for canceling the Euro Hawk project don't make sense for the US manufacturer - are they simply excuses? Brzoska said that might be the case since there are Euro Hawk models that do possess this collision protection system. And it would not be difficult to add this feature to models that have been operating without it so far.

"But you'll need data that the US manufacturer doesn't like to share since it affects the drone's control system - that's very likely the problematic issue here," Brzoska said. "From a US standpoint, it's considered a secret. That's why it wasn't so easy to combine this collision protection system with transforming [the Global Hawk] into the Euro Hawk."

Thomas de Maiziere in parliament (photo: Maurizio Gambarini/dpa +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++)

The defense minister's career has been tarnished by the drone purchasing program

But the missing anti-collision system is only one of many problems in regards to the drone. Even if one were to find a solution, Brzoska said he doubts the Euro Hawk will get approved to operate in shared airspace frequented by normal air carriers in Germany.

"Other issues concern secure data transmission: Can you control the drone over a long period of time, or isn't there the danger of losing them," Brzoska added. "That could be a risk not only for civilian aviation, but also for [people on the ground] if they were to crash." 

No easy feat for German defense ministers

It's no surprise to Brzoska that the defense minister's bright career has been tarnished. Some of his predecessor had to deal with troubled defense projects as well.

"Such projects are always very complex and come with several problems," Brzoska said. "And then it's the minister of course who has to take responsibility, even if he might not have been informed in depth."

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