Campaign Headache Drone Debacle Could Cost Merkel a Minister


Part 2: Bad News for an Election Year

But the works council's letter produced no results. And pressure from the Defense Ministry only increased, as indicated by email correspondence from late 2010 involving the invitation to a crisis meeting. The correspondence mentions a "ministerial initiative" to have the Euro Hawk delivered by April 2011. In other words, then Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg was tired of hearing nothing but objections and warnings. He wanted to see the drone finally delivered to Germany.

Eventually an inspector was found at the Koblenz agency who was willing to provide the necessary signatures. He was later given an effusive evaluation and promoted. After the landing of the Euro Hawk in the Bavarian town of Manching on July 21, 2011, the Koblenz inspector's supervisor recommended him for a performance bonus.

But all such permits must be seconded, and the process whereby the Euro Hawk allowance was seconded has raised red flags. According to the certification document, the prototype test was seconded by an employee with the quality inspection office who was apparently no longer working there at the time of certification. He apparently obtained the official stamp by getting it from his former office. BAAINBw, citing the ongoing investigations, was unwilling to comment.

The transfer flight to bring the drone from Palmdale in California to Manching ultimately exposed the Defense Ministry project as the massive bad investment it actually was. First, American air traffic controllers refused to grant flyover rights to the drone due to non-compliance with flight safety rules, and it was forced to follow a detour over Canada and Greenland. During its flight, the Euro Hawk lost radio contact with the base station twice, for several minutes at a time. The drone, which is as big as a medium-sized passenger aircraft, was briefly flying through the air with no supervision at all.

In addition to the technical problems, the Euro Hawk was plagued by cost overruns from the start. In 2009, for example, the German government submitted a "Third Amendment Agreement" that called for Berlin to pay an additional €50 million, because changes in scheduling meant that delivery deadlines could no longer be met. In addition, two new maintenance agreements were signed, at an additional cost of just under €90 million.

An End to the Program

Today the Defense Ministry admits that it had been aware of problems with the Euro Hawk since late 2011. Two weeks ago, de Maizière told the Bundestag budget committee that he had nevertheless decided to move forward with the drone purchase in the fall of 2011. Without the drone, the Germans would have been unable to test Isis, the EADS reconnaissance component, which the Defense Ministry views as a gem of surveillance technology that it was determined to have.

A German Defense Ministry delegation traveled to Santa Barbara, California earlier this spring in an effort to save the faltering drone project. After German officials had met with Northrop Grumman representatives for several days, the Americans were still unwilling to release the blueprints for the drone. They also refused to turn over the controls to the Euro Hawk to German pilots.

In February 2013, German parliamentarian Hans-Peter Bartels submitted an inquiry to the Defense Ministry, requesting a status update on the drone. It took Defense Ministry State Secretary Thomas Kossendey a month to send a brief response to Bartels' office. In it, he wrote that the ministry was "currently concluding its review of whether a procurement of the Euro Hawk series can be justified, in light of the certification issues."

Three weeks ago, de Maizière finally decided to put an end to the Euro Hawk program. The move was likely prompted by the realization that it would cost an additional several hundred million euros to retrofit the drone to ultimately attain permanent flight certification.

EADS and Northrop Grumman on Monday released a statement on their websites denying that certification would result in extra costs and challenged reports of text flight problems. "The full Euro Hawk system, including the mission control system and the sensor, has performed flawlessly and safely throughout the entire flight test program," the statement reads. "Media reports that indicate there are challenges with the aircraft's flight control system, as well as excessive costs associated with completing airworthiness certification, are inaccurate."

Defense Ministry officials are now claiming that only part of the investment in the Euro Hawk was wasted. They argue that because the Bundeswehr can still use EADS's Isis reconnaissance system, at least that investment is not a complete loss. All the technology needs is a new carrier aircraft -- which isn't exactly an easy proposition. But de Maizière also has a completely different problem: In the coming weeks, the minister will have to explain why he, more than almost any other NATO defense minister, promoted the AGS program.

Cooling Passion

At its core, AGS consists of the acquisition of five Global Hawk drones, which are very similar to the Bundeswehr's Euro Hawk and, therefore, will run into the same certification problems. The US Army is already flying the Global Hawk from the NATO base at Sigonella on the island of Sicily. But each time the drone is supposed to take off, special permission is required, just as it would be for the Euro Hawk in Manching, and the entire airspace above the air base has to be closed for hours due to the drone's lack of collision-avoidance technology.

Even the US Air Force's passion for the Global Hawk has cooled. Officers still remember what happened when the Air Force wanted to use a Global Hawk to assess the damage caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In contrast to the drone's use in warzones like Iraq and Afghanistan, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) suddenly wanted to see proof of certification -- which didn't exist. In the case of Katrina, the solution was easy. Because the storm had shut down civil aviation, the FAA simply closed the airspace and allowed the drone to take off. But it isn't always that easy.

None of these difficulties deterred de Maizière from championing the Global Hawk. He was especially insistent ahead of the NATO summit in May 2012. At the time, many NATO partners were still outraged over Berlin's refusal to take part in the Libyan war. De Maizière wanted to announce good news in Chicago, while at the same time proving that Berlin remained loyal to the alliance. Approval of Germany's participation in the AGS was a critical part of that message.

He enthusiastically told lawmakers on the Defense Committee in German parliament about the advantages of the Global Hawk. In return for its €480 million contribution, Germany would receive the "raw data" from the drone images, and would therefore "benefit greatly," de Maizière said. But he said nothing to the lawmakers about the technical problems associated with certification of the Hawk line of drones. There is also no mention of any such concerns in the ministry's procurement draft.

The minister is now in a tight spot. He is only partly responsible for the Euro Hawk disaster, with his predecessors Jung and Guttenberg sharing some of the blame for the waste of taxpayer funds. But why did de Maizière, in full knowledge of the American drone's many problems, continue to press the Bundestag to approve the German share of the project? And why did he neglect to mention the risks associated with purchasing the Global Hawk?

Ready to Pounce

There has been a lot of talk at the Defense Ministry in Berlin about Germany's alliance obligations, and that the country cannot shirk its responsibilities. But AGS was by no means uncontroversial among NATO countries. Many refused to participate, while other countries withdrew from the project, because they felt it was too costly and fraught with risks. In other words, de Maizière shouldn't have had to worry about being isolated.

The minister is now trying to portray himself as the chief investigator in the drone affair, and he plans to submit his investigative report on June 5. But the success of the investigative effort seems doubtful given that the head of the weapons division, Detlef Selhausen, is leading the investigative task force. How can a man remain unbiased in conducting an investigation if its outcome could mean the loss of his own job?

De Maizière wants to have a first draft of the investigative report on his desk by this Friday, so that he has time to review it over the weekend. The minister is well aware of how sensitive the investigative project is. If his officials overlook a tiny detail that later ends up in the newspaper, the mission will have failed. Merkel's Christian Democrats and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), still support him. "The defense minister has the full confidence of the parliamentary group. He is preparing the necessary materials, and he should take the time he needs to do so," says CDU/CSU parliamentary leader Volker Kauder.

But the opposition is already looking for an excuse to pounce. The Greens, in particular, find the prospect of summoning the minister before a Bundestag investigative committee in an election year very appealing. "If de Maizière isn't able to fully explain his decisions," says Green Party budget expert Tobias Lindner, "the parliament will have to take over."


Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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