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Campaign Headache: Drone Debacle Could Cost Merkel a Minister

Photo Gallery: Berlin's Drone Problem Photos
AFP

German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziére is under fire after he cancelled a half-billion euro surveillance drone program that he knew was in trouble years ago. The scandal could create problems for Chancellor Merkel's re-election campaign. By SPIEGEL Staff

Thomas de Maizière is sitting in the first row in the convention hall in Celle, with a collection of officers, lobbyists and a few lawmakers sitting behind him. Maizière, Germany's defense minister, is in the northern German city to talk about the future of the military, the Bundeswehr, but first it's a local politician's turn to speak.

Dirk-Ulrich Mende, the Social Democratic mayor of Celle, has been tasked with delivering the opening remarks at the event, and he uses the opportunity to criticize the approval of German tank exports to countries like Indonesia. He then mentions the trouble-plagued Euro Hawk drone program. Naturally, he says, the "people have an interest in an investigation," especially when €500 million ($647 million) in taxpayer money has already been sunk into the project. As a local politician, Mende adds, it's his duty to help account for any waste of public funds.

De Maizière smiles grimly. What else can he do? He currently finds himself faced with one of the most difficult challenges of his career. Earlier this month, de Maizière cancelled Germany's half-billion euro surveillance drone program due to the mammoth increase in investment the Defense Ministry says would be necessary to meet flight certification requirements in Germany. The drones, as currently designed, do not have adequate collision avoidance technology and would thus not be available for use in Germany. Even worse, the Defense Ministry has known about the problem for years. The minister said this week, however, that he plans to continue Germany's combat drone program.

De Maizière finds himself in unfamiliar territory, despite his long political career. He was a state secretary in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and a minister in Saxony, he served under Chancellor Angela Merkel as interior minister and as chief of staff. His name, however, has never been associated with scandal. Until now -- and it is an issue of his own making that is catching up to him.

No other German defense minister had advocated the purchase of drones as vehemently as de Maizière has done. For him, they are not just a piece of military equipment that protects German soldiers from being injured or killed. They also serve as proof that Germany is not shirking its global duties.

The Price of Influence

Since becoming defense minister in March 2011, de Maizière has formed a counterbalance of sorts to Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, who favors military abstinence. "Responsibility is the price of influence," says de Maizière.

De Maizière isn't the one who ordered the troubled Euro Hawk drone, a project which now represents the waste of €650 million in German taxpayer money. That was done by Merkel's previous government, a coalition of her conservatives with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). But de Maizière has always made it clear that he sees the drone as an indispensable tool of a new, globally active Bundeswehr.

Now, de Maizière's favorite weapon threatens to claim its first victim: the minister himself. The opposition is still exercising restraint in its demands for resignations, calling only for the ouster of his state secretary Stéphane Beemelmans, 47. But de Maizière has been in the business long enough to know that this is merely a skirmish leading up to the real battle. If Beemelmans is brought down, the minister himself would then be in the line of fire.

For the moment, de Maizière is doing his best to distance himself from the scandal, citing regrettable difficulties that can arise with any major arms deal. But no doubt he knows that this approach is not a terribly promising one. Internal documents from the Federal Office of Bundeswehr Equipment, Information Technology and In-Service Support (BAAINBw) show that objections were raised early and warnings expressed about the Euro Hawk program, but they were ignored. What ultimately counted was not prudence but the political leadership's desire to bring a prestigious defense project to Germany.

De Maizière, of course, does not carry all of the blame for the failed Euro Hawk program; his predecessors also played a role. But attention is now shifting to the Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) defense project, an aerial reconnaissance system for NATO. Although de Maizière must have known about the Euro Hawk's problems, he strongly advocated that the Germans play a major role in the NATO project, which involves acquiring five Global Hawk drones that are almost identical to the Euro Hawk. Germany's contribution to the total price tag of €1.5 billion is €480 million. At the moment, there is every indication that this too will prove to be a complete waste of taxpayer money.

Filled with Oddities

The first act of the drone drama got underway at the beginning of the last decade. Military officials were beginning to search for a successor to the reconnaissance aircraft the Bundeswehr had relied on until then, the Breguet Atlantic, developed in the 1970s. The military argued that unless the Breguet were replaced, it would suffer a "complete loss of capability" in this area. Without reconnaissance technology, the Bundeswehr is incapable of detecting hostile air defenses, for example.

In 2007, then Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung decided to acquire a reconnaissance drone. The Euro Hawk was a hybrid solution from the beginning. While the drone is based on the Global Hawk, made by American defense contractor Northrop Grumman, the European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company (EADS) was supposed to supply the reconnaissance technology.

The contracts with the Americans were filled with oddities. For instance, Northrop Grumman was not required to disclose all blueprints for the drone, even though this is necessary to obtain flight certification from German aviation authorities.

In addition, German drone pilots were not given the right to fly the Euro Hawk. Instead, the German Defense Ministry had to ask Northrop Grumman for permission to fly the drone. Only when a pilot sat down at the computer in California could the drone take off in Germany. This is still the case today and, as a result, the German pilots trained specifically to fly the Euro Hawk sit around doing nothing. To keep their pilot's licenses from expiring, they fly training flights on Lufthansa training jets -- at the government's expense.

On Dec. 22, 2006, Werner Gatzer (SPD), state secretary in the Finance Ministry, sent the contract for the new drone to the Budget Committee in German parliament. The goal was to sign an agreement with Euro Hawk GmbH to develop a prototype of the drone and of the Isis reconnaissance system. Of the €430 million earmarked for the project, half was to be paid to Northrop for the drone and the other half to EADS. Under the plan, a contract for the actual procurement of four additional drones would not be concluded until later.

But it became clear early on that there were massive problems with the American manufacturer, as evidenced by internal documents from the department in charge of routine testing at BAAINBw in Koblenz in western Germany.

Not Authorized

In the summer of 2009, BAAINBw inspectors flew to Northrop Grumman's facility in California to conduct a thorough inspection of the new drone. The group sent an alarming report back to Germany, say agency officials. Apparently production was already complete by the time the German inspectors arrived, which made it impossible to conduct any tests during production, even though this was in fact required under German regulations.

Northrop Grumman also failed to provide the inspectors with any recognized construction documents, even though they were necessary to determine whether the drone was truly built in accordance with design plans. In addition, the Germans were not always welcome when Northrop Grumman tested the new drone. For instance, the US Air Force refused to allow them to observe testing of the fuel system.

As internal BAAINBw documents suggest, the German inspectors may not even have been authorized to certify the new drone's airworthiness. This would have required that Northrop Grumman provide the German officials with extensive technical details, which appears not to have been done.

If only to protect themselves, the inspectors from Koblenz initially refused to continue the prototype inspection. As one official wrote in a letter filled with concern, accidents with fatal consequences would be blamed entirely on the inspectors, who could be charged with involuntary manslaughter or even homicide.

The works council at the Koblenz agency warned agency head Harald Stein against pushing through the drone's certification despite the concerns. The council, which represents the interests of agency employees, accused Stein of being willing to accept the fact "that the employees assigned to the task have no or little experience in the certification of aircraft."

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