World from Berlin: Drone Debacle 'Extremely Embarrassing'

  German Defense Minister de Maiziére declined to step down over controversy surrounding the country's surveillance drone project.  Zoom
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German Defense Minister de Maiziére declined to step down over controversy surrounding the country's surveillance drone project.

The cancellation of the Euro Hawk surveillance drone program means the waste of a half billion euros in German taxpayer money. But somehow Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziére seems to have survived the debacle. German commentators wonder why.

Many had thought that Angela Merkel was going to lose another minister. In a legislative period in which the German chancellor has seen numerous unplanned cabinet shuffles, Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière had looked as though he might be the next one to fall. His abrupt cancellation of the half-billion-euro "Euro Hawk" surveillance drone program last month revealed significant shortcomings in the management of his portfolio.

But following his presentation on Wednesday before the Defense Committee of Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, it now looks as though de Maizière, while weakened, has received a reprieve. While he admitted that his ministry had made significant mistakes leading up to the abandonment of the Euro Hawk program, he blamed senior Defense Ministry officials for not having kept him adequately informed.

"I was insufficiently included," de Maizière said, reading a written statement to the committee. He hinted that the officials responsible might lose their jobs.

In his statement, de Maizière said that he only learned of the true nature of the issues threatening the Euro Hawk program in mid-May. "Prior to that, there had been no document submitted to the minister with a description of the certification problems or the entirety of the difficulties," he said. Rather, he added, the issues had always been presented to him as being "solvable."

Certification Hurdles

The program was cancelled due to the lack of a collision avoidance system for the drones, a component necessary for permission to fly in German airspace. Outfitting the drones with such a system would cost an additional €250 million to €600 million, according to an internal Defense Ministry paper that SPIEGEL has seen. That paper, which also showed that the ministry knew about the issues facing the drone program since at least early 2012, placed additional pressure on de Maizière. Other documents that have been reported on in recent weeks show that the ministry may have been aware of the certification hurdles as early as 2004.

De Maizière said on Wednesday that Germany would not back out of the NATO Global Hawk program, a surveillance drone project involving aircraft that are essentially the same as those included in the Euro Hawk program. Germany has contributed some €480 million to the Global Hawk project. The German defense minister said, however, that questions surrounding certification of the drones would have to be resolved.

Had de Maizière been forced to resign, he would have been the fifth minister -- and the third defense minister -- forced out of office during Merkel's second term as chancellor. German commentators take a closer look at de Maizière's appearance before parliament on Wednesday.

Center-left daily Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The decisive mistakes were made before de Maizière became minister, and the correction of those mistakes was rendered impossible by structures established in the ministry long before he took over. The fact that state secretaries in the Defense Ministry left him in the dark for months is extremely embarrassing, but the consequences will apparently be borne only by the state secretaries and not by the minister ... As such, responsibility for the Euro Hawk is a political orphan."

Business daily Handelsblatt writes:

"De Maizière, nominally responsible for the … chaos in the Defense Ministry, was not forced to admit that his portfolio is a state within the state, but he did have to come clean about the fact that there are many areas that operate in the shadows, out of view of the minister, and that are almost autocratic. Those areas include the resource-intensive sectors of armaments and acquisition. That is no coincidence; instead, it is chronic ... Political leaders have long known about the problem, but have done nothing to change the feudal situation. De Maizière has likewise done nothing … though he of course knew about it even before he took over the portfolio ... No one else -- no state secretary or division head -- is responsible. Only de Maizière himself."

Conservative daily Die Welt writes:

"In the future, de Maizière intends to 'better organize' internal procedures and 'remove deficiencies' -- the kind of things one says when the alarm bells are ringing. But these deficiencies were readily apparent even when de Maiziére took over the portfolio two years ago. They were even listed clearly in (a paper drafted for the new minister). In particular, the divisions of armaments and acquisitions are considered to be in urgent need of reform. But not much has happened since then; some would say that de Maizière has done nothing at all. That is now likely to change. The chaos is now impossible to ignore. Thomas de Maizière does not bear the primary blame, but he was also not exactly an innocent bystander."

Left-leaning daily Berliner Zeitung writes:

"De Maizière has identified the likely culprits. And there are two possible conclusions to draw as a result: Either the minister is lying -- or the Defense Ministry does indeed have its own agenda and de Maizière was unable to get it under control. Both versions are unsettling, and neither is complimentary of the minister."

-- Charles Hawley

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