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The Bundeswehr's New Drone: German Air Force Unveils Powerful Spy Plane

On Wednesday, the German air force unveiled the latest addition to its fleet: the "Euro Hawk," a state-of-the-art spy drone. The reconnaissance aircraft can fly non-stop for 30 hours in the stratosphere without having to refuel and its on-board sensors can penetrate clouds and sandstorms.

Photo Gallery: Spying from the Stratosphere Photos
Northrop Grumman

After 10 years of planning and development, the Bundeswehr on Wednesday publicly unveiled its most recent acquisition of next-generation reconnaissance technology: a powerful new drone designed to bolster its surveillance capabilities on the battle field. The deployment in 2012 of the "Euro Hawk" is expected to launch a new era for Germany's armed forces.

The unmanned drone is similar to the spy plane introduced a decade ago in the United States military, the "Global Hawk," but with European modifications, Lieutenant Colonel Holger Neumann, a Luftwaffe spokesman, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Both models are strictly used for surveillance purposes.

Although their plane may look like a clone of its American counterpart and includes much of the same technology, defense contractor Cassidian, a subsidiary of the European aerospace giant EADS, is equipping the aircraft with German-engineered sensors and surveillance equipment before delivering the final Euro Hawks to the Bundeswehr.

The drone will be able detect potential targets on the ground while simultaneously eavesdropping on wireless communications from cruising altitudes of up to 60,000 feet (18,288 meters) -- well above that of any commercial airliners, which generally fly at 30,000-40,000 feet. It is also designed to eavesdrop on telephone calls and text messages and to pick up radio and TV signals, among other data. That information is then transmitted in real-time to a control center on the ground in Germany. The on-board sensors are powerful enough to penetrate heavy cloud covering and sandstorms to capture signals.

A 'Vacuum Cleaner for Information'

Some have dubbed the machine a "huge vacuum cleaner for information," while others, like Rüdiger Knöpfel, the director of the German military's Euro Hawk program at the Federal Office for Defense Technology and Procurement, called the move a "milestone" in the history of the country's armed forces. The Euro Hawk is expected to far surpass the capabilities of Germany's existing unmanned aircraft. Reconnaissance is a core challenge for armed forces, Knöpfel said, and "currently we are deaf when it comes to electronic reconnaissance." That could change with the deployment of Euro Hawk.

The drone's technical details alone are impressive. The unmanned aircraft weighs 15 tons and is built of carbon fiber. It is 14.5 meters long and has a wing span of around 40 meters (131 feet). It can travel up to 25,000 kilometers non-stop, meaning it could fly from Berlin to Tokyo and back without having to land. But that's only one example. The drone's real future area of deployment is likely to be in war and crisis regions like Afghanistan, where the Bundeswehr is deployed.

Although the aircraft components for the first prototype were officially completed in 2009, the Euro Hawk didn't take off for its maiden journey until June 29, 2010. It was produced in California by Northrop Grumman, the American contractor that manufactures the drone and has created a joint venture with EADS to build the European version. Finally, on July 21, 2001, a prototype of the machine landed at the Luftwaffe air force base in Manching, Germany, after flying more than 10,000 kilometers (6,213 miles) in a 24 hour-long "hand-off" flight, during which American and German operators observed the drone's progress from ground control installations in their respective countries.

By next summer, the Luftwaffe is expected to begin operations with the drone as it carries out reconnaissance missions. Eleven German pilots have already received training in the United States. In total, the Bundeswehr plans to acquire a fleet of five Euro Hawks.

cjc -- with wires

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