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Photo Gallery: Berlin's Drone Problem

Foto: CHRISTOF STACHE/ AFP

Campaign Headache Drone Debacle Could Cost Merkel a Minister

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."

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."

BY RALF BESTE, MATTHIAS GEBAUER, RENÉ PFISTER, GORDON REPINSKI and GERALD TRAUFETTER

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan