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Bundeswehr armed drones will be equipped with Israeli missiles and use German encryption

By Matthias Monroy

Airbus is to be the prime contractor for the German-Israeli drone deal. The company will then own 13 old and new Heron drones for the Bundeswehr’s use. The arming of the drones would be guaranteed from the spring of 2019. Now a competitor, US drone manufacturer General Atomics, has lodged a complaint with the federal public procurement tribunal.

The armed German drones will be delivered with the Israeli manufacturer’s usual munitions, the Federal Government revealed in its answer to a Minor Interpellation. The Heron TP drones are to be equipped with the weapons which are integrated into the system by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) for the Israeli Air Force. IAI itself produces laser-guided air-to-surface missiles, for example.

Until now, it was unclear whether the five planned drones would be equipped with guided bombs or missiles produced by European manufacturers. According to the Federal Government’s most recent answer, this was not considered at any point in time, and so no market surveys or studies were carried out.

All further information about the arming of the drones, the exact details of which are currently the subject of negotiations, is classified as secret “without exception”. This is a condition imposed by the Israeli government. In its answer, the Federal Government says only that the manufacturer has submitted a study on the “low-risk integration of the weapons”. The study indicates that both the munitions themselves and their integration on board the newest version of the Heron TP, Block 2, have a low technical risk.

The Bundeswehr supposedly does not know much more than that: the Federal Government is still unable to state what suspension points the Heron TP has and for what type of weapons, despite information being requested on this subject.

Talks with “national encryption providers”

German manufacturers may have a greater role to play in the installation of encryption systems. The Ministry of Defence says that it has held talks on this subject with “national encryption providers”. As part of an intergovernmental agreement to be concluded by Germany and Israel, the Israeli government is to provide the necessary infrastructure for the encryption system.

The Ministry of Defence does not give any reasons for potentially preferring German encryption, but the reasons may lie in “Operation Anarchist”. Two years ago, the magazine The Intercept revealed that the British intelligence service GCHQ had on several occasions intercepted Israeli drones’ radio signals and tapped into video feeds, including during what appeared to be armed flights.

Trustworthy encryption is a key factor in the purchasing decision for drones. For the European market, General Atomics, the US competitor in the arms race for armed drones, has therefore equipped its successful Predator model with an encrypted, NATO-certified radio communication system produced by Rohde & Schwarz, a German electronics company which is a supplier to intelligence agencies.

Contract expected to be signed in early 2017

New information is also available regarding the timetable for the procurement of German armed drones. The negotiations are due to be completed in the autumn. The prime contractor is the Defence and Space division of Airbus Group, which is marketing the Israeli drones in Germany. The contract is expected to be signed in early 2017. However, there are still a number of conditions which IAI and Airbus must first meet, such as providing evidence of certifiability. An intergovernmental agreement between Germany and Israel will then be signed at the Federal Ministry of Defence’s offices in the Bendlerblock in Berlin.

Exactly two years after the contract is signed, i.e. in early 2019, the first two Heron TP drones are to be delivered. They will be equipped with electro-optical sensors in the visual and infrared spectrum and radar sensors for the detection of moving targets. The three further drones which are currently planned will reportedly be supplied within the following nine months. They could then be equipped with bombs and missiles, as Airbus is to guarantee that it will be possible to arm the drones “27 months after the signing of the contract”.

Training flights also to take place in Israel?

The drones will not be transferred to Germany upon completion. The Ministry of Defence confirms that the Heron TP drones will be stationed in Israel and “basic operations” will take place there. The German crews are also to be trained in Israel. This probably also includes regular training flights, which drone pilots are required to complete in order to retain their licences.

The drones would be deployed to the Bundeswehr’s mission areas from Israel. “Technical and logistical support” will also be provided by Airbus. In addition, the company is responsible for furnishing the control systems for the drones and the data communication systems. These include broadband satellite links, mobile relay stations and ground stations for data analysis. It is unknown whether fixed relay stations in Israel will also be used during missions or training flights.

Under the latest plans, Airbus will soon be operating at least 13 drones for the Bundeswehr. For the mission in Afghanistan, Airbus already has five Heron 1 drones, two of which are being held in reserve. Airbus is to acquire a further three drones for the mission in Mali. In Mali, as in Afghanistan, Airbus is responsible for equipping and maintaining the drones, and training the pilots. It has not been reported whether the company also controls the take-off and landing of the Heron 1 drones in Mali. At the Mazar-e Sharif air base in Afghanistan, the Bundeswehr only takes over the cockpit from the Airbus technicians at an altitude of 1000 feet.

Competitor lodges complaint with the federal public procurement tribunal

The exact total costs of the five drones and the necessary systems on board are not yet known; 600 million euros is the estimate so far. Despite the decision having been taken in favour of the Heron TP, Airbus has not yet submitted a binding offer, and the Bundeswehr has consequently not yet been able to carry out a value for money assessment.

The process has been strongly criticised by the German Air Force, in particular, which prefers the new version of the US Predator drone. Its manufacturer, General Atomics, does not intend to accept an award without a call for tenders, and has therefore asked the federal public procurement tribunal to review the selection of the Heron TP.

The Ministry of Defence justifies the selection of the Heron TP in terms of an “integrated planning perspective”, citing the Israeli drone’s earlier availability, among other factors. In addition, Airbus is to be given the opportunity to gain further experience of drone development and operation. The company is leading a consortium of companies from Germany, France, Italy and Spain which could, by 2025, produce a “euro-drone” capable of being armed. The Ministry of Defence commissioned a preliminary study on the subject this year.

Translation: German Bundestag

 

Andrej Hunko, MdB 2017