What military branches use drones

The long road to drone power

The Bundeswehr has been flying surveillance drones for 60 years, now they are to be armed. In a study, the author describes all German military drones and the role of the Airbus group

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions, Agnès Callamard, over a hundred countries have military drones. Systems for reconnaissance and surveillance, the introduction of which goes back to the last century, predominate. Germany is one of the countries that have been using unmanned systems for decades.

In the early 1960s, the Department of Defense sent 22 soldiers to the Grafenwoehr Training Area to train on US drones, and others were trained as maintenance and repair personnel in the USA. They flew a drone made by a US manufacturer that was later acquired by Northrop Grumman.

Today, the US armaments company is building the "Global Hawk", the world's largest military unmanned aerial vehicle, several NATO air forces and the military alliance itself are flying the giant drone for surveillance and reconnaissance.

Airbus took over Dornier's drone business

After the experience with the US drones, the Department of Defense had used a "drone training and test team". You should prepare the procurement of your own unmanned systems and take over the training of the operating personnel.

From 1972 the army finally received the CL-89, which was built by the Canadian company Canadair on behalf of the governments of Canada and Great Britain and later also the Federal Republic. The rocket-shaped reconnaissance drone, weighing around 100 kilograms, carried an optical camera.

At the same time, the Bundeswehr was already working on a successor. In addition to the Canadian manufacturer, the main subcontractor for this CL-289 was the German company Dornier; the drone had a range of 150 kilometers and was equipped with a daylight and an infrared camera. Operations took place from 1997 in Bosnia, Kosovo and Macedonia.

After the turn of the millennium, 140 units were modernized by EADS (now Airbus), which had since taken over the military branch from Dornier. In 2009, the German Armed Forces finally retired the CL-289 and partly handed it over to France and Turkey.

Around 800 unmanned aerial vehicles of various sizes fly today for the air force, the army and the navy. They are used to monitor bases in the operational area and are also intended to intimidate enemy forces there. For attacks with fighter planes and ground troops, you can mark targets with laser devices. Companies like Airbus also do business in drones for target practice. The German branch of the European group (at that time still EADS) has also taken over this business with "target display drones" from Dornier.

"Loitering Ammunition" Plans

The Ministry of Defense had already planned the procurement of armed drones in the noughties, and the wish list was a system of "loitering ammunition" such as that recently used by the Azerbaijan military in the Nagorno-Karabakh war.

The Bundeswehr has been flying the "Kleinflugzeug Zielortung" (KZO) from Rheinmetall Defense Electronics since 2004. The all-weather drone can stay in the air for up to five hours and fly 4,000 meters high. Together with the Israeli kamikaze drone Harop, the KZO was supposed to form an "active agent for the remotely combating single and point targets" (Wabep).

While the KZO would have observed and marked a target, the Harop should pounce on it. On behalf of the German Armed Forces, Rheinmetall had already carried out "practical tests and flight tests", including escorting the convoy, "switching off" enemy systems and attacking vehicles in motion. In the end, however, the federal government decided against the system. At around the same time, Rheinmetall merged its drone business with EADS in a joint venture.

Airbus benefited from "ripcord"

According to the Ministry of Defense, the introduction of the Wabep would have been delayed until at least 2019; About ten years ago the Ministry and the Federal Armed Forces Procurement Office therefore set their sights on the development of a "European drone".

EADS had persistently worked on the then Defense Minister Thomas de Maizière (CDU) to continue the Talarion development project developed by the armaments company, for which Airbus said it had already spent 600 million euros.

It was not until many years later that de Maizière admitted that he had even considered resigning at this time. The reason was the failed "Euro Hawk" project, which was originally intended to promote three spy modules from EADS. However, the giant drone was not approved in Germany, which is why the minister pulled the "rip cord" in 2013 (editor's note: the year was initially erroneously wrong) and left the only prototype delivered to the rest ramp.

According to the new plans, the "signal-recording reconnaissance" intended for the "Euro Hawk" should be built into the "European drone" which is still to be developed. At the same time, de Maizière also brought their armament into play. There were also cost reasons for this, because at that time there were allegedly mainly armed drones for sale on the world market. If the Bundeswehr wanted an exclusively unarmed aircraft, it would have to "retrofit it at great cost".

Control of distant ground stations

Initially, the European drone project was named Female ("Future European Male"), while EADS won the armaments companies Dassault from France and Leonardo (then Alenia Aermacchi) from Italy as partners. In 2014, the companies suggested state funding for a definition phase in which the requirements for the jointly built drone should be laid down.

In 2016, the governments of Germany, France and Italy finally launched the "Euro drone" with a two-year definition phase. With a take-off weight of over ten tons, it will transport around 2.3 tons of payload, including guided missiles and bombs.

According to the current status, the "Euro drone" has a "remote split capability" and in this way can be controlled from distant ground stations with the help of a relay station.

First, however, the Bundestag must decide whether to release funds for the development of the "Euro drone". The vote is expected to take place on March 24th. The costs for this are not yet known, this also applies to the distribution among the four developing nations, including Spain.

Delivery to the Bundeswehr is planned for 2028 at the earliest. The Ministry of Defense wants to procure 21 aircraft and 16 ground control stations and station them at the Jagel Air Force Base in Schleswig-Holstein.

Handover of the weapons-grade "bridging solution"

For at least seven years, the Bundeswehr has to be content with its "bridging solution". The Bundeswehr has been flying the "Heron 1" from Israel for eleven years for unmanned reconnaissance with high-flying unmanned systems. It will be replaced by the successor model "Heron TP". As with the "Heron 1", the main contractor for this second "bridging solution" is Airbus with its German branch in Ottobrunn.

The handover of the first four "Heron TP" is to take place tomorrow, Friday, according to a notification from November. The drones will then be stationed at the Tel Nof armed forces base near the Israeli capital. However, it is unclear whether the appointment will be kept.

The "Heron TP" can be armed. The CDU, CSU and SPD have been harboring plans to ammunition the "bridging solution" for two legislative periods, but before that the parties had promised a "social debate". It took place as a "drone debate" in the form of a short series of events in the summer of last year.

The government coalition then wanted to have the armament decided by the Bundestag before the Christmas holidays. The leadership of the SPD parliamentary group turned around at the last minute, which means that the armed "bridging solution" will probably be off the table until after the general election.

Decision for swarms of combat drones

Not only the arming of the "Heron TP" is a decision of great importance. With the financial participation in the development of a "Euro drone" and a purchase guarantee for a total of 63 aircraft, Germany, France, Italy and Spain are also launching an EU combat drone that could then be marketed worldwide.

The "Euro drone" is also an essential pillar of the future "Future Combat Air System" (FCAS), which consists of a new type of combat aircraft and is to be accompanied by swarms of drones ("remote carriers"). As with the "Euro drone", a decision is planned for this before the federal election.

The SPD leadership has already signaled that it wants to agree to the development of the "Euro drone", but will not decide on arming for a few years. Even if the Bundeswehr then only flies the "Euro drone" unarmed, the SPD would, with the promised promise, significantly advance the worldwide spread of combat drones.

With the "bridging solution", the "Euro drone" and the "future combat aircraft", Germany is three times at the crossroads for arming unmanned systems. After the green light for the "Euro drone" in the coming week, the SPD parliamentary group in the Bundestag could approve the next FCAS technology study in the summer. This includes the development of autonomous swarms of combat drones. As things stand at present, this order will again be awarded to Airbus.

The study "The long road to drone power" by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation is available for download here. A German "Drone Survival Guide" is available here.

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