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Euro Hawk surveillance drone panel hears Northrup Grumman and EADS-Cassidian

A parliamentary inquiry committee into the failed Bundeswehr surveillance drone has begun hearing representatives of the companies involved in the Euro Hawk. The tech specialists have argued the money was not wasted.

The parliamentary investigative committee enters its final and decisive phase this week.

On Monday it began questioning representatives of the companies developing the drone: the US defense technology company Northrop Grumman, which produced the body of the unmanned reconnaissance drone, and European aviation firm EADS subsidiary Cassidian, which was developing the surveillance technology.

Both witnesses - Janis Pamiljans, head of Northrop Grumman, and Bernhard Gerwert, chairman of the board of Cassidian - said in advance that they believed the cancellation of the project had been unnecessary. They argued that the drone system functioned flawlessly and safety concerns could have been addressed successfully.

The German government had spent 668 million euros ($822 million) on developing the Euro Hawk drone since 2005, following four years of preparations.

Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere canceled the project this May, claiming that an extra 600 million euros would be needed to complete the drone and obtain a flight permit for European airspace.

De Maiziere, a close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel's, said he had only then learned of the extent of the problems with the project.

The opposition has challenged his handling of the affair and has been seeking to capitalize on the issue in the run-up to general elections on September 22.

The questions surround whether the minister had informed himself too late of the problems and could have pulled the plug earlier.

The opposition has argued that it must have been clear at an early stage that it would have been difficult, perhaps even impossible, to prove to regulators that the Euro Hawk, which is modeled on the US' Global Hawk drone, would not pose a danger to civilian air traffic.

Nineteen witnesses have been called by the committee. Last week auditor Angelika Bausch spoke of a lack of expert oversight:

"We discovered the [financial] checks had not functioned," she told the parliamentary committee of inquiry last week.

"There are many weaknesses in the running of the project," she added, saying that program leaders lacked a "culture of responsibility."

The German military had ordered four Euro Hawk drones, but right now only one prototype exists, and that has been grounded in a hangar. The Defense Ministry has announced that it is searching for a new platform for the technology.

Opposition Green Party head Jürgen Trittin has called on the defense minister to resign.

German media have quoted senior politicians of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union who said that the chancellor had vowed to keep de Maiziere in office despite the criticism.

Defense Minister de Maiziere will be questioned on Wednesday, as a final witness.

rg/mkg (dpa, AP)