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Euro Hawk down

Interview: Conor Dillon
May 15, 2013

In an interview with DW, Christian Mölling at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs explains why Germany's Euro Hawk drone program was canceled and whether a half-billion euros was really wasted.

File picture shows German Defence Minister Thomas de Maiziere as he stands next to a model of the Euro Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle (photo: REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay/Files)
Image: Reuters

Germany has canceled plans to buy and modify US-manufactured Global Hawk surveillance drones for 1 billion euros ($1.3 billion), a defense ministry source said on Tuesday (14.05.2013). Germany had no hope seeing it approved after reported European safety concerns. Some 500 billion euros were already spent on a prototype - Germany was expected to pay another 500 million euros for four additional drones. According to German press reports, Global Hawk manufacturer Northrop Grumman also didn't want to provide technical documents necessary for the certification process.

DW: Are high airspace costs the real reason that Germany's Euro Hawk program was canceled?

Christian Mölling: It's not that simple. It has more to do with the fact that this aircraft that was purchased - this drone - has to be integrated into the airspace. That's not just a problem for this drone, but for all drones in Europe. And for that, Europe has no solution. I don't think the costs [of the Euro Hawk program] played a very big role.

But shouldn't they have known about those flight restrictions earlier? Haven't those rules always been there?

Yes, of course, that's something that was known about before. The problem isn't that something new popped up, but a question of new regulations for European airspace - that has been on the agenda for a long, long time. The problem is that you don't only need a purely national solution, but a European solution. Airspace in Europe, and how manned and unmanned aircraft can work together in the future, has to be newly regulated. And that takes time - as everything in Europe takes a bit longer. But it will, like many things in Europe, work at the end of the day, and that's why I still don't understand why the whole program had to be shot down.

Germany is usually reluctant to engage militarily abroad - or to even put its badge on military projects. Why was the Euro Hawk so important?

Germany committed itself within the framework of the NATO "Ground Surveillance" program to make a relevant amount of surveillance drones available. That's the German contribution.

Christian Mölling (photo: SWP)
Drones won't disappear from the public agenda anytime soon, says MöllingImage: SWP

What's the solution to the airspace question?

The solution is a heap of technical innovations and legal regulations that do nothing more than ensure that these drones don't crash into manned aircraft. And what happens when a drone goes out of control, whether it - and how - can land itself? And how can it get itself out of danger - Europe's airspace is incredibly full - without doing damage to anyone? Up to this point, noe one has really succeeded in regulating that since it's really difficult - technically and legally.

Did political pressure or popular resistance play into this decision [to cancel the program]?

There are certainly people who hope that "drones" as a topic of discussion will be wiped off the agenda in the coming months. But I don't think that is going to happen. The drone issue will come back - or it will continue to be there. If we are talking about the Euro Hawk, we are talking about a surveillance drone. If we are talking about a Reaper drone, then we are talking about a so-called "fighter drone." The issue will remain - and keep growing.

A half-billion euros [$650 million] was invested into the program. Was that money really "burned," as critics are saying?

That depends a bit on how long this takes. Will they have to modernize what they have already bought? Well, they will have to further develop it. [The Euro Hawk] was never developed all the way to the end anyway - it was just a prototype. And from there there will be new costs.

Could this be the end of the German drone program?

That's the million-dollar question. This is not the end. Germany will have drones in the future - or at least, if the German army pushes for it. But it is, potentially, the end of the Euro Hawk program. But I also wouldn't bury the project too quickly. It could be that, relatively quickly - like a phoenix out of the ashes - it gets back on its feet again.

Christian Mölling works on international security issues at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

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