Germany’s Merkel Drawn into Drone Procurement Scandal

The German chancellor cannot ignore a controversy about the procurement of unmanned aircraft anymore.

German chancellor Angela Merkel listens to Thomas de Maizière in parliament, Berlin, May 16
German chancellor Angela Merkel listens to Thomas de Maizière in parliament, Berlin, May 16 (Bundeswehr)

Germany’s cancellation of its Euro Hawk unmanned drone program has become an issue for Chancellor Angela Merkel who had so far been able to stay out of the controversy. Revelations in Der Spiegel this week suggest that she might no longer be able to protect her defense minister, Thomas de Maizière, one of her most trusted cabinet members.

The procurement of the Euro Hawk, a variant of the American Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle, has been a financial and political disaster for the German coalition. Necessary adjustments in light of approval problems would have added between €500 and €600 million to the program, on top of the €500 million already spent on the prototype. Five planes were ordered. Similar cost overruns on those would have caused the program to far exceed the €1.2 billion it was allowed.

A cooperation between the American company Northrop Grumman and Europe’s EADS, the Euro Hawk was supposed to enhance the surveillance capabilities of the German military and support NATO’s Alliance Ground Surveillance system.

Although the initiative came from a left-wing government in 2001, the contracts were signed in 2007 while Merkel’s conservatives were already in office. Problems for aviation approval were obvious to those in the Ministry of Defense early on and known in the top of the department as early as February of last year. Not only did the planned vehicle not fit the criteria for general approval; Northrop Grumman was allowed to conceal sensitive technological information which obstructed a financial audit and therefore the legally mandated procurement process.

Der Spiegel suggests that last week, several of the involved departments were ordered to lock away and conceal documents as top secret or even destroy data carriers.

Opinions differ if Germany’s withdrawal would force NATO to shelf its ground surveillance plans altogether. The country might be inclined to save further investments as the restrictions for aviation approval and additional costs to circumvent these do also apply to the Global Hawk units of the system. Germany is set to contribute €480 million to the project but might step back for domestic reasons.

Last year, de Maizière pressed his NATO colleagues and declared Alliance Ground Surveillance crucial, not revealing anything about the problems his ministry had at the time. He was inclined to show commitment to the alliance, especially after Germany’s refusal to participate in the Libyan intervention in 2011.

Late May, this led NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen to the optimistic assumption that the imbalance in unmanned surveillance capabilities could be tackled with further procurements from the European member states. Clearly, he wasn’t aware of the problems going on in Berlin. AGS was scheduled to begin in 2017 but that date is now in jeopardy.

What has become an issue for Chancellor Merkel is how the drone debacle was managed by de Maizière. Considered a capable and unpartisan bureaucrat, the recent findings suggest that he was either not able to prevent the problems or wasn’t informed about the scale of them by his underlings. Neither would reflect well on a man who was, until recently, free of scandals.

De Maizière has promised to clarify the mistakes made in his ministry by Wednesday. Opposition parties have already called upon him to take his own responsibility, insisting that a year long mishandling cannot be blamed on lower rank administrators. The chancellor might not be able to save her trusted colleague and would face questions about her cabinet choices just before the start of the election season in Germany.

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