Germany closing in on deal to buy 1st weapons-capable, Israeli-designed, drone

900 million euro agreement for armed version of the Heron to be produced by Airbus is expected to be signed by May

The Eitan drone, also known as the Heron TP flies during a display at the Palmahim Air Force Base in Israel, March 7, 2007. (AP/Ariel Schalit/File)
The Eitan drone, also known as the Heron TP flies during a display at the Palmahim Air Force Base in Israel, March 7, 2007. (AP/Ariel Schalit/File)

BERLIN  — Germany is close to finalizing a deal that will see the country buy its first weapons-capable drone aircraft — an Israeli designed model — from European aerospace giant Airbus, according to a government response to lawmakers.

The deal, worth nearly 900 million euros ($1108.53 million) including training and maintenance costs, has been politically contentious because of fears that having combat drones might make Germany more likely to participate in offensive military action abroad.

“At the moment the aim is for Parliament to consider (the deal) and for the subsequent signing of the contract to occur soon, before the current binding offer expires,” Germany’s defense ministry said in a written response to questions from the opposition Left party. The terms of the offer are binding until May 31, meaning Parliament would have to approve the agreement in the coming weeks.

The government’s response, dated April 12 and obtained by The Associated Press late Friday, adds that the agreement foresees the deployment of drones to a theater of operations by about mid-2020.

“We now have confirmation that Parliament is expected to sign off on the purchase of weapons-capable drones, likely in mid-May,” said Left party lawmaker Andrej Hunko said Saturday.

“It’s the starting point for Germany to get its own combat drones,” he said. “We oppose this because combat drones loosen the constraints on warfare, they lower the threshold for military operations and they have nothing to do with national defense.”

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen delivers a speech during conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party’s congress in Essen, western Germany, on December 6, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / TOBIAS SCHWARZ)

Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen is keen for Germany to acquire the kind of combat drones already widely used by its allies, but the center-left Social Democratic Party blocked a deal in Parliament in the run-up to last year’s elections. After agreeing to extend their governing coalition with Merkel’s center-right Union bloc for another four years, the Social Democrats dropped their objections to buying the drones without armaments but it’s unclear whether they will support arming the aircraft, which would require a separate agreement.

The drones are a variant of the Heron TP made by Israel Aerospace Industries. They are used for reconnaissance missions but can also be equipped with a lethal payload such as US-made Hellfire missiles.

German weekly Der Spiegel has reported that Berlin favors Israeli-made Jedi missiles, because the explosion caused by the warhead can be adjusted to minimize collateral damage.

The Eitan (“Steadfast”) drone, also known as the Heron, has a range of over 7,400 kilometers (4,600 miles), more than four times the distance between Israel and Iran. It can also remain airborne for more than 70 hours.

Heron TP (Eitan) is designed to fly at high altitude on missions spanning over several days developed by the Israel Aerospace Industry (IAI). (Tsahi Ben-Ami / Flash 90)

In 2015, the Indian government approved a $400 million (NIS 1.58 billion) deal to buy 10 missile-armed Eitan drones from Israel for the Indian Air Force, India’s Economic Times reported, calling it “a crucial acquisition that will enhance India’s cross-border military strike capability.”

Italy, France and Germany announced in 2015 a plan to create a European-based drone development program for reconnaissance that would reduce their countries’ reliance on Israeli and American technology.

Spain and Poland have also expressed interest in joining the program.

The project, called MALE 2020, will focus on the development of a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) drone. Israel currently operates two such drones, the Aeronautical Defense Dominator and the IAI Heron. Drones of this caliber are defined as being able to achieve an altitude of at least 9,000 meters and stay airborne for 24 hours. The Israeli drones outpace that minimum standard.

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