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German defense chief under fire over drone program

Wed, 06/05/2013 - 11:13am
JUERGEN BAETZ - Associated Press - Associated Press

Germany's defense minister on Wednesday admitted mistakes were made in the handling of a program to develop unmanned surveillance drones and announced tougher oversight procedures for all armament projects.

Opposition parties say Thomas de Maiziere wasted public funds by canceling the botched 600 million euro ($800 million) program too late, but he rejected calls for his resignation.

For Chancellor Angela Merkel, the controversy engulfing one of her staunchest allies and most popular Cabinet ministers is a major embarrassment only three months before national elections.

De Maiziere said he was "quite angry" about his deputies' failure to inform him early on that the drones couldn't be approved for use in Europe's airspace without significant extra costs. He said he wouldn't rule out "consequences for some personnel" once the matter is fully investigated.

Germany purchased one prototype of the U.S.-made Global Hawk surveillance drone years ago to modify to its specifications, but last month scrapped plans to buy four more from Northrop Grumman at an additional cost of 1.4 billion euros ($1.83 billion). The defense ministry says securing approval for their use in European airspace would have cost another 600 million euros ($784 million), a claim Northrop Grumman and European partner EADS rejects.

Aviation authorities have warned that Germany's so-called Euro Hawk drones, among other shortcomings, lack an automatic system that would avoid crashes with other aircraft in Europe's busy airspace — a standard technology for civilian planes. The drone's wingspan is larger than that of a Boeing 737.

Germany wants the drones to use in support of military deployments, such as in Afghanistan, but has said it also needs the ability to fly them back to the country for servicing and testing.

Unlike the U.S., Germany's military has only a handful of large unmanned surveillance drones so far — all leased from Israel.

Despite the fact the development of its own surveillance drones has long been considered one of Germany's strategically most important defense projects, de Maiziere said his deputies only informed him last month about the problems.

"The procedure shows significant shortcomings. We have to draw consequences from that," he told reporters in Berlin. "That was not good."

De Maiziere said that from now on he will strengthen oversight and receive regular status reports on all armament projects to detect problems early on. The reports "shall not only state wishes and intentions but problems and possible solutions," he added.

He also announced the creation of a new department to streamline the process seeking approval for the European airpace for all military aircraft.

De Maiziere was questioned for several hours by two parliamentary committees, but the opposition remained unimpressed, saying he was simply blaming predecessors or subordinates for the mistakes.

"The minister's show was an insurmountable display of self-righteousness," lawmaker Hans-Peter Bartels of the opposition Social Democrats said. "We still have important questions in many areas," he added.

Germany is also contributing around 500 million euros ($650 million) to a NATO drone program that will be based on a newer version of the Global Hawk, although it is not yet known how and whether it will gain approval for use in European airspace.

De Maiziere last year still lobbied parliament's budget committee to free the funds for the NATO project, even though his ministry already knew about the problems with the Euro Hawk.

"The minister wasn't informed, but he also hadn't asked, even though he promoted the NATO drone project," said center-left opposition lawmaker Carsten Schneider. "Mr. de Maiziere must accept the political responsibility and step down," he added.

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Follow Juergen Baetz on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/jbaetz

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