The German parliament has approved the development and procurement of the Eurodrone together with France, Italy, and Spain. However, it has also set limits both for the further release of funds and for an armament not wanted in Germany for the time being.
On the 14th of April, the budget committee approved the corresponding submission of the Ministry of Defence for the initial flight operations of a future Medium Altitude Long Endurance Unmanned Aircraft System target solution (MALE UAS ZI). The way for this had been cleared ever since February this year, when the senior partners of the governing coalition, the conservative CDU, agreed on the junior partners, social democrat SPD, demand for an unarmed system. This came after the latter’s decision to block the financing of an armed drone in December 2020, to the surprise of its coalition partner. The compromise agreement stipulates that “no ammunition may be acquired for the Eurodrone” and “there may be no tactical weapons training for the operating personal of the drone”.
According to the government, the German Armed Forces will receive 21 aircraft as well as 12 movable control stations and four training simulators. With a deal signed in the second quarter to 2021, the first systems are to be delivered by 2029, and enter service the following year. The final units are expected in 2034.
Germany’s relations with UAVs had last been soured in 2013, with the scandal involving the RQ-4E Euro Hawk, a variant of Northrop Grumman's RQ-4 Global Hawk. Acquired to replace the Breguet Atlantic BR-1150M’s SIGINT capabilities, the drone was not certified for European airspace, with an upgrade for that certification costing more than half a billion Euro. After hopes of salvaging some of the Euro Hawks sensors for the so-called Pegasus, that project was also shelved in January 2020.
For the time being, the System for Imaging Reconnaissance in the Depth of the Operational Area (SAATEG) capability gap is covered by leasing Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) Heron TP drones. The previous model, Heron-1 had been leased in 2010 for a time of 3 years and the contract was subsequently extended again and again. While IAI provided the airframes themselves, German defence firm Rheinmetall performed full in-theatre logistical and maintenance service. Since 2018 the German armed forces lease the Heron TP from IAI with maintenance provided by Airbus. Running until 2027, the current contract is supposed to bridge the time until the deployment of the Eurodrone.
The enormous costs of the project at 4 billion Euro have raised concern in the German Ministry of Finance, warning of “subsequent risks associated with the draft contract”. “The draft contract contains an unusually one-sided distribution of risks to the detriment of the contracting authority which could lead to unforeseeable additional costs in the future.” Additionally, the ministry warns of the links in the contract to the FCAS and Eurofighter Tranche 5, “which creates a possible/factual prior commitment for the two extraordinarily cost-intensive future projects which are not yet ready for budgeting” thus creating the risk of setting a precedent.
To develop and manufacture Eurodrone Germany, Spain, France and Italy have contracted Airbus via the Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation (OCCAR), a pan-European intergovernmental organisation that facilitates and manages collaborative armament programmes. Major subcontractors also include French Dassault Aviation and Italian Leonardo. According to Airbus, it “will be the basis for future defence programmes, such as European FCAS.”
Also known as European MALE RPAS, Eurodrone is designed to become one of the main pillars of any future combat air system, prepared for real integration into civil airspace based on minimal restrictions and easy transportability due to its modular design. The design will offer multi-mission capabilities and significant growth potential, for homeland operations, Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition, and Reconnaissance (ISTAR) and armed ISTAR, which can be conducted with full operational sovereignty.
Eurodrone will be almost entirely produced by European manufacturers. According to Airbus the programme “will generate a further 7,000 high-tech jobs within the European Union and will secure technological know-how development and sustainment.” It will also be ITAR-free, meaning it's built without parts under the export or transfer control of the USA. While the initial production request by the contracting country is relatively low, besides the 21 units requested by Germany, Italy has ordered 15 and France and Spain both 12 each, this likely means that the manufacturers hope for further exports beyond these nations.
Airbus, Dassault Aviation and Leonardo unveiled a full-scale mock-up at the April 2018 ILA Berlin Air Show. The aircraft features a twin-turboprops, mounted in a pusher configuration behind the wing. With a wingspan of around 26m and an overall length of 16m, it is about one third larger than the American MQ-9 Reaper, which operates in a similar role. It is maximum take-off weight will be 11,000 kg with a payload of around 2,300 kg. Its service ceiling is expected to be 13,700 m and it will have a cruise speed of around 500 km/h.