German members of parliament (MPs) plan to visit Israel's Tel Nof airbase soon in order to inspect firsthand German army military training in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The training is scheduled to begin there late this month, sources inform "Globes." The Heron TP UAVs, manufactured by Israel Aerospace Industries Ltd. (IAI) (TASE: ARSP.B1) and leased for nine years in a €1 billion deal approved last June, are the first in the German army capable of bearing munitions, in addition to their use for surveillance purposes. Training is scheduled to begin on January 27 at a special facility built at Tel Nof for the purpose.
The German MPs, members of the Die Linke leftist party, oppose the use of munitions-bearing UAVs. They visited Israel in November, met with IAI representatives, and visited the airport at Ein Shemer, where a German unit is training in the use of Heron-1 UAVs, which do not carry munitions, used by the German army in recent years in international missions in Mali and Afghanistan. The German parliamentary delegation also received approval to visit Tel Nof at the time, but it was canceled by Israel at the last minute because the base was involved in attacks in the Gaza Strip after rockets were launched against Israel from there.
Use of armed UAVs is a politically divisive issue in Germany. The dispute already caused a significant postponement in the project, which the German army previously described as "immediately urgent" in order to ensure the safety of its soldiers and to aid its forces operating around the world. The German Social Democratic Party (SPD), a member of the ruling coalition, opposes armed UAVs, and the current coalition agreement with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), headed by Angela Merkel, states that the process will take place in two stages. The first stage, approved in June 2018, was a €1 billion deal to lease seven UAVs through Airbus. In the second stage, the German parliament (Bundestag) will decide whether or to arm the UAVs with missiles.
"They evaded giving some of the answers"
As part of the campaign in the Bundestag against arming the UAVs, German members of the Green Party and Die Linke submitted a number of queries in order to publicize the details of the deal. Last November, a delegation including two members of Die Linke, Tobias Pfluger (currently a member of the Bundestag Defense Committee) and Andej Hunko, visited Israel.
"Our hosts from Israel Aerospace behaved professionally and friendly, even though they knew that we opposed the deal and initiated parliamentary activity against it," Hunko told "Globes" this week, but added, "They evaded answering key questions: what armament the UAVs could carry, whether the process of certification of the missiles had already begun, and whether the training of the German forces included flying over the territories."
According to Hunko, any weapon about to enter into use by the German army has to be certified, and he believes that this process has already begun in secret. The German Ministry of Defense said in response that the information was classified. Pfluger and Hunko said that they had even been cleared to visit Tel Nof in order to view the training compound already prepared for the German air force personnel at the closed military base in person, but that the visit had been canceled at the last moment.
"We were supposed to visit Tel Nof on November 15," Hunko said, "but two days before, the authorities from Israel notified the German embassy in Tel Aviv that the visit had been canceled." He added, "According to the Israeli side, this was done for 'security reasons,' and because the base was being used in the conflict taking place in the Gaza Strip at the time. This decision is obviously unacceptable to us."
Hunko also said, "The Bundeswehr (German army) is supposed to be under the supervision of the German parliament, whose members can visit it at any time, in any place." A query submitted in parliament afterwards revealed that the German army had not demanded the right to visit the base as part of the deal, and that this remained subject to the considerations of the Israeli authorities. "We are of course planning to try to visit the camp again as soon as the German flag is raised over the camp in which the German army is training," Hunko said.
According to an answer given by the German Ministry of Defense, this visit should take place some time in late January, starting in the week beginning on January 27. Incidentally, this is the date of International Holocaust Day in Germany and many other countries, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and the German MPs complained to the German Ministry of Defense that they thought that it was improper for training to begin on that date.
Huge deal: A UAV every three months
The deal with Airbus and IAI includes two years of training at Tel Nof for German forces in the use of UAVs, followed by their deployment in various theaters around the world, as needed. 35 German teams are scheduled to undergo training in the special compound within the base during this time. The deal is worth €900 million: €720 million for Airbus (a large proportion of which will be given to IAI for leasing the UAVs and their accompanying systems) and €177 million directly to the Israeli government for the use of infrastructure such as the airport and command and control cars, in addition to maintenance of the UAVs and training of German forces.
One place visited by the German delegation was the training compound of the German air force at the airport in Ein Shemer, where German teams are being trained in the use of older Heron 1 UAVs. The German MPs said that UAVs with the German iron cross (the insignia of the Bundeswehr) on their tails were visible there and being used in training.
According to a projection by the German Ministry of Defense, the first two Heron TPs will be supplied for use within 18 months, after which another Heron TP will be supplied every three months. Commenting on the training at the Israeli air force base at Tel Nof, the German Ministry of Defense explained, "by stationing the UAVs near the manufacturer, it is possible to obtain cheaper and more effective technical support than from a remote company."
German sources believe that the deal reflects a German and European wish to study the Israeli UAVs as part of the all-European Euro-Drone project to develop UAVs. The US which regards initiatives to develop European weapons as possible competition, would not have allowed the German army to be so deeply involved in using and training for the UAVs. This is the reason that the German Ministry of Defense selected the Israel Heron TP over the US Predator without a tender. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised German approval of the deal, saying that it reflected the "strengthening of bilateral security cooperation between the countries."
IAI said in response, "IAI regards the German government as an important strategic partner, and welcomes these and other relevant parties in accordance with the needs arising on the ground, at the relevant and time and place for the visit. IAI respects the right to operate together with the German government and Ministry of Defense, which contribute to promoting official relations between the two countries, and operates in compliance with the contract that was signed." Concerning the state of progress in the deal, IAI said, "Elements of the Heron TP deal are a direct agreement between the governments. IAI is therefore not authorized to provide details about them."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on January 13, 2019
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