Germany’s Drone Program Crashes and Burns
Policy + Politics

Germany’s Drone Program Crashes and Burns

REUTERS/U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Effrain Lopez/Handout

A dash of excitement was added to an otherwise boring federal election here this weekend, when a political rally in support of German chancellor Angela Merkel was interrupted.

Not by a protestor. By a drone.

Merkel had just finished speaking under cloudy skies in Dresden when a small drone appeared above the rain-soaked crowd. It flew for about a minute until German authorities located the drone’s operator and took him down. The drone fell to the stage, just in front of Merkel’s feet.

To an American, it might seem strange that a drone could even get airborne at a rally attended by the president: It would likely be met with a quick response from an F-16. But here in Germany, politicians are more relaxed about security. Merkel even smiled as the drone settled in front of her. Here’s a video of the whole incident:

Germany’s Pirate Party, which has found enough success here to gets members into four state parliaments, quickly took credit for the drone. It has been hammering the chancellor on drones and surveillance, posting signs around Berlin with Merkel’s head replaced by a security camera.

The surveillance issue is particularly sensitive here in Germany, and Merkel has largely avoided specifying how and what data her government collects. But the incident also highlights another sensitive topic for Merkel: the German government wants to buy drones.


Germany officially put in an order for four EuroHawks with Lockheed Martin in 2009, planning to spend $1.35 billion for them. It’s not clear how they would be used, but they have the same surveillance technology as drones used by the United States.

Lockheed delivered a prototype to Germany in 2011. But during testing, the German Luftwaffe (their air force) determined that the drone did not meet European flying standards. Lockheed then said it could fix the problem for an extra $780 million.

Here’s where Germany and the United States are different: Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars for unguaranteed fixes, they actually cancelled the program.

German defense minister Thomas de Maizière, whose been hauled in front of the Bundestag to answer for the program's failure, has called it "a horror without end." Lawmakers are furious because he had already spent some $770 million on the project.

Lockheed is trying to win back the favor of the German government. "We're continuing to try to work with the Germans to find a solution," Tom Vice, president of Northrop's aerospace systems division, said last month. "We're continuing to have discussions. We're making a lot of progress."

But German lawmakers remain resolute and show no signs of restarting the program. Unlike the United States, which is expected to dump $1.5 trillion into an F-35 plane that may or may not work, they know a lemon when they see it.