German Platform Decisions: Selecting an Airborne SIGINT Platform


By Robbin Laird

After Germany retired its specially modified signals intelligence Atlantique maritime patrol aircraft, there was a clear gap in the capabilities of Germany to provide for either national or NATO capabilities in this area.

This was done in the immediate post-Cold War environment where the United States and NATO nations were increasingly focused on out of area operations, and reduced dramatically their capabilities to defend against direct military threats to NATO Europe.

Leaving a huge ISR gap with the retirement of its airborne manned SIGINT asset, the Germans focused on replacing this aircraft with an unmanned variant of the Global Hawk, with German designed and produced payloads, or the EuroHawk.

This program was a joint venture between Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor of Global Hawk, and Airbus Defence and Space, the producer of the payloads and of the ground mobile stations.

But in what one publication called “death by certification,” the Euro Hawk flew, and was performing on a technical level, but regulatory barriers killed the program in May 2013.

The program was killed precisely at the moment when the return of direct defense in Europe was about to be abundantly clear to everybody with a pulse.

With the seizure of Crimea, perceptions began to change.

In an interview I did with Brigadier General (ret.) Rainer Meyer zum Felde, he highlighted the impact of these events on Germany and NATO. Meyer zum Felde is currently a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Security Policy Kiel University (ISPK). From July 2013 to September 2017, he was the Senior Defence Advisor at the Permanent Delegation of Germany to NATO in Brussels and the German Representative in NATO’s Defence Policy and Planning Committee.

In 2013 it was increasingly clear that after a 20-year long set of missions at the lower or mid-level COIN and crisis management operations, NATO had lost core skills to provide NATO with the necessary set of forces and capability for high-intensity warfare.

“Although we still talked about the need for sustained collective defense from the mid-1990s on, we failed to underpin direct defense with usable capabilities, larger combat formations and a realistic defense planning process.

“Most European nations decreased their level of readiness, eliminated forces which they believed they no longer needed, notably heavy ones, and turned their forces the kind of expeditionary forces recommended and requested by the Americans and the Brits.

“We certainly followed suit in Germany.

“And the last two decades we no longer prioritized the forces for high-intensity warfare.

“Instead, we used the German armed forces formations since the mid-1990s as a pool for generating contingents for sustained crisis management operations abroad, while shrinking the entire posture to a much lower size and decreasing the defense budget from about 3% to 1.2% of GDP.”

But Russia today is not the Soviet Union. It poses a different military set of threats including hybrid warfare, gray zone activities, increased reliance on the threat to use limited nuclear strikes, and shaping a maneuver air-ground force backed by long range strike systems, notably land, air and sea-based missiles.

In this environment, gaining ISR dominance is a key part of ensuring that crisis management is effectively pursued, and in a very timely fashion.

It is clear from the interviews I have done in Europe, the United States and Australia, that the return of high-end warfare is occurring in the context of new approaches to ISR-enabled C2 for mobile engagement forces.

As one senior US Navy Admiral has put it: “The next war will be won or lost by the purple shirts.  You need to take ISR enablement seriously, because the next fight is an ISR fight.”

Notably, the German MoD mutated the EuroHawk into the Pegasus program.

The objective of the Pegasus program has been to deliver situational awareness to allow Germany to tailor military and diplomatic responses during peacetime and crisis.

PEGASUS is unarmed and would provide the strategic component of Germany’s and NATO’s SIGINT capability roadmap

Based on a 2017 request, the US Government offered a Letter of Offer and Acceptance (LOA) in August 2018 for a foreign military sales procurement. After one extension, the current LOA expired in late 2019, requiring MOD to update the LOR for a restated offer in 2020 which they have not done to date.

Interestingly, one of the objections raised against the Triton derivative which Pegasus is, were many of the same arguments made against EuroHawk with regard to the challenge of unmanned systems flying in European airspace.

But now that the NATO AGS system is doing precisely that, one wonders how credible this argument is.

Even more troubling is the disconnect between the discussion of Pegasus in Germany and that of FCAS.

As I noted earlier:

Germany is committed to the joint Future Combat Air System.

A key part of that plan is to work the connected force with sovereign payloads.

That would seem to highlight the importance of adding the high flying German enabled payload on their version of the Global Hawk, which is what the Pegasus program was working to do.

But apparently this is being abandoned by the German Ministry of Defence and the reason stated is even more troubling.

One of the reasons noted is the challenge of flying Pegasus in European air space.

If this is true, one would ask how the FCAS is going to be tested and trained in real air space as opposed to simulators?

And how then will the FCAS combat cloud work its connectivity magic in a world of civilian communications and the standup of the European 5G network?

The current plan in Germany is to abandon Pegasus and pursue a manned Air SIGINT mission with the Global 6000 where the prime contractor would be a sensor company with no prime contractor experience with regard to overall aircraft integration and certification of an integrated platform.

These solutions are radically different.

But how best to compare them in terms of what their acquisition would mean for the Bundeswehr and the evolution of its future capabilities?

In the next article, I will compare the two platform choices from this perspective.

First Piece in the Series:

Platforms, Concepts of Operations and Defense Decisions: The German Case

Second Piece in the Series:

German Platform Decisions: CH-53K versus the Chinook