For the Federal Agency for Technical Assistance: The Federal Government Wants to Buy Chinese Drones


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Status: 14.11.2022 10:00 a.m.

The Federal Ministry of the Interior would like to investigate by: WDR and NDR Provide over 60 drones to scout disaster areas. Devices from a Chinese company that is on a US blacklist are explicitly requested.

By Manuel Bewarder, NDR/WDR, and Florian Flade, WDR

They can bring death to war zones, but drones can also help save lives. This is exactly why the Federal Ministry of the Interior is now looking to buy more than 60 such aircraft: the drones are intended to help the Federal Agency for Technical Assistance (THW) reconnoiter disaster areas and search for missing persons. In the Ahr Valley, for example, after the flooding with more than 130 deaths, it showed how valuable fast aerial photos could have been.

Florian Flade

At the end of September, the Procurement Office of the Ministry of the Interior issued a tender. There is therefore a search for “unmanned aerial vehicles” – and not just any drones, but a very specific model: “Up to 67 drone systems of the type DJI Matrice 300” must be purchased according to the tender documents. In addition, an “extensive training for the product” must be carried out.

Desired manufacturer named

It is not only remarkable that the Ministry of the Interior specifically names a desired manufacturer in the tender. The case is explosive because this company comes from China: the Matrice 300 drone, unit price around 10,000 euros, is manufactured by the Chinese company Da-Jiang Innovations (DJI). The company is the world market leader for drones in the private and commercial sector – also in Germany.

Especially in the US, DJI is under increasing scrutiny: the group is now blacklisted by the US Department of Commerce for allegedly supporting the Chinese military in monitoring the Muslim Uyghur minority. DJI has denied this.

While US customers can continue to purchase DJI products, US companies can only provide the Chinese company with special licenses. Apparently, the United States fears that authoritarian China could use business relations to become more modern itself. However, both states are currently fiercely competing for political and economic influence.

Details “check carefully”

Criticism of the planned deal has come from the government and the opposition. The Green Group’s interior experts, Irene Mihalic and Konstantin von Notz, emphasize the advantages of drones – they can “provide valuable support in emergency and rescue operations and in civil protection”. However, in the specific case, they warn against a quick decision and call for a thorough investigation.

Due to the current risks, all questions about purchase and use “must be thoroughly examined in every detail,” said the parliamentary manager and the deputy leader of the Greens in the Bundestag. “You have to weigh the benefits and any risks very carefully.” This is especially true for drones from manufacturers in authoritarian states. In view of the strict classification by the US, both say: “We should not risk using technical devices in sensitive security areas that could become a security risk.”

The Union faction’s domestic political spokesman, Alexander Throm (CDU), is already calling for the company to be shut down: “Chinese drones from a company with connections to the People’s Liberation Army pose a security risk and have no place in the federal Ministry of the Interior.” Business,” said Throm. He speaks of the “federal government’s naivety towards China” which is “terrible”. The tender is not “appropriate”. “Predominant aspects related to independence from China should be better considered”.

The Federal Ministry of the Interior defended the project when asked. “For the field of civil defense, there are currently no concerns about the use of drones due to the operational requirements and the operational areas,” a spokesperson said on request. Accordingly, there are several reasons for the project: “The acquisition of the said drones increases the operational capacity of the Federal Agency for Technical Assistance for Civil and Disaster Relief Situation Management in Germany,” said a spokesman.

The drones are therefore an “addition to the previous technical and biological localization systems”, for example for the “search for missing persons, for the rescue of people and for assessing the situation in the civil defense”. The “total of tactical requirements” means that the tender designates exactly this one model. The “instant readiness for use” and the possibility to use other components – such as zoom, wide-angle and thermal imagers – are decisive. The spokesperson said the process has not yet been completed. No offer has been made yet.

Annual turnover of more than three billion euros

DJI is a giant in the global drone business. The company from Shenzhen, South China, with an annual turnover of more than three billion euros, is also one of the market leaders in civil and commercial drone systems in this country. However, in the US, the military has been banned from using DJI drones since 2017. The reason given was “vulnerability to cyberattacks”.

In 2020, the US Department of Commerce banned US companies from exporting to Chinese drone manufacturer DJI for the first time. In July 2021, the U.S. Department of Defense said it saw potential risks to its national security from using the manufacturer’s drones. The Ministry of Defense apparently sees close ties between the DIJ and the Chinese military.

Further sanctions followed in December 2021. The US Treasury Department banned US citizens from investing in DJI or buying company stock – a rather symbolic act because the company is not listed on the US stock exchange. However, there is no clear course of action in the US so far: As warnings, especially from the Department of Defense, grow louder, several authorities announced over the summer that they were using DJI drones.

“Never intended for military equipment”

DJI rejected the US allegations: there are no connections to the military, it said in a statement. The company’s own drones were never intended for military equipment. The company said it never sold products for military purposes. Numerous government agencies have also used the plane from China in the past, for example to fight wildfires in California.

Federal Ministry of Interior wants to buy Chinese drones for THW

Palina Milling, WDR, 14/11/2022 11:48am

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