German court dismisses General Atomics suit over Heron drone order

A Heron TP, also known as the IAI Eitan, surveillance unmanned air vehicle (UAV) flies during an official inauguration ceremony at Tel Nof Air Force Base near Tel Aviv February 21, 2010. REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen

DUESSELDORF, Germany (Reuters) - A German court on Wednesday dismissed a legal challenge from U.S. weapons maker General Atomics to Germany’s plans to lease armed drones from Israel Aerospace Industries, clearing the way for the drone program to go ahead.

Early last year Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen announced the army would lease Heron TP drones for about 580 million euros ($652 million) instead of buying Predator B drones from General Atomics or Switzerland’s RUAG, prompting protests by both firms.

General Atomics took its fight to Germany’s anti-trust regulator and then to court.

It said at the time it filed the legal challenge “to ensure that this procurement is conducted as a fair and open competition; thereby ensuring that the German Ministry of Defense procures the most technologically superior and cost efficient solution.”

The higher court in Duesseldorf that dismissed the complaint on Wednesday was the final arbiter in the case.

Judge Heinz-Peter Dicks said the ruling was effective immediately and meant that Germany can now procure drones as it had planned.

Von der Leyen took office in late 2013 vowing to rebuild the military after 25 years of spending cuts, but her three biggest arms programs - a 5 billion euro missile defense program, a new drone and the multi-role MKS 180 warship - have all been delayed in recent months.

The drone leasing plan has been intended as an interim measure until the EU has developed its own drone. Germany, France, Italy and Spain plan to jointly develop a drone by 2025.

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Reporting by Matthias Inverardi; Writing by Maria Sheahan; Edting by Stephen Powell