Drones for the German military stir controversy | Germany | News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 03.05.2013

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Drones for the German military stir controversy

The German government wants to buy unmanned drones from the United States, or Israel, but the opposition does not see a necessity for these aircraft, which can be used as bomb-toting weapons, or for reconnaissance.

Predator drone

Predator drone

Minister of Defense Thomas de Maizière, of Germany's Christian Democratic Party (CDU), is quite clear about why the German Armed Forces - the Bundeswehr - needs the unmanned drone aircraft navigated by remote control. The argument he used in parliament went something like this: Bundeswehr Special Forces are sent out to capture terrorists, accompanied by a drone, which could follow their progress or provide instructions from the air.

Should the German troops encounter danger, then the unmanned drone could help them by firing rockets controlled by a separate station. As it is now, soldiers - without such drone weapons - would have to request a manned aircraft to come to their assistance. That would come 10 to 15 minutes later, de Maizière pointed out, and would be less precise and would put the soldiers' lives at risk. "We don't want that," he concluded.

The troops would be better protected if the Bundeswehr owned drones, the minister said, adding soberly that any risk of loss, in this case, would be limited to an aircraft.

Pricy equipment

The German government could purchase the coveted unmanned aircraft in the United States, or Israel. Currently, the Bundeswehr leases three "Heron" drones from the Israeli Air Force for aerial reconnaissance in Afghanistan; they are not armed.

In early 2012, the German government asked its US ally if it could order three drones of the "MQ-9 Reaper" model. The "Reaper" can be equipped with air-to-ground missiles or precision-guided bombs. One such drone produced by American manufacturer General Atomics costs around 4.5 million dollars (3.45 million euros).

German military in Afghanistan

Armed drones are supposed to take on dangerous missions from the air instead of the ground

The United States Congress must approve such an arms export, and has meanwhile given the green light. But that does not necessarily mean the German government will actually buy the American drones, de Maizière said during his visit in Washington at the end of April. That decision will "definitely not be made before the German federal election on September 22, 2013," he said. For one thing, a whole slew of legal, financial and ethical questions must first be resolved. For another, the government doesn't want the matter to backfire during its election campaign.

To what end?

Yet even if the German government has not signed a contract for purchase, it's still clearly preparing for the acquisition. It's a move that has irked the opposition, and prompted several debates in parliament. All three opposition parties view an acquisition of such a weapons systems either critically, or reject it outright.

The Social Democrats (SPD) doubt that the Bundeswehr actually needs the drones, and have raised questions about the military scenario in which they might be used.

Pakistanis rally against US drone strikes

Pakistanis have protested against drones killing civilians

Drone weapons are not permitted in European airspace, and operational missions in Afghanistan are to end in the coming year. In other words, possibilities for their use appear to be negligible at this time.

"A drone weapon aircraft cannot capture someone," argued SPD politician Hans-Peter Bartels in parliament. "One can only use it to observe a situation and to kill in a carefully targeted fashion, if so desired," he said.

This is the procedure the American intelligence agency, the CIA, uses in hunting down terrorists in Yemen, he pointed out. Legal experts consider this a clear breach of international humanitarian law. "The CIA's combat drone scenario is completely out of the question for Germany," Bartels said.

Allegedly very precise

Many German parliamentarians are outraged over the killing of hundreds of uninvolved civilians by US drones in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. It's a "complete dissolution of the boundaries" of war, said Jan van Aken of the socialist Left Party. "Combat planes would never be flown during such missions," he said. For thing, pilots' lives would not be put at risk, and for another, the United States is not at war with Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen, he argued.

A military conflict, such as the one in Afganistan, is the pre-condition under international law for the use of these and other weapons. Whether the missiles are fired by a combat pilot or a soldier in a base station far away, combatants must be clearly distinguished from civilians. International law experts fear that with the rapidly increasing use of drones, it will become more difficult to protect the civilian population than before.

'Robotization' of war

UN Special Investigator Philip Alston in 2010 described the danger of drones as allowing a "Playstation mentality to killing." The opposition in Berlin believes that when people carry out war via computer screen and joystick, killing would become easier.

Also complicating the situation is that drones are becoming ever more "smart" and autonomous. They fly off of pre-programmed routes, starting and landing by themselves. The Greens criticize this as "armed, automated systems not tied to a chain of accountability."

Thomas de Maiziere speaking to German military in Afghanistan

De Maiziere wants better protection for German troops

It's also inevitable that civilians would be killed through such a weapon, de Maizière admitted during a round of parliamentary debate. But that innocent people die is an unavoidable consequence of war, he said. De Maizière defended "targeted killings" using drones as better than blanket bombing.

European weapons companies are eyeing the quick growth in the armed drone market in consideration of the billions that could be earned there. Buying and using such systems is the first step.

The opposition in the German parliament warns that this could lead to an arms race. Former German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul commented that "Europe didn't win the Nobel Peace Prize so that it could export new weapons systems."

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